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Feds Must Allow Lawyers Access To Immigration Detainees In Oregon, Judge Rules

A federal judge in Portland ruled Monday that lawyers must be allowed access to 121 immigration detainees being held at the federal prison in Sheridan.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon granted the temporary order after hearing arguments related to a lawsuit filed Friday by the ACLU of Oregon. The plaintiffs also include a detainee housed at the federal prison outside Salem as well as a group of immigration attorneys.

In court Monday, the plaintiffs argued the federal government was blocking the detainees' constitutional rights to counsel. Attorneys have said that immigration detainees at the federal prison have asked to meet with lawyers, but lawyers have been turned away from the prison, repeatedly.

"The right to counsel, which allows a person to receive timely legal advice, is firmly entrenched in the concept of due process and protected by the Fifth Amendment against governmental interference," Simon wrote in his order. "Further, this right is available to everyone in the United States, not just citizens or others who are here lawfully."

Immigration attorneys say they plan to go back to Sheridan again on Tuesday.

The men in the prison are from 16 countries. They've been housed in Sheridan since the end of May. Attorneys say most, if not all, are asylum seekers with no known pending criminal charges. Some of the men were separated from their families as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

That list includes plaintiff Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez, who was separated from his partner and his children — they are 1 and 5 — while claiming asylum at a port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In court Monday, Oregon's federal public defender Lisa Hay said there were adult teenagers in the federal facility. Her office filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs.

Dianne Schweiner, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, argued in court Monday that the prison only received one day’s notice that the detainees would be arriving, effectively doubling the size of Sheridan's prison population.

Ever since, it's been an "evolving, fluid situation," Schweiner said, with the Bureau of Prisons doing its best to accommodate the detainees.

The priority has been safety, she told Simon, and there has been no intent to obstruct anyone’s constitutional rights.

"Nobody has ever said, You're not going to get a lawyer,'" Schweiner said in court. "If they want a lawyer, they're going to get one."

Schweiner also said there's been no damage or injury to the detainees in Sheridan. "All are being detained right now for the purposes of deportation," she said. "The process hasn't even started yet."

Keith Ketterling, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told the judge that people have been in their cells for up to 23 hours per day without access to lawyers.

"I don't know how you can say there's been no damage," Ketterling said. "How is that not a damage?"

Judge Simon also asked Schweiner about President Trump's Sunday tweet that suggested people who come to the United States should be deported without any court hearing.

"What am I to make of that statement?" Simon asked.

"I'm not going to try and purport the meaning of the president," Schweiner said. Rather, she said there was no connection between Trump's tweet and access for immigration attorneys at Sheridan.

Hay, with the public defenders office, said in court that the federal prison in Sheridan isn't set up for civil immigration detention.

"This is a problem of the government's creation," she said.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.