Charles, the manager of a Hood River restaurant, wants his sous chef back.
When Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents detained an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had worked as his sous chef for a decade, Charles recalled, there was no drama. It was 6 a.m. on a June morning, and the agents simply showed up, flashed their badges and asked for the man.
When he came out of the kitchen, Charles said, he was taken to the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facilities, or NORCOR, a jail in The Dalles serving Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties, then on to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Just like that, said Charles, who declined to share his last name, business name or employee’s name due to concerns about retaliation, the restaurant was without its No. 2 kitchen employee – right before the start of the summer tourism season.
Charles described the 20-year employee as “a great leader (who was) conscientious, hardworking, creative and solid, even-tempered.” But the employee also had an apparent problem with drunken driving. He had been arrested in December on his second DUII charge; Charles said the first happened 20 years ago. Due to the length of time between offenses, Charles said, he was eligible for and entered a diversion program, and was using a Breathalyzer to start his car.
“He was attending meetings, doing everything he was supposed to be doing,” Charles said. “This interrupted that. It’s been very disruptive.”
The facility where the sous chef was first taken, and which regularly holds about 20 detainees from ICE, is now at the center of a gathering storm. A coalition of activists, legal groups, nonprofits and the state Democratic Party are taking up the fight over the undocumented immigrants at NORCOR, which an ICE spokeswoman said is one of two facilities in Oregon that hold its detainees.
It’s a story that Street Roots first covered in May, and since then, the facility has become ground zero for the battle over Oregon’s status as a “sanctuary” state.
“We hope to be an example for other communities around the state to basically stand up and protect their immigrant communities,” said Tim Schechtel, a viniculturalist and member of Gorge ICE Resistance.
On June 25, the Democratic Party of Oregon approved a resolution that says NORCOR is “in violation of basic principles of human rights” and seeks to create a task force to oversee jails statewide. Less than a month later, on July 21, the Oregon Law Center filed a lawsuit against the facility on behalf of four Wasco County taxpayers for “misuse of public funds” because of its contract with the U.S. Marshals Service and ICE. That suit seeks, among other things, a “permanent injunction” against NORCOR’s holding of ICE detainees.
On Sept. 12, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon sent a scathing letter describing “inhumane” conditions at NORCOR and threatened a separate lawsuit. Meanwhile, a petition by the Rural Organizing Project calls for the immediate termination of the contract between NORCOR and ICE, and the facility is the site of daily protests by the Gorge ICE Resistance.
“I think there will be continued pressure to see what kind of oversight the state will have on the treatment of those who are detained there,” said Jeanne Atkins, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, “and what relationship NORCOR would have with ICE.”
While the battlefield may be courtrooms, political arenas and protests, a coalition opposing NORCOR’s holding of undocumented immigrants for ICE raises the broader human question of whether ICE detainees are, in the words of the Rev. John Boonstra, “forgotten people.” Boonstra is a member of the Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, a group of clergy who have been regularly visiting detainees in NORCOR. The coalition also includes Gorge ICE Resistance, ACLU, Rural Organizing Project, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) and others.
Coalition members say detainees, who are dressed in dark green, suffer deplorable conditions while kept at NORCOR far longer than alleged criminals, dressed in orange. They say they’re not afforded basic rights, can’t be visited by family, and are moved back and forth between Tacoma and The Dalles to prevent organizing or speaking to media.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice stated in an email that NORCOR and the Josephine County Jail accept “aliens” from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma “on a very limited basis.”
However, jail administrator Bryan Brandenburg described NORCOR as a progressive institution with high standards, and said the facility has taken immigration holds since 2000. (According to the Oregon Law Center’s lawsuit, NORCOR has taken immigration holds via a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service dated Nov. 1, 2014, and with ICE since April 2015.)
Brandenburg “categorically” denied the assertions in the ACLU’s 15-page demand letter, describing them as false. In a response letter, he said, “We have sufficient documentation to prove they are invalid.”
