Relief. That’s the expression Navneet Kaur sees on the faces of immigrant men shortly after they’ve been released from a federal prison.
For nearly three months, Kaur has met with these men at Sheridan Federal Correctional Institute in Sheridan, Oregon—where, in a small meeting room, she’s helped interpret conversations between the Indian asylum-seekers and their attorneys. Now, as Kaur greets some of them at a Sikh temple in Salem, the men have traded their desperation for hope.
“I remember one man saying, ‘I have crossed the threshold, I’m in a room where I’m not being watched. I am opening a door that is not locked,’” Kaur says. “That stuck with me.”
Kaur is one of the dozens of volunteers who’ve spent the past few weeks creating “respite sites”—short-term triage centers where newly released detainees from Sheridan can rest, eat, call family members, and make travel plans. For the men in Sheridan, who fled their countries seeking asylum in the US only to be arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and sequestered in a prison cell, it’s the first time they’ve felt welcome in their new country.
After months of incarceration with little outside contact, dozens of these immigrant men are viewing their new country through an Oregon lens. For volunteers like Kaur, the men’s release is an opportunity to right the wrongs of our federal immigration laws and help them answer a pivotal question: What’s next?
In early June, ICE officials arrested at least 1,600 adult immigrants who had recently crossed the United States’ southwest border, dropping them in federal prisons across the country. Usually, these travelers would be placed in federal immigrant detention centers, but the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown—which included the forced separation of undocumented immigrant families—had filled the usual facilities to capacity.
Around 120 of those immigrant men, who represented 16 different countries and spoke a combined 13 different languages, were shuttled to Sheridan. The majority of them came to the US seeking asylum from their countries of origin, citing threats of gang violence or religious persecution.
The men’s time at Sheridan, however, did not go smoothly. Sheridan employees were only given a few days’ notice to prepare for the new detainees, which meant the men spent several weeks bunking with convicted felons. Prison guards barked orders at the newcomers in English, a language few of the immigrants could understand. And the men were denied access to a phone, making it impossible for them to call a lawyer or gather information about the family members from whom many of them had been separated at the border.
Since federal prison employees like those at Sheridan aren’t trained to handle asylum-seeking immigrants, the newcomers were also denied the constitutional rights granted to asylum-seekers—like access to free legal aid, interpretation services, and an immigration law library. That’s when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in, using a federal injunction to allow lawyers with the Innovation Law Lab (ILL) to meet with any detainees who sought legal aid.
Immigrants seeking asylum in the US are often released on bond after a number of days, or maybe weeks—enough time for them to meet with an immigration official for a “credible fear interview” to prove they have legitimate reasons to fear returning to their country of origin. But it took until the final week of August—more than three months—for an immigration judge to begin releasing the detained men on bond, allowing them to live with friends or family members in the US until their asylum hearings.
By now, at least 40 of the 79 men who chose to be represented by ILL have been released from Sheridan. Which means 40 men have now left a rural prison in a state that many of them had never heard of and where they don’t speak the language.
That’s where Katie Moss steps in. Moss has helped orchestrate a volunteer-led shuttle service for immigrants leaving Sheridan, making sure that whenever a detainee is scheduled to leave, there’s a car with two volunteers waitling to pick them up and take them wherever they want. That’s usually the airport or a respite center, which is frequently a church or a temple. The men stay an average of one night at the center, enough time to coordinate their next steps.
Many of the detainees first released from Sheridan were practicing Sikhs from India who, on arriving at the prison, were stripped of their religious headscarves by guards and not given food that aligned with their dietary restrictions. At the respite centers, these men were given vegetarian Indian food, Indian tea, and the chance to speak with Sikh leaders.
“They’re finally being treated like human beings,” says Moss. During the men’s initial car rides from Sheridan, Moss has seen firsthand what months of incarceration have done to the men. She’s often one of the first people the men see after they leave prison.
“It’s sobering and upsetting. There’s a lot of emotional flatness, a lot of silence,” she says. “I’ve worked with kids who’ve sustained trauma. These men show the same signs. It’s clear they have been deprived freedom.”
In July, federal public defenders released statements in which some of the detainees described their experience at Sheridan.
“We are getting crazy by the way we [are] kept locked,” wrote one man. “Sometimes I feel like dying. It felt like everything is over and I should commit suicide. I [am] very sad. I have lost all hopes getting out of here.”
“Our condition in our country was not good. We heard that we would be safe in USA but the situation [is] different,” wrote another detainee. “Here we have come to save our lives, but I think we will die here in jail.”
According to Jaspreet Singh, a lawyer who volunteered his legal services to ILL's Sheridan clients, those seeking asylum are often prepared to “undertake the difficult journey and immense risk” of escaping a country where they fear persecution. But few were prepared for months spent in prison.
“None of the asylum seekers that I represented... expected to endure the kind of conditions they faced or continue to face while in detention,” Singh wrote in an email to the Mercury.
After being released from detention, asylum-seeking immigrants are usually asked where they’ll be living and tasked with regularly checking in with an immigration judge regarding their case. Currently, the average wait time for those seeking asylum in America to have their case heard is longer than two years. According to ILL spokesperson Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, a number of ILL’s Sheridan clients intend to enroll in college or start a new career in the meantime.
Not every detainee is so lucky. Some asylum-seekers don’t have family members or friends in the US who can pay for bond or offer them a place to stay. Without that safety net, those detainees are likely to stay in Sheridan until they are either granted asylum or deported.
For Navneet Kaur—who is still providing interpretation assistance to the immigrants stuck at Sheridan—the experience is personal. Before being granted a visa to join her husband in Oregon 14 years ago, she spent years raising her children alone in India.
“It encourages me to help in any way I can,” she says.
Her interactions with the asylum-seekers, however, take a toll.
“In some of the interviews I’ve interpreted with these men, I feel like I’m absorbing their sadness. It’s so difficult to see them in such desperation,” she says. But knowing that there are still innocent men being treated like prisoners, she adds, makes the work worth it.
“It’s the least we can do in this country, to provide due process,” Kaur says. “We can’t just lock people up for years. That’s not our country.”