After five failed attempts to meet with immigrants locked up in an Oregon prison, Portland immigration lawyers are taking the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to court.
This morning, the ACLU of Oregon filed an emergency lawsuit against DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Thomas Homan, Sheridan Federal Correctional Institute Warden Josias Salazar, and a number of other top officials in the federal justice department (including Jefferson Beauregard Sessions himself). The request is simple: Allow lawyers inside the Sheridan prison to offer free legal assistance to the 123 immigrant men being held inside, because it's the law.
The immigrants represent 16 different countries and speak 13 different languages. The majority of them came to the US seeking asylum from religious persecution or gang violence in their home countries (one of the men reportedly still has a bullet lodged in his body from a cartel shooting.)
Since the immigrants were transported to Sheridan from the border in early June, none of them have been able to call a lawyer—let alone meet with one—to receive the legal guidance they're granted by the US Constitution. Lawyers fear that ICE intendeds on taking these immigrants' asylum cases before an immigration judge before the men can seek legal representation, in hopes of expediting the deportation process.
"For many of the detainees, the outcome could well be a matter of life or death," the lawsuit reads.
ACLU lawyers will represent Innovation Law Lab—the group of lawyers who've tried to access the incarcerated immigrants—and Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez, one of the 123 men being detained in Sheridan prison alongside convicted felons, in the federal case. Sanchez Gonzalez was split with his two young children and partner at the border. According to Mat dos Santos, legal director at ACLU of Oregon, his partner is "wrecked with sadness" over Sanchez Gonzalez's detention.
The Sheridan group of men are part of the 1,600 immigrants that ICE has sent to federal prisons in the last few weeks. This decision came on the heels of the Trump Administration's new "zero tolerance" policy, which ordered all incoming immigrants entering the country through unofficial channels—including asylum-seekers who are legally granted protection in such cases—be detained. The decision immediately filled the country's ICE detention centers to capacity. This lawsuit mirrors another filed Tuesday by the ACLU of Southern California, demanding legal access to detained immigrants in a federal prison in Victorville, California. A California judge ruled in favor of the ACLU Thursday.
Dos Santos is hoping for a similar outcome here.
"Denying these men access to counsel—at a time that they need it most to prepare for interviews with immigration officials or appearing before an immigration judge—is as outrageous as it is unconstitutional," said dos Santos in a media release.