On three occasions over the past week, immigration lawyers were told by federal officials they could meet with the 123 immigrant detainees being held in a Sheridan, Oregon federal prison. Each time, the lawyers were given a scheduled time to arrive at the prison and meet with the adult detainees, who are all men. And each time, they were denied entry by prison guards.
"ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has failed thus far to provide the detained persons access to legal counsel," said Ian Philabaum, program director at Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit law firm that's been leading efforts to meet with the detained men. On a media call this afternoon, Philabaum and other lawyers said they still know very little about the men inside.
But here's what they do know: The 123 men have all recently crossed the southern border into the US, some of them at official ports of entry, others at unofficial crossings. They represent 16 different countries and speak 13 different languages. The majority of the detained men have requested asylum—meaning they have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country (a note: you don't have to cross at an official border crossing to be granted asylum). Several of them were separated from their spouses and children at the border, and have no way of knowing where they were taken. Several of them have urgent medical needs—like gunshot wounds—that haven't been treated. Few of them had heard of Oregon before being dropped in Sheridan's Federal Correctional Institution a few weeks ago.
"They have fled terror in their home country only to be welcomed to this country with more terror."
"I can't underscore how much pain these men are in—both physically and psychologically," said Luis Garcia, a Portland immigration attorney. Garcia was granted access by the Mexican Consulate to briefly meet with five Mexican nationals held inside the prison. He said most of them were seeking asylum from cartel violence.
"They've been defeated. They have fled terror in their home country only to be welcomed to this country with more terror," Garcia said. "What the government is doing is accomplishing what the cartels never could, which is separating these men from their families."
Philabaum says prison staff have also kept faith leaders from visiting men who've requested their presence. According to ICE's own "detention standards," immigrant detainees must be granted at least some weekend visiting hours from family members, faith leaders, or legal counsel. Those standards also grant detainees free calls to legal counsel, along with a list of free legal aid programs they can call. The detained men have been denied all of these rights.
While Sheridan prison officials are the ones turning lawyers like Philabaum away from the facility, they aren't necessary at fault. Matt dos Santos, legal director at ACLU of Oregon, said that federal prison staff were notified they'd be housing more than a hundred detainees just a day before ICE dropped them off.
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"It appears they are experiencing logistical and communication problems," said Philabaum. And, he added, the facility itself just isn't set up to hold immigrant detainees. Because, well, it's a prison.
The Innovation Law Lab and ACLU of Oregon penned a letter to ICE Director Thomas Homan last week, demanding the immigrants' rights to legal counsel be restored before deportation proceedings kick in. If they continue to be denied access to the Sheridan detainees, dos Santos says, they will "seek resolution in court."
"It's important to remember, the law never required these men be detained. The law never required these men be separated from their families," said Philabaum. "And the law definitely never required they be placed in a federal correctional institution."