Veterans court may be collateral damage in immigration fight
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Three decades ago, Lori Ann Bourgeois was guarding fighter jets at an air base. After her discharge, she fell into drug addiction. She wound up living on the streets and was arrested for possession of methamphetamine.
But on a recent day, the former Air Force Security Police member walked into a Veterans Treatment Court after completing a 90-day residential drug treatment program. Two dozen fellow vets sitting on the courtroom benches applauded. A judge handed Bourgeois a special coin marking the occasion, inscribed with the words "Change Attitude, Change Thinking, Change Behavior."
The program Bourgeois credits for pulling her out of the "black hole" of homelessness is among more than three dozen Oregon specialty courts caught in a standoff between the state and federal government over immigration enforcement.
The Trump administration in 2017 threatened to withhold law enforcement grants from 29 cities, counties or states it viewed as having "sanctuary" policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration agents. Today, all those jurisdictions have received or been cleared to get the money, except Oregon, which is battling for the funds in federal court.
The Veterans Treatment Court in Eugene and 40 other specialty courts, including mental health and civilian drug programs, risk losing all or part of their budgets, said Michael Schmidt, executive director of Oregon's Criminal Justice Commission, which administers the money.
The commission has managed to keep the courts funded through July, Schmidt said. Unless the Trump administration relents or is forced by court order to deliver the money, or the Oregon Legislature comes up with it, the commission must make "horrible, tough decisions" about where to make the cuts, Schmidt said.
Speaking in her small office in the Eugene courthouse, specialty courts coordinator Danielle Hanson said if the veterans court budget is cut, the vets would have to start paying for drug treatment, and they would be deprived of housing resources and travel funds to go to residential treatment facilities as far as 330 miles (530 kilometers) away. Some veterans might even be turned away.
"It would impact the program substantially," Hanson said.
Two dozen former servicemen and women are currently going through the rigorous program that lasts a minimum of a year, and usually up to a year and a half. They must attend group sessions three times a week, come to court at least once a week — presided over by Judge Valeri Love, who acts as their commanding officer — submit to regular urinalysis tests, and show progress. Graduates can have convictions cleared and avoid prison.
"The Veterans Treatment Court creates a routine and a regimen that many vets can thrive in. It pulls them out of isolation," said Michael Hajarizadeh, who represents the vets as a public defender. Many have post-traumatic stress, but the common thread is substance abuse, said Hajarizadeh, who himself is an Army veteran of the Afghanistan war.
He said the support structure and the bond vets feel for each other make the system work.
Bourgeois looked healthy and confident and wore a radiant smile as she accepted the coin on March 7 and shook Love's hand. It was a sharp contrast to when Bourgeois was arrested in a homeless camp on Aug. 31, 2017 — her 50th birthday.
"This is my first time not being homeless in seven years," Bourgeois said, blinking back tears behind metal-framed eyeglasses. "It is a BIG milestone."
Bourgeois served in the Air Force Security Police, now called Security Forces, for four years, until 1991. A back injury resulted in dependence on prescription painkillers, escalating to other drugs.
In November, the Lane County Circuit Court entered her into the veterans court after finding her guilty of possessing meth. If she completes the program, the circuit court will discharge Bourgeois and dismiss all proceedings against her. She had faced a year in jail.
She is on probation and staying in a house for those recovering from addiction.
"Without this, I'd still be out on the streets," Bourgeois said. "I'm very grateful to be back and start again."
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued President Donald Trump in November to get $4 million in grants from fiscal years 2017 and 2018 restored, saying Oregon was "unlawfully deprived" of the funds. The lawsuit accuses Trump of an "unconstitutional attempt" to compel Oregon to enforce federal immigration policies.
"As we have seen, these efforts have frequently been both inhumane and dangerous," Rosenblum said.
Furthermore, the administration is violating the separation of powers by invading Congress' spending authority, the lawsuit says.
The Byrne grants, named for a New York City policeman killed by gang members in 1988, are the leading source of federal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions, supporting law enforcement, prosecution, indigent defense, courts, crime prevention and education.
Other courts have ruled against the U.S. Justice Department's attempt to condition them on immigration cooperation.
In September, a federal court temporarily blocked the agency from withholding the funds for jurisdictions represented by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which filed suit in Illinois last summer. Not all went to court to get the grants. Vermont did not join any of the legal cases, instead corresponding directly with the Justice Department. Vermont officials announced earlier this month the state Department of Public Safety would be getting $2.3 million in previously blocked grants.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Joseph Hunt was among federal attorneys who filed a motion March 5 to have Oregon's lawsuit dismissed, arguing the Trump administration has the right to require federal immigration cooperation in order for Oregon to receive the Byrne grants.
Oregon's 1987 sanctuary state law, the nation's first, prevents law enforcement from detaining people who are in the United States illegally but have not broken any other law. Consequently, authorities in the state won't hold those who committed crimes and finished their sentences to be picked up by federal immigration agents, unless they have a warrant signed by a judge.
Ronald Cooper, an 81-year-old Marine veteran who is a veterans court mentor, has mixed emotions about the veterans court being caught in the immigration tug-of-war.
Wearing an orange garrison cap with the Marine emblem, Cooper said he voted for a November ballot measure to repeal Oregon's sanctuary law, believing that people who are in America illegally and committed crimes should be handed over for deportation.
But he's more forgiving of people whose only crime is being in the country illegally. He noted that those who serve in the military can be fast-tracked for citizenship.
Cooper said he wants to see veterans treatment programs expanded by the federal government, not face possible cuts.
"We've seen so much progress in this court," he said.