He said he would prefer the four-county jail cover its budget deficit with a bond measure rather than by continuing to take ICE holds. He said making “Dreamers” — young undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — U.S. citizens is “the right thing to do.” He portrays NORCOR as having drawn a line in the sand with ICE and said the jail has actually sent detainees back to Tacoma because they had no criminal history.
“We have people who have a criminal history and are here illegally,” Brandenburg said. “Folks that are just here illegally, I don’t want anything to do with them, and I’ve made that clear to folks who are sending people to me.”
Meanwhile, under the Trump administration, immigration arrests have risen 40 percent in the past year compared to the previous year.
“The bottom line is that this is big business,” said Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN. “Private prison corporations are making profits.”
Other companies are tapped in, too. Telmate recently bought by GTL, which calls itself “the corrections innovation leader,” and charges detainees 25 cents a minute for phone calls at NORCOR. The same company charges only 16 cents a minute at Oregon Department of Corrections facilities, and the cost has been controversial even at that rate.
If you listen to Gov. Kate Brown or Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, you’ll hear foreign-born people here without proper authority described as “undocumented immigrants.” ICE spokeswoman Kice, on the other hand, refers to ICE detainees as “aliens,” while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in his recent Portland visit, spoke of “criminal aliens.”
ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan also uses the term “criminal aliens” to describe those in ICE custody and has said, “Those who do enter the country illegally, they do violate the law; that is a criminal act.”
Legally, staying in the country after documentation has expired is a civil offense, not a crime. Knowingly crossing the border without the approval of an immigration officer is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in prison.
Someone who has served his or her time or is doing what criminal courts mandate — like the sous chef going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and blowing in a Breathalyzer to start his car — is not an active criminal.
But the immigration detention system and criminal corrections systems overlap, and some civil detainees on ICE holds at NORCOR, it seems, do have pending criminal charges.
Brandenburg portrays NORCOR as different from the GEO Group-managed Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. He said only ICE detainees with medium and high classification levels are kept at NORCOR.
“That is one of the most egregious lies Bryan Brandenburg is telling,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon. He added that ICE sometimes picks up people on “very minor” things, and he said the ACLU has a client with zero criminal record who has been held at NORCOR in the past, and another with a simple possession charge.
ICE’s online classification system states that detainees with a “medium low” level have “no history of violent or assaultive charges or convictions, no institutional misconduct, and no gang affiliation.”
The idea of sanctuary is based in a state statute (ORS 181A.820) going back to 1987 that says local jurisdictions cannot use their resources to “detect or apprehend persons whose only violation of law is that they are persons of foreign citizenship present in the United States in violation of federal immigration laws.” The Oregon Law Center’s lawsuit in Wasco County Court alleges that NORCOR is violating the sanctuary law with its intergovernmental services agreement, “which requires it to incarcerate individuals solely to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Oregonians For Immigration Reform, which champions anti-immigration legislation, is circulating a petition for a ballot measure to repeal ORS 181A.820.
Oregon’s law does allow for agencies to exchange information with immigration officers to verify the immigration status of a person “if the person is arrested for any criminal offense.”
Brandenburg said the jail staff passes information on arrested individuals to ICE.
“If somebody is arrested locally, say on a DUII, and they come into our facility, we do a name and date of birth check and background check, and we release that info to immigration,” Brandenburg said. “Now, since they’re local, and since they may be able to post bail, if they can post bail, we don’t hold them for ICE. ICE has to arrest them and do whatever ICE does.
“We also hold those that are being federally prosecuted, federal prosecution cases,” Brandenburg added, offering the example of “someone who’s selling drugs, and hasn’t been convicted yet.”
On behalf of four Wasco County taxpayers, plaintiffs Brian Stovall, John Olmstead, Connie Krummrich and Karen Brown, the Oregon Law Center suit argues, “Whether or not these persons have criminal charges or convictions, the sole reason they are held by NORCOR is to assist ICE in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.”
