More than 100 asylum seekers are being held inside a federal men’s prison in rural Oregon, many of them separated from their families and denied legal counsel and access to medical care for their injuries, according to civil rights activists and immigration lawyers.
The activists, lawyers and members of the American Civil Liberties Union say they have been unable to gain access to the medium-security prison in Sheridan, Ore., where 123 immigrants, most of them asylum seekers, have been held since mid-May.
The men are from 13 different countries, including India, China, Honduras and Guatemala. Several are Mexican nationals who told family members they had sought asylum with their families at an official border crossing in San Diego, Calif. Activists said the men had been taken from their families and held for days before being sent to Oregon, despite statements by White House officials that migrants claiming asylum at legal ports of entry would not be separated from their children.
Immigration advocates said the men were being held in their cells for 23 hours a day, with no access to phone calls.
Two of the men had been shot – one in the right leg, the other in the neck – and appeared to require medical care, said Luis Garcia, an immigration lawyer who was able to visit some of the Mexican detainees as part of a delegation from the Mexican consulate.
Some of the men told Mr. Garcia they had not been able to contact their families. ”One of the men broke down in tears and pleaded with me to help him locate his family because he didn’t even know if they were well,” he said. “He didn’t know if their baby was doing OK.”
Immigration authorities have been scrambling to find enough spaces in detention centres to handle an influx of asylum seekers arriving at the Mexican border since Attorney-General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy in April, saying anyone who crossed the border illegally would be detained and criminally prosecuted.
Almost 2,000 children were separated from their parents between mid-April and the end of May as part of the policy, with parents held in federal jails and children sent to shelters. The practice of separating families, which drew widespread condemnation, was ended by an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said the agency is working with the U.S. Marshals Service, federal prison system and private detention centres to house more than 1,600 adults in prisons, which she said is “intended to be a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides.”
The agency recently contracted 130 beds inside the prison in Sheridan, a rural community of 6,000 people 45 kilometres outside Salem.
The Oregon detainees were given the same treatment as federal inmates and the facility has legal visitation hours for attorneys three days a week, the ICE official said.
Not all of the men were apprehended at the Mexican border, the spokeswoman said, but she could not specify how many had been taken into custody at official border crossings, or had been separated from their families.
The fact that detainees are being housed in federal prisons is “incredibly alarming, considering the majority are asylum seekers who presented at ports of entry,” said Ian Philabaum, program director at Innovation Law Lab, an Oregon legal non-profit group.
He was part of a group of immigration lawyers hoping to work pro bono for the detainees. The group said it has been turned away three times from the facility, as recently as Monday, although some detainees had been given access to federal public defenders.
Mr. Philabaum blamed the White House for using federal prisons and family separation as a way to deter future immigrants from trying to claim asylum in the U.S.
“If you hear that you are going to be thrown in a federal prison upon your arrival, that might make you think twice,” he said. “That is part of the reason why we think their children are being used as negotiation leverage, and in a horrifying and really disgusting way, to try to get people to leave the country.”