SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A jail serving four counties in Oregon has been holding immigrants detained by federal authorities, leading to frequent protests outside the facility.
Now, in Oregon’s deeply divided Legislature — with Republicans threatening a walkout over a bill to address global warming — a Democrat and a Republican have come together to sponsor legislation that would force the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility to stop contracting with federal immigration officials to lock up immigrant detainees.
To make up for lost revenue, the state would pay the facility, known as NORCOR, located 80 miles (128 kilometers) east of Portland, $1.6 million for a two-year period.
Rep. Daniel Bonham and Rep. Anna Williams have different motives, but worked on the bill together to achieve a common goal.
For Bonham, a Republican from the town of The Dalles, located along the Columbia River where the jail is located, his concern was that lawsuits against the prison could force it to give up its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, putting the counties in a financial bind.
“I had a conversation here in this building with leadership about what could the state do, the state could step up with funds,” Bonham said in an interview Wednesday in the Oregon State Capitol.
For Williams, a Democrat from Hood River, a town some 20 miles (32 kilometers) downriver from Bonham’s home, she believes the jail’s acceptance of detainees from ICE violates Oregon’s sanctuary state policy.
A county judge last year ruled it doesn’t, because NORCOR resources aren’t being used to detect or arrest people. Oregon, in 1987, became America’s first sanctuary state when it prohibited state and local law enforcement from using public resources to arrest or detain people whose only crime is being in the country illegally.
The ICE detainees usually are overflow from the agency’s detention center in Tacoma, Washington. They are supposed to be at NORCOR only temporarily, but some have been locked up for long periods, including one for 13 of the last 15 months, Bonham said. He worries that could lead to a court putting an end to the contract which provides about 10% of the jail’s operating budget, with no alternative to make up the difference.
For Bonham, sanctuary state isn’t an issue with the bill. However, representing an agricultural region that is dependent on immigrants, he said the federal government should establish a policy that allows workers to come and go freely, after being vetted.
“We’ve got a federalized weaponized border that says you can’t come in or out, but we need that workforce,” Bonham said.. “Especially in Wasco County, our cherry orchards do not function without that migrant workforce.”
Rights groups have denounced conditions in NORCOR. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said in 2017, the year that several ICE detainees held a hunger strike, that the food is composed mainly of bread with little nutritional value and detainees must buy their own socks, which NORCOR denied. The Gorge ICE Resistance, a coalition of groups in the Columbia River Gorge, has staged frequent protests outside the jail.
Williams and Bonham knew each other outside the Legislature — Bonham goes to a church around the corner from Williams’ house and she did social work in his hometown — and that helped them work together on the proposed legislation, said Williams, who was elected to the Oregon House in 2018.
“You have to develop the relationship to be able to trust each other enough to say, ‘I’m going to support this bill because of my policy priorities and you’re going to do it because of your policy priorities that don’t overlap, but here’s where we can work together,’” Williams said in an interview.
The bill is also a way to underscore with the Legislature that many rural counties with a low tax base are struggling to fund jails and other facilities, Williams said.
They are “making these completely dubious contracts in order to fill the budget,” Williams said. “And that’s something, I think, that is the state Legislature’s responsibility to be aware of and be responsive to.”
Both lawmakers recognize the bill is not apt to pass the Legislature during this 2020 35-day short session, because of concerns about where additional funds would come from in two years, and because it might set a precedent for other counties to seek state funding for jails.
But Williams said their collaboration, in finding comm ground even though policy priorities may differ, can be a model for a divided Legislature.
“That’s the kind of stuff I think we really need to be focusing on,” she said.