Coalition members say institutions such as NORCOR are confusing civil violations like being in the U.S. without proper documentation with criminal offenses such as assault and battery or rape.
“The people that are being held there on immigration holds are not criminals,” PCUN’s Ramirez said. “The only thing they did is called “EWI” – entered without inspection. It is a violation, but it’s a minor violation of the law.”
Schechtel, with the Gorge ICE Resistance, said the people getting detained by ICE agents and held at NORCOR are being targeted by “paper sweeps.”
Like the sous chef, they may pop up on ICE’s radar due to a recent criminal violation, but typically it’s minor, and often already adjudicated, Schechtel said.
Brandenburg countered that he sees a difference between a civil and a criminal violation — but “if the civil detainee has been dealing drugs or breaking into houses or is part of a gang, should he be allowed to stay (in the country)?”
Brandenburg said he’s uninterested in immigrants whose only offense is that they’re in the U.S. illegally.
Atkins, the Democratic Party chair, said the party’s resolution, approved June 25, reflects its fundamental beliefs and policy goals: Immigration is not a crime.
“The idea of equating everyone who may not have arrived in the country legally with people who commit crimes, especially crimes of violence, is just sort of offensive on its face.”“Illegally entering the country does not equate with being a rapist and a drug abuser,” Atkins said. “The idea of equating everyone who may not have arrived in the country legally with people who commit crimes, especially crimes of violence, is just sort of offensive on its face.”
Clergy and members of the Gorge ICE Resistance say children in ICE custody have been placed in NORCOR’s juvenile facility even though they’re not criminals.
Brandenburg said all those at NORCOR, adult or juvenile, fit the facility’s immigration housing policy, which is basically that they have criminal histories.
“There’s two ICE juveniles in our facilities that are validated gang members from the East Coast who are being held pending the outcome of their deportation. And they have criminal histories,” he said.
The ACLU contends that “harsh conditions” inside NORCOR exist for both regular prisoners and ICE detainees. The ACLU’s demand letter details what it considers violations of detainees’ lawful rights to attorneys, medical care, inadequate nutrition and exercise facilities, denial of religious liberty, no means of visitation with family, and exorbitant phone rates.
Brandenburg responded that such allegations are “unfounded and in truth, false.”
Brandenburg has been administrator for 2 1/2 years, and he said the facility’s recividism rate has dropped from 75 percent to 64 percent during that time.
“I just opened a mental health treatment unit – just done a lot of really progressive best-practices approaches to dealing with the offender population, and as the result of that, our numbers are going down,” he said.
Whatever the conditions inside NORCOR, some sources agree ICE detainees often spend far longer there than criminals awaiting adjudication.
Boonstra, with the Gorge Ecumenical Ministries, said the difference in length of stays is actually the most troubling thing of all about how ICE detainees are treated in NORCOR.
“If you’re in NORCOR as a criminal inmate, your average time at NORCOR is about 12 days, and then you’ll go one place or another,” Boonstra said. “The most haunting thing about being an immigrant detainee is you’re there indefinitely. They wait months and months and months for a court hearing to happen.”“If you’re in NORCOR as a criminal inmate, your average time at NORCOR is about 12 days, and then you’ll go one place or another,” Boonstra said. “The most haunting thing about being an immigrant detainee is you’re there indefinitely. They wait months and months and months for a court hearing to happen.”
NORCOR’s website, which lists booking dates and other information for inmates — but has no information on ICE detainees — suggests most criminals are in the facility for a period of days to a few weeks; 86 of 136 listed on Sept. 24 had been booked that same month.
Dos Santos said some detainees are held as long as six months at a time.
ICE detainees cannot get time off for good behavior when doing work shifts, as regular prisoners can, said Red Stevens, the minister of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in The Dalles, who visits the detainees every week.
