THE DALLES, Ore. – Mustafa Tanin was a young lieutenant in the Afghan army when he came to Texas in 2015 for language training with the U.S. Military.
Tanin had no criminal history in Afghanistan or the United States when he left the training site four months later. According to court records, Tanin was seeking asylum in the U.S. because of death threats from the Taliban, due to his political affiliation with a minority party and his religious status as a Shiite Muslim.
Now 27, Tanin is detained at ICE's Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. while he fights a deportation order.
An image of Mustafa Tanin from court documents. The image of his back purportedly shows scars from an attack by the Taliban. The original image is not publicly avaialble.
But for 17 days between May and July 2017, Tanin was detained at the Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility (NORCOR) in The Dalles, Oregon.
“I lost my cookies. I said, 'You can't send me these people,'” said NORCOR administrator Bryan Brandenburg.
Brandenburg says the county jail has an agreement with ICE to only take detainees with criminal histories, something NORCOR critics dispute.
NORCOR – one of two jails in Oregon that takes ICE detainees – says its ICE contract makes up for about $1 million in annual funds that it needs to keep operating as a regional jail.
Yet NORCOR may be violating state law. The jail is currently embroiled in a lawsuit that argues the publicly funded facility is violating Oregon's sanctuary status by housing undocumented immigrants.
KGW took an inside look at NORCOR, its relationship with ICE, the legality of holding detainees in Oregon and how much the county jail can really know about the immigrants it keeps within its walls.
What we know about ICE detainees in Oregon and the jail that holds them
How much can NORCOR really know about ICE detainees?Chapter 3
Inside NORCOR, a jail set on reform
Drive an hour and a half east of Portland on Interstate 84 and you'll hit The Dalles, a working-class town of about 15,000 residents smack in the middle of Oregon's dramatic landscape shift from lush forest to rocky desert on the banks of the Columbia River.
A patch of industrial buildings on the west end of town surrounds NORCOR, the regional jail that has served four surrounding counties since it opened in 1999. The jail houses, on average, about 115 inmates a day who are serving light sentences for minor infractions or awaiting transfer for more serious crimes, as well as ICE detainees. NORCOR also has a juvenile facility that holds between five and 30 youth from across eastern Oregon and parts of Washington state.
On average, about 2,800 people serve time at NORCOR each year.
Inmates are mostly kept in dorm-style rooms, with two people to a cell and a common area where they can sit at metal tables, watch TV, and pay to send emails or make video calls, in lieu of in-person visitation. The jail provides one free video visit each week if visitors come to the jail.
The inmates have access for one hour a day to a large room with high concrete walls designated as the “outdoor recreation” area. The windowless room has an open ceiling but is within the confines of the jail. Inmates can play basketball, lift weights or run around the rectangular space.
Dorms, too, have some skylights, which fulfill the jail's requirement for outside light as there are no windows.
Inmates can sign up to work in the laundry room, kitchen or maintenance department. In exchange, the jail gives them $5 a week for commissary items such as snacks, games and hygiene products.
A look inside NORCOR
NORCOR is located on the west end of The Dalles
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NORCOR is located on the west end of The Dalles
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NORCOR was built and is funded by Wasco, Hood River, Gilliam and Sherman counties in a partnership that takes some financial strain off the small counties that had been struggling to maintain their own jails. Over 16 years, NORCOR cycled through eight different administrators and developed a recidivism rate of 75 percent, meaning three out of four offenders returned to the jail after being released.
“Basically, this has just been a booking and holding facility with no programs, no sort of resources available to help folks to make changes so they don't come back to NORCOR,” said current administrator Bryan Brandenburg.
NORCOR administrator Bryan Brandenburg
Brandenburg was hired in 2016 – an extremely high-profile recruit, as his previous job was the Director of Institutions at Alaska's Department of Corrections. He oversaw 13 Alaska state prisons as well as a private prison in Colorado that housed 1,200 Alaska inmates.
