While families are being torn apart by immigration agents on the Texas border, Oregon is grappling with its own inhumane side effect of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' immigration policies. But, instead of giant tents or chain-link cages, these immigrants are being held in a more traditional lockup: a federal prison.
Over the past month, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have arrested at least 1,600 adult immigrants who recently crossed the border, and dropped them into federal prisons across the US. More than 100 of those immigrants—all men from at least eight different countries—were taken to a prison in Sheridan, Oregon, located just 50 miles southwest of Portland.
The majority of these immigrants came to the US seeking asylum, citing threats of religious prosecution or gang violence. It's unknown how many actually have a criminal record (according to a retired ICE official, its rare that they do), but under but under Session's new "zero tolerance" policy, any immigrant that illegally enters the country is split from their family and locked up. According to the Trump Administration, all 1,600 of these newly incarcerated immigrants were marked for an "expedited deportation."
By law, when immigrants seek asylum in the US, they're allowed a few constitutional rights, including the right to due process. That means they must be given access to legal counsel before their immigration trial. ICE has its own set of bylaws that forbid the feds from denying detainees free access to legal aid, require adequate translation services to guarantee detainees understand what's going on, and have access to an immigration law library.
These standards, however, don't hold up in federal prison.
Last week, lawyers working at Innovation Law Lab (ILL), a Portland nonprofit that offers pro bono representation for immigrants, raised concerns that the 123 men detained at the Sheridan prison were being denied these standard detention rights. Detainees were being told they had to pay for calls, and they weren't given any information about their right to legal representation or where the rest of their families were located.
"Just weeks ago, over one hundred people came to our country fleeing violence and persecution and were met with the unimaginable: imprisonment, the loss of their families, and the denial of some of the most basic protections afforded by our legal system," write Stephen Manning, ILL director and Mat dos Santos, legal director of ACLU of Oregon in a joint letter sent to ICE Director Thomas Homan.
Over the weekend, Oregon members of Congress were granted entry to the Sheridan prison, and allowed one hour to talk with a few of the detainees, with translation. In a press conference following the meeting, Senator Jeff Merkley told reporters that none of the men had been told "what comes next."
He described one man with bullet wounds from gang warfare, and another man who said religious leaders threatened to burn down his house. The men had allegedly travelled to the US from India, China, Honduras, Pakistan, Nepal, Ukraine, Guatemala, and Mexico. Many of them were "forcibly separated" from their families upon entering the US and requesting asylum. Since coming to Sheridan, Merkley said, the detainees were only allowed one hour a day to leave their small prison cell.
When I visited Sheridan's federal prison on Saturday, I talked to a father whose 18-month-old daughter was torn from him and now, he doesn't know where she is.
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) June 18, 2018
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici said that when she asked the detainees what would happen if they were sent back to their home country, the "vast majority" of them told her they would be killed.
"This is a shameful moment in our history," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who choked up at the press conference. "The notion that we're going to criminalize people who are being persecuted—and enforce it? It's outrageous. They each ought to have a chance to prove their case."
ILL lawyers were granted three hours to meet with several detainees today—but it's unknown if that meeting actually took place. According to ACLU of Oregon, the prison has been consistently resistant to lawyers' requests to speak with the detained men.
"We need the government to meet us halfway and provide the constitutional baseline of access," said ILL's Manning in a separate press conference held this afternoon.
This evening, a number of immigrant rights groups and supporters are meeting in front of the Sheridan prison to hold a vigil for the immigrants detained inside.
Vigil underway at prison in Sheridan, where 123 immigrant men are being held, some apart from their families. It's part of a federal, zero-tolerance #Immigration policy. pic.twitter.com/k36BIGnL3M
— Katherine Cook (@KCookKGW) June 19, 2018
Miriam Varga Corona, the director of Yamhill County's Unidos Bridging Community who helped organize the vigil, says the community is eager to help.
"The government is treating asylum seekers like criminals... or worse, since their due process rights aren't being honored," she says. "A lot of people are heartbroken, and we're ready to respond."