“The jail inmates, the regular criminal inmates, get good time for doing these, but ICE detainees can’t get their time shortened,” Stevens said. “So a dollar a day is basically what they’re offered. So some people don’t want to do that, understandably. It gets kind of messy if nobody wants to clean the bathroom.”
In Tacoma, the practice of paying detainees $1 per shift recently became the focus of a lawsuit by Washington state, which last week announced it was suing the GEO Group for failing to pay immigrants the state-mandated minimum wage.
Exceptions to minimum-wage laws are common for inmates in government-run jails and prisons, such as NORCOR. However, GEO Group is a for-profit company, detaining people facing civil immigration proceedings, and Washington’s lawsuit says those inmates can’t be forced to work below the minimum wage.
Stevens confirms the ACLU’s account of food inside the facility and said inmates he interviews “find it insulting that the menu that is posted on the wall is not the menu that they are fed. The food that they are fed is very high on carbohydrates. … Breakfast this morning was a sack with two hardboiled eggs, four slices of bread and a little snack cake and one of those packets of juice powder, Kool-Aid kind of stuff. That’s the morning meal five times a week.”
Brandenburg said the assertion detainees are fed unhealthy, carbohydrate-laden diets is “complete bullshit.” The jail employs a registered dietitian, he said.
“It’s an example of folks trying to exaggerate a situation to make it seem like it’s worse than what it is,” he said.
In his letter responding to the ACLU’s complaints, Brandenburg writes that NORCOR passed 33 of 35 standards in an “ICE detention audit” in 2011 and are scheduled for another this November.
The easiest way for anyone, media or not, to confirm or deny conditions for ICE detainees inside NORCOR would be to go in and talk to people.
NORCOR and ICE are publicly funded institutions, meaning employees such as ICE spokeswoman Kice and NORCOR administrator Brandenburg are paid with taxpayer money.
But transparency appears to be a low priority at ICE and NORCOR.
Brandenburg said that ICE rules are the reason detainees aren’t on the NORCOR website.
“It’s a standard or statute by ICE,” he said. “They don’t allow it. They also don’t allow me to post their criminal history. That you’d have to ask (ICE).”
Last week, a source with access to NORCOR’s ICE detainees was able to confirm that a Mexican detainee named Angel Alonso Lujan-Gonzales was able and willing to be interviewed by a reporter and understood the possible risks.
The day after the source provided Lujan-Gonzales’ name – Sept. 22, the day an interview request was emailed to Kice and Brandenburg – Street Roots got a call from Brandenburg.
“That guy was moved this morning. They moved several folks this morning,” Brandenburg said. “So, sorry.”
Lujan-Gonzales was able to be located only using his “A” (for “alien”) number in ICE’s system. Multiple queries for him using various versions and spellings of his name returned the message “Your search has returned zero (0) matching records.”
Even if the detainee hadn’t been physically moved, ICE spokeswoman Kice seemed to present a moving target for media wanting to interview a willing detainee.
When first contacted Sept. 15, she responded in an email, “Please advise on the person’s name and where they’re being housed. We’ll reach out to the individual to see if he or she is willing to provide signed consent to meet with you. If the detainee consents, we’ll make arrangements for you to meet with him or her.”
But by Sept. 24, after Street Roots requested to interview Lujan-Gonzales and noted the detainee is willing to be interviewed, Kice laid down the bureaucratic roadblocks. Two forms would have to be signed before an interview could take place, Kice wrote. She noted that Lujan-Gonzales is represented by an attorney, “so you’ll need to coordinate with his attorney to clear the interview.”
She didn’t say who that attorney was, and it’s not on the ICE website.
“We would need a completed version of this form before arranging the interview,” she said. “Also attached is a privacy waiver form. … This is the form we would need to have the detainee complete in order for us to release information to you about his case.”
Kice declined to respond to a list of questions about ICE detainees at NORCOR, saying ICE is “severely short-staffed right now” and unable to answer emailed questions within a week’s time.
The source who provided Lujan-Gonzales’ name said he was moved due to a court date.