Brandenburg was appointed to the job in 2011 but dismissed in 2015 after Independent Gov. Bill Walker took office. He was up for other leadership positions, including director of Nebraska's Department of Corrections, before he was ultimately hired at NORCOR. Brandenburg said he took the job partly to be closer to his daughter, a student at Southern Oregon University.
Brandenburg, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology, says he implemented several programs at the jail that are already showing results.
“We have an anger management program, we have a substance abuse program, a parenting program and a reentry program for reentry back into the community as far as resume writing and job skills and that sort of thing. Then we have a criminal attitudes program that helps folks look at their thinking as it relates to criminal behavior,” he explained.
Brandenburg says these programs have helped reduce recidivism to 66 percent so far, and he expects that to keep dropping over time. He also hired two full-time mental health clinicians to help mentally ill inmates.
“When I started here we had, on average, 45 seriously or persistently mentally ill folks here every month,” Brandenburg said. “In the last two months it's been averaging about 25. We've basically cut that population in half.”
Brandenburg credits the jail staff for much of the progress. As he walks through the white-and-blue cinderblock halls, he greets employees by name and shakes their hands.
“They're very enthusiastic about what it is we're doing,” he said.
Although NORCOR has made measurable strides for local inmates, it is criticized for housing undocumented immigrants, some who have never been convicted or charged with a crime.
Long history of housing ICE detainees
While attention on the federal government's treatment of immigration detainees recently ramped up under the Trump administration, NORCOR has housed ICE detainees since it first opened 18 years ago. The jail currently averages about 25 ICE detainees at a time but has had as many as 50 at once, Brandenburg said.
ICE would not confirm specifics about the detainees at NORCOR.
NORCOR is one of two Oregon jails that houses ICE detainees. Josephine Jail in Grants Pass also takes undocumented immigrants in ICE custody, but at a much lower rate – about 80 per year, according to 2015 data from TRAC, a nonpartisan immigration reporting site run by Syracuse University.
Columbia County Jail in St. Helens used to hold ICE detainees but stopped after a lawsuit in Clackamas County, according to the Columbia County sheriff's office. A current roster shows several USM (U.S. Marshals Service) inmates at the jail, but the sheriff's office says those inmates are charged with crimes and not detained under ICE custody.
The number of detainees in The Dalles shifts often as ICE moves them in and out of NORCOR for various reasons. Buses transporting detainees usually arrive once or twice a week.
“They will bring new folks in and other folks out either for appointments or meetings with their lawyers, or court dates, or actual deportation,” Brandenburg said. “There's a constant fluctuation in the numbers and who's here and who isn't here.”
When they arrive, each wearing a bracelet with an alien registration number assigned by the Department of Homeland Security, detainees are “processed” just like NORCOR inmates. Buses carrying detainees back into the prison, where detainees exit for pre-booking. They're tested for alcohol and then placed in holding cells for 24-72 hours while they are screened for medical issues, suicide risk factors and whether they are a threat to others.
Then they're placed in a separate dorm with other immigrants.
When KGW visited NORCOR, Brandenburg declined to allow ICE detainees to talk to a reporter.
“They're not my inmates,” he said.
The volume of detainees has also fluctuated significantly over the years; dropping in the mid-2000s when ICE opened its 1,575-person facility in Tacoma, then ramping back up recently as the Trump administration cracks down on undocumented immigrants across the country.
Financially, NORCOR's agreement with ICE is a win-win. ICE saves money by using 95 city or county jails like NORCOR nationwide to help manage its detainee population, in addition to its own facilities and ones that are operated by outside contractors – such as the Tacoma facility, which is owned by ICE but run by the private prison company GEO Group.
“ICE uses these various models to meet the agency's detention needs while achieving the highest possible cost savings for the taxpayer,” said ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe.
In all, ICE says it has 203 facilities that house 93 percent of its population -- just over 38,000 detainees as of Sept. 2, 2017. According to TRAC, ICE utilizes more than 600 facilities nationwide to help the agency manage all of its detainees.
ICE pays NORCOR $80 a day to house each detainee, which accounts for about $1 million a year of NORCOR's $6.2 million annual operating costs.
“It's an important revenue stream for NORCOR,” Brandenburg said.
