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Alex Zielinski

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An Oregon federal judge has granted the 121 detained immigrants being held in a Sheridan prison immediate access to legal aid.

The all-male group of detainees, representing 16 different countries, were taken straight from the US-Mexico border to the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) 26 days ago, and have been repeatedly denied access to volunteer immigration lawyers since. The decision is a direct result of Donald Trump's new "zero tolerance" immigration policy. According to a federal public defender, at least 64 of the 121 men have requested legal counsel. All have been denied.

"We are a nation under law," said District Judge Michael Simon, shortly before issuing his order this morning. "The rule of law is one of our most cherished principles. And because we are a nation that lives under law, the right to legal counsel is a right that has been recognized as required."

Simon approved an emergency temporary restraining order filed Friday against the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for violating the detainees' constitutional rights to due process. The plaintiffs, Sheridan FCI detainee Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez and pro bono lawyer group Innovation Law Lab (ILL) were represented by attorneys with the ACLU of Oregon and Stoll Berne.

Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez, one of the 121 immigrant detainees at Sheridan FCI, and his son.
Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez, one of the 121 immigrant detainees at Sheridan FCI, and his son. ACLU of Oregon

Along with granting immediate access to legal counsel, Simon also prohibited ICE from holding asylum hearings or deportation proceedings for these detainees until the detainee can access a "know your rights" training and/or meet with a lawyer. To keep ICE from evading his order, Simon ruled that the feds can't transfer these detainees outside of Oregon without his approval.

According to ILL, attorneys will begin meeting with these detainees at Sherian FCI tomorrow morning.

Before Simon made his ruling, Dianne Schweiner, a lawyer the with Oregon US Attorney's Office, argued that the federal government hadn't done anything wrong—and were actually the victims in this entire debacle.

"This is an ever-fluid emergent situation that BOP and ICE have been placed in," said Schweiner, noting that Sheridan FCI staff were only given 24 hours' notice before the detainees moved into the prison. "I think we're jumping the gun in assuming that the government is doing all the wrong things here."

The reason those detainees haven't been able to call or meet with an attorney? Schweiner says that's because prison staff were preoccupied with making sure the detainees were safely moved into a facility not shared with inmates charged or convicted with a crime. That process took more than three weeks.

"Although there's never been an attempt to deny people counsel, that is a priority that is a little lower than the safety of the individuals," Schweiner said, assuring Simon that the ACLU's requests were already in the process of being resolved. She gave no deadline as to when the feds would meet those requests—which wasn't good enough for Simon.

In an interview following the hearing, ILL's Victoria Bejarano Muirhead explained why.

"Intending to eventually provide access to legal office... that is equivalent to denying someone their rights," she said. "And if we say its too difficult to implement someones rights, so we're going to ignore them.... That's a slippery slope."

Schweiner also blamed protesters with Occupy ICE PDX, the group that successfully shuttered a local ICE office last week, for keeping the detainees from accessing a ILL "know your rights" legal training at that office. Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with ACLU, said this wasn't the case.

According to Baxter-Neal, ILL lawyers were planning on presenting that legal training to detainees at Sheridan FCI last week, not at the Portland ICE office (a two hour drive from Sheridan).

"It's difficult to understand why a peaceful protest very far away from the prison would prohibit [ICE] from allowing folks to understand their rights," said Baxter-Neal.

Both the plaintiff and federal attorneys will return to Simon's courtroom in a week, July 2, to update him on what improvements have been made since his order.

Of course, it's very possible the White House could somehow derail his order in that short period of time. The possibility was not lost on Simon.

Before hearing oral arguments, Simon pointed to a recent tweet posted by Donald Trump, in which the president said immigrants shouldn't be granted a court hearing before being deported.

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"The president's tweets are official statements of the United States. So, what am I to make of that statement?" Simon asked Schweiner. "Does that mean the immigration detainees at Sheridan might be removed without having an asylum hearing?"

Her response: "I don't think so, your honor."