“They lose their files; they lose their Bibles; they lose all kinds of shit in the transfer,” said Schechtel, of Gorge ICE Resistance. “We think that this is an intentionally disruptive process that ICE or GEO Group tends to do.”
Members of the coalition believe ICE moved detainees to NORCOR to break up a hunger strike by a reported 750 detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in April. Brandenburg denies that there even was a hunger strike among ICE detainees at NORCOR.
“They may have missed five or six meals, but they were supplementing that with commissary food,” he said. “There really wasn’t a hunger strike.”
“Oh, Jesus,” the ACLU’s dos Santos said when told of Brandenburg’s words. “There was one person I was literally terrified was going to die.”
According to PCUN’s Ramirez, detainees in Tacoma’s detention center are continuing a hunger strike.
Dos Santos and others opposing NORCOR’s holding of ICE detainees believe some detainees may be retaliated against by ICE, the GEO Group or NORCOR, even if there’s not enough evidence to make a legal case.
“We’ve heard of that,” dos Santos said. “It’s hard to connect all of the dots. But it certainly sounds like people are being treated differently based on how outspoken they are.”
“There has been retaliation — there’s been retaliation in Tacoma, there’s been retaliation at NORCOR,” Schechtel said. “They tell us that the guards verbally abuse them more, ignore their requests more.”
The physical moves, limited publicly available information about inmates, and the extreme difficulty in interviewing a willing detainee could be seen as interfering with Lujan-Gonzales’ First Amendment rights to free speech. And they are practically invisible to the public. Visiting clergy members are the only people besides attorneys permitted in-person visits.
Family members are permitted weekly 60-minute video calls, but as the ACLU’s letter notes, even children are not permitted face-to-face time with their parents.
Stevens said he has been impressed with how detainees work to help one another stick together and avoid bullying from corrections officers inside NORCOR, but it’s tough.
“One guy that I’ve been meeting with since May just got deported this morning,” Stevens said. “I thought he was going to hold out for a while, but I guess he just gave up. People do give up.”
NORCOR needs money. In the long run, ICE holds might not be enough.
NORCOR’s roots go back to 1993 and efforts by officials in Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam counties to combine efforts to fund a regional jail that would address the lack of jail beds in the area. According to the jail’s website, it books 3,000 offenders per year, and its costs are borne by Wasco (50 percent), Hood River (40 percent), and Sherman and Gilliam (5 percent each).
For 2017, NORCOR’s yearly operational costs are $6.2 million, while current combined county subsidies are only $3.8 million. The facility has contracts that bring in some additional money, but it still runs a yearly deficit close to $1 million, Brandenburg said.
“It’s going to work out (financially), but still, if we didn’t have the money from ICE, we would be at a loss to pay for the operations of NORCOR,” he said.
NORCOR receives $80 per day for each ICE detainee, records confirmed by Brandenburg show, a contract that ends in 2018 and Brandenburg said “needs to be renegotiated.”
Brandenburg says NORCOR has held as many as 80 detainees and as few as five, and averages around 20. At 20 detainees average and $80 per day, NORCOR brings in $584,000 per year from ICE.
Recent ballot measures aimed at shoring up NORCOR’s failing budget with a new tax have narrowly missed passage.
Earlier this year, a regional jail tax rate measure was narrowly defeated, The Dalles Chronicle reported. Brandenburg said another bond measure may come to voters again next year, and his preference would be to pay for NORCOR’s operations with taxes, not ICE money.
Some in the Gorge wonder if all the bad publicity NORCOR is getting from the protests, legal actions and media coverage might hurt the chances of passing the next bond measure to support its operations.
“NORCOR is walking a really fine line in order to be on the good side of people who will wish them financial well-being,” Boonstra said. “The more it gets out that the conditions are deplorable, that taxpayer money is being used for this purpose, the next time a bond comes to the taxpayers, there’s going to be a lot more resistance.”
This story was first published in Street Roots.