The funding fills the gap between the subsidies each county provides and how much it costs to keep the jail running. Between the four counties, NORCOR receives $3.8 million – just over half of the price tag of running the jail for a year. NORCOR also gets funds from federal contracts and grants, property rentals, medical expenses, inmate debt recovery and a contract with Benton County to house some of their inmates.
But while the ICE contract provides a significant cash influx to NORCOR's operations, the contract also raises questions of legality in a state that prohibits local and state authorities from helping to enforce federal immigration law unless a person has committed a crime.
How much can NORCOR really know about ICE detainees?
Oregon has a sanctuary state law stipulating that no money from the state will be used to find or hold people who haven't done anything illegal besides staying in the United States without documentation.
Brandenburg is aware of this law, and has said repeatedly that NORCOR does not take detainees who have not been charged with a crime.
“You have to have a criminal charge as well as an immigration issue before we'll house you for immigration,” he said.
NORCOR's contract with ICE does not include any language about the criminal histories of the detainees it sends to The Dalles. Brandenburg said he has a verbal agreement with the federal agency that is not detailed in the contract, requiring ICE to only send detainees who are facing criminal charges or have already been convicted of a crime and are awaiting deportation.
ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe said there's no way for NORCOR to know where the detainees come from or if they are criminally charged.
“How would they know that?” she said. “There's no contract in the world that says you will only house them if they have pending criminal convictions. How would they even determine that?”
In addition, O'Keefe said ICE doesn't even have the authority to hold individuals for punitive reasons – meaning that while some immigrants may face criminal charges, every person held by ICE is held because of a civil immigration violation and not a crime.
“Those foreign nationals who come into ICE custody may only be detained in furtherance of their immigration proceedings or their removal from the country,” she said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon said they know of at least three detainees not charged with crimes who were recently held at NORCOR: Mustafa Tanin, an Iranian woman named Alia Ghandi, and a Spanish woman named Cristina Alonso.
Ghandi was trying to visit her sister in Oregon when she was detained at the airport for reasons ICE officials have not clarified. Ghandi was detained in April and held at NORCOR before being transferred to Tacoma. She has since been released on parole while she seeks asylum. She says she fears retaliation in Iran because she was imprisoned in America.
Alonso came to Oregon in July to visit a family friend in Corvallis when she was taken into federal custody because officials said she had the wrong kind of visa. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials detained Alonso at the airport. She was booked in to NORCOR for two days, Alonso told The Oregonian and several Spanish news sites, before she was released and sent back to Spain.
Brandenburg acknowledges that each of these detainees spent time at NORCOR. He contends that Ghandi was at NORCOR for less than 12 hours before he got her out of the facility and sent over to Tacoma. He did not confirm how long Alonso was detained at NORCOR.
Brandenburg said Tanin's detainment happened after the private prison company GEO Group mistakenly sent the Afghan man from Tacoma to NORCOR, even though he had no criminal record.
According to Brandenburg's records, Tanin was housed at NORCOR from May 19 to June 23, June 30 to July 7, and July 21 to July 24.
“In June I said, 'This guy shouldn't be here.' A week later he shows up again. I got on the phone with the guy [Tanin] and I apologized because it wasn't supposed to happen,” Brandenburg said.
Brandenburg said he doesn't know for sure where Tanin was held before or after he was at NORCOR.
Whether the detainments of non-criminals at NORCOR are mistakes or not, they highlight the fact that information about ICE detainees is hard to come by – for county jail staff, friends and family, the media and legal advocates.
“The ICE bus just drops people off or takes people away with little notice to the folks who are running NORCOR,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon. “That in itself begs the question, 'Can they operate a facility to keep people safe and humanely housed when they don't even know who they're housing or for how long?'”
ICE says there is little information they can publicly share about detainees. When asked about how many detainees are sent to NORCOR, why they are sent to NORCOR, how long they stay on average, and whether they come from the Tacoma facility, ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe was unable to answer.
“It's hard to generalize,” she said.
