Seven immigrant asylum seekers have been released from their months-long detention at a Sheridan federal prison, and more are expected to be let out later this week—if not today.
Those seven are among the 100 or so men who have been held in the rural Oregon prison since late June, shortly after crossing the border into the US. Their detention in a prison, rather than a traditional immigration detention center, is a result of Donald Trump's new "zero tolerance" immigration policy.
Speaking at a press conference at the Oregon ACLU office this morning, lawyers from the Innovation Law Lab (ILL)—the legal team representing 79 of the detainees who've been held in Sheridan—said that every one of their clients have been determined by an immigration officers to have a "credible fear" of returning to their home country. The immigrants represent 16 different countries and speak 13 different languages.
This week, 16 of the 79 detainees had bond hearings. Just seven men have been released so far. To be released on bond, the men need a family members or friend in the US to cover a bond of around $1,500, according to ILL lawyer Victoria Bejarano Muirhead.
“It is a difficult situation for some people whose family can’t afford that," she added.
According to ILL lawyer Katy Mitchell, the first released prisoner was so thrilled to be out of detention, he got on his knees and kissed the ground as soon as he left the prison.
“Nine months after leaving home, he’s finally safe and free, and reunited with his family,” she said.
Not all of the immigrants being held in Sheridan will be able to leave on bond.
“Unfortunately for many of our clients, their only option to be released from detention is for ICE to respond and to give them a bond or some other form of parole,” said Bejarano Muirhead. And that process can take a long time: Although ILL has filed 29 applications for release with ICE, the organization has not heard back on any of them.
One of the released immigrants, Lovepreet Singh, spoke through a translator at the press conference to thank ILL. “It is for them that I am breathing in the open air of this country today,” he said. “Every time they would come to visit us, it would be like we have someone here, we have our own here.”
Another immigrant from India, Karandeep Singh, said he had been attacked several times in his own country, and fled to the US fleeing religious prosecution: “I was afraid for my life, and they didn’t want me to stay there either.”
Singh added that his experience in the prison was very painful. “We were depressed during that time, we had lost hope. Who’s going to help us?" he said. "Even our families didn’t know where we were, until Innovation Law Lab and the public defenders came up. And we feel that they’re our family now.”
The immigrants said they also faced difficulties practicing their Sikh religion while in detention—something the ACLU called a "mockery of our most cherished principles.”
“I don’t blame the prison officials," said Singh. "They probably don’t understand how Sikhs pray, how we have to have a piece of cloth to cover our heads, and how we have to take off our shoes before we pray.
Now that these seven immigrants are free, Bejarano Muirhead says they'll be traveling to locations all over the United States to rejoin their families and continue working on their asylum cases.
“We hope that our remaining clients in Sheridan will be released soon,” said Mitchell. “We’ll continue working hard until every last person is released.”