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After Weeks Of Trying, Immigration Attorneys Gain Access To ICE Detainees In Oregon

After weeks of being denied entry, attorneys were finally allowed to meet with more than 120 immigration detainees who have been held at the federal prison in Sheridan for the last 27 days.

Immigration attorneys had been repeatedly turned away at the prison entrance. But on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon granted a temporary order that forced the government to allow immigration attorneys access to the detainees; some of whom were arrested as part of the Trump administration's zero tolerance immigration policy.

Attorneys said Tuesday they were able to meet with about 25 of the men being held at the prison.

Erin Pettigrew, an attorney with the Innovation Law Lab in Portland, said language barriers were a significant hurdle.

"There are individuals who speak Punjabi, Hindi, Nepali, Spanish and French, and addressing the legal needs and answering their questions has proven challenging," Pettigrew said. "We're doing our best."

She said "nearly the entire group" of men in Sheridan is seeking asylum, and the "majority that we know of" have not been charged criminally.

"None have seen a judge to date," she said.

The ACLU of Oregon and others say it's very unusual to house asylum seekers in a federal prison, especially if they don't have a pending criminal charge. Additionally, authorities at the border separated some of the men from their families.

On Monday, Simon ordered phone lines that can call translation services be installed in the attorney visitation rooms at Sheridan. Pettigrew said when attorneys arrived Tuesday, prison officials were still working to provide the phones.

The Bureau of Prisons didn't immediately respond to an interview request.

On Monday in court, Dianne Schweiner, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, said officials at Sheridan got one day's notice that the immigration detainees would be arriving.

"This is an extremely fluid situation," Schweiner said. "We're doing the best we can, especially BOP who doubled their population with a day's notice."

The attorneys on Tuesday said they were able to do basic immigration presentations for the detainees.

"What I felt overwhelmingly from that group, was a great degree of confusion, distress and anguish," Pettigrew said. "The question that we got over and over again, was: 'How long am I going to be here? And what should I expect the process to look like?'"

Pettigrew said it's frustrating to not know the answer.

During her visit, Pettigrew met with three fathers, all who had been separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. She said the children were all under the age of 7.

In some cases, she said, it was three weeks before the men were allowed to speak to their spouses or children.

"As a result, they all expressed they experienced a great deal of anxiety, feelings of frustration and guilt, and also difficulty sleeping at night knowing that they had no idea where their kids were or how they were doing," Pettigrew said.

The children of the three men are now with family, she added.

Since their arrival, the 10 detainees who are Mexican nationals have been able to meet briefly with immigration attorneys as part of a visit by Mexican Consulate officials. The Oregon Federal Public Defender's Office has also met with many of the detainees, but their office doesn't assist with asylum claims or practice immigration law.

While some of the men in the prison were arrested along the U.S.-Mexico border, Pettigrew said she's not sure that's the case for everyone there. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred many of the detainees from New York to Sheridan, she said.

"There's a very diverse population at Sheridan right now that have not only come from all over the world, but have also come from all different parts of the United States," Pettigrew said.

Attorneys plan to return to Sheridan on Wednesday and meet with more potential clients.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Conrad Wilson is a reporter and producer covering criminal justice and legal affairs for OPB.
Kate Davidson is OPB’s business and economics reporter. Before moving to Oregon, she was a regular contributor to "Marketplace", a reporter at Michigan Radio focused on economic change in the industrial Midwest and a producer at NPR.