NORCOR does not post information about ICE detainees currently in the jail, like it does with other inmates. ICE does have an online detainee locator, but searchers need the inmate's alien registration number or name and a country of birth to find them.
If the immigrant is out on parole, such as Ghandi, a registration number is needed to find the status of a case. ICE can't provide registration numbers for immigrants.
It's also difficult to find quantitative information about ICE detainees at NORCOR and beyond. Syracuse University's TRAC project has gathered some of the only data publicly available for immigration holds at the jail. The data, the latest of which is from 2015, shows the average stay for a detainee at NORCOR is 16 days. TRAC reports that 48 percent of ICE detainees went to NORCOR first, before being transferred to Tacoma. About seven out of 10 detainees were originally from Mexico, TRAC found.
More recent data is not available to the public.
ICE would also not confirm how long immigrants wait for immigration cases to be resolved, but TRAC data shows Portland immigration cases have an average wait time of three years, due in part to a growing backlog of pending cases.
The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, which houses ICE detainees
That backlog isn't new – the Obama administration had the same problem – but under Trump, more immigrants are being kept in ICE custody while awaiting court hearings instead of being released on bond, according to the ACLU.
“What we're seeing now is the average stay of a detainee go up and up and up, as more people are being denied bond or not being given access to their bond hearings at all,” dos Santos said.
Dos Santos called NORCOR “Oregon's secret ICE jail.” Lawyers from the ACLU of Oregon has started meeting with detainees at NORCOR weekly to help them with legal issues and listen to their concerns about how they are treated.
At NORCOR, only lawyers and clergy can visit in-person with detainees, in one of three small meeting rooms.
“We were hearing stories over and over again. Sad stories of people who were there who were confused why they were being held in jail for potential violation of immigration law, and why they were held in a facility with such poor conditions,” he said.
ICE detainees have gone on two hunger strikes in 2017 to protest what they say are inhumane conditions at NORCOR. Their grievances include no personal visits from friends and family, inadequate food, no access to the outdoors, expensive phone calls and lack of Spanish-language books and law resources.
ICE officials said they listened to the detainees' concerns. Brandenburg said the jail meets all standards for detainees set by ICE.
A group of concerned residents in The Dalles became so worried about ICE detainees at NORCOR that they formed a group called Gorge ICE Resistance in May. The group holds daily public demonstrations at the jail.
“It's OK – it's still America,” said Brandenburg about the frequent demonstrations. “People certainly have the right to their opinion and to express that freely.”
Asked whether the protests have changed his mind about NORCOR's ICE contract, Brandenburg shook his head. While his job is to secure and implement the contract, the agreement is ultimately approved by the NORCOR Board, which includes representatives from each of the four counties that funds the jail. The contract is up for renegotiation in 2018.
NORCOR faces a more formidable challenge from the lawsuit filed by four Wasco County residents who are alleging the jail is violating Oregon's sanctuary law, which prohibits state "moneys, equipment or personnel for the purpose of detecting or apprehending 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."
That case is currently before Wasco County court but may not have teeth. In May, a spokeswoman for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told The Associated Press that the jail appeared to be operating within the law because its resources are not being used to detect or arrest people.
Dos Santos says the lawsuit, community resistance and detainee grievances all show that NORCOR is not acting in accordance with what state residents want.
“Does Oregon want to be in the business of holding federal immigration detainees? I think the answer to that has been a resounding 'no,' both from our legislature, from Oregonians, from local officials passing these ordinances to be more inclusive of immigrants,” he said.
Even if NORCOR stopped taking ICE detainees, immigrants would still be held by ICE a couple hours north in Tacoma. That's where Mustafa Tanin is, still waiting to hear whether his request to stay in the U.S. is approved or denied by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
For Tanin, the ICE Tacoma facility is far preferable to what awaits him if he is sent back to Afghanistan.
“The Taliban already has beaten and threatened him,” Tanin's lawyers said in court documents. “Given his affiliation with the United States, as well as his Afghan military ties, political affiliation, and minority ethnic and religious status, [Tanin] knows his fate at the hands of the Taliban if he is deported to Afghanistan.”