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Fight Over Access To ICE Detainees Goes Before Federal Judge

<p>The Federal Correctional Institutional in Sheridan, Oregon.</p>

Ericka Cruz Guevarra

The Federal Correctional Institutional in Sheridan, Oregon.

A federal judge will hear arguments Monday that could force the federal government to allow lawyers access to immigration detainees being housed at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon.

For weeks, immigration attorneys say, they've been turned away from the prison outside Salem while trying to represent more than 120 detainees being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Most of the men being detained are asylum seekers, according to lawyers seeking access to them. Also, those attorneys say, none of the detainees have pending criminal charges that would justify keeping them behind bars. Lawyers with the ACLU of Oregon said it’s highly unusual to hold asylum seekers in a federal prison, especially ones who don’t have a pending criminal charge.

Attorneys with the Oregon Federal Public Defenders Office and the Mexican Consulate in Portland are among the few that have been allowed inside to meet with the detainees.

The ACLU of Oregon filed a lawsuit Friday arguing the federal government is violating the constitutional rights of immigration detainees at the federal prison. The suit was filed on behalf of immigration attorneys and one of the detainees at the Sheridan prison. As part of the lawsuit, plaintiffs asked U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon for a temporary restraining order to allow the immigration attorneys inside the prison.

On Sunday, the federal government responded to the lawsuit. Government attorneys wrote that officials at Sheridan learned on May 30 they were receiving approximately 130 ICE detainees.

"Due to the limited information ."

The government said in court papers that "both social and legal visits" take place for "alien detainees" on weekday afternoons.

But attorneys representing the immigration attorneys say visits are not happening at Sheridan for the ICE detainees.

"What the government says and what it does are two different things," said Nadia Dahab, attorney for the Innovation Law Lab, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

"We have been asking for our clients’ respective constitutional rights, which repeatedly have been promised and ignored, finally be ordered by the U.S. District Court," she wrote in an email Sunday. "We are only seeking constitutional rights to which all persons are entitled. It simply is not enough for the Government to now say that it will provide the rights in the future — those rights should have been provided from the beginning of the detention process."

Government lawyers also wrote that officials at the Sheridan prison plan to expand visitation hours later this week, following a "security assessment."

The detainees in Oregon arrived more than two weeks ago. Some of the men were separated from their families as part of the Trump administration's new "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

Earlier this month, some 1,600 ICE detainees stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border were sent to federal prisons in five states, including more than 200 at the SeaTac federal detention center near Seattle and 800 at a federal prison in Victorville, California.

Immigration attorneys in Washington have been granted access to detainees. Lawyers in California have not, though on Thursday a federal judge approved a temporary restraining order granting attorney access to the federal prison.

Also Sunday, Lisa Hay, Oregon's federal public defender filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the attorneys and detainees.

"The stakes in immigration proceedings may be greater than those at issue in criminal proceedings," Hay wrote in court filings. "And the stakes can be exponentially higher in the asylum context."

Hay's office does not practice immigration law but has been allowed access to observe conditions and confirm whether or not people are seeking asylum. In her brief, Hay wrote that the detainees are being treated like prisoners.

"After the difficulties that brought them to the border, the detainees have experienced highly punitive conditions of confinement," Hay wrote. Those include living three men to a cell, eating next to their toilets in crowded cells, strip searches after meetings with attorneys from her office and wearing prison uniforms.

"Under these circumstances, many of the Sheridan detainees are experiencing stress that exacerbates an already difficult situation," Hay wrote.

The hearing on Monday begins at 8 a.m.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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