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.
More: ICE detainees end second hunger strike at NORCOR
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.”
Tanin's Motion to Stay in the U.S.
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Published Dec. 12, 2017
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