'Through a translator, I was able to speak with several of the detainees from India who are seeking asylum.'
'I was saddened to hear the detainees tell us that they are being confined in their cells for up to 22 to 23 hours a day.'
52 Indians are among the 121 asylum-seekers held in an Oregon prison.
Rediff.com Senior Contributor Pottayil Rajendran reports from New York on the case that is making headlines in America, India, indeed around the world.
A judge issued an emergency temporary restraining order, allowing pro bono attorneys into the Federal Correctional Institution, a prison in Sheridan, Oregon, where 121 asylum-seekers, including 52 Indians, are being held in what Lisa Hay, the federal public defender, described as punitive conditions.
Speaking to the media outside the court, Leland Baxter-Neal, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, Oregon, said, 'We should all be concerned if the government is locking people in a federal prison without due process, being held for I believe now for 26 days, without appearing before any sort of a judge, and without having the opportunity to speak with an attorney. We are pleased that the court saw the dire circumstances at play here and granted our order.'
District Court Judge Michael Simon also stayed all deportation orders and any interviews related with those until the attorneys have had the opportunity to meet the immigrants, provide rights training and individual consultations.
The 52 Indians speak different languages, including Punjabi and Hindi, and come from different faiths, including Sikhism and Christianity.
The ACLU, working with the Portland-based Innovation Law Lab, argued that conditions were excessively punitive for asylum seekers, with the particularly egregious practices including dressing them in prisoner uniforms; strip searches after they meet with their lawyer; confinement to cells 22 hours per day and more; triple bunking in cells that are approximately 75 square feet; meals served in crowded cells next to the toilet; meals that fail to accommodate religiously-based dietary restrictions; limited or non-existent recreational opportunities; no access to phones during long portions of detention; no access to a library; no orientation or sufficient explanation of why they are there and what happens next; and, for some, being separated from their family.
The asylum-seekers' situation gained national attention when United States Senators Jeffrey Merkley and Ron Wyden and US Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, all from Oregon, visited the prison.
Rachel Bornstein, Bonamici's chief of staff, said they went there "because of deep concerns about the use of a federal prison in Oregon to house over 120 noncriminal immigrant detainees, including many who are seeking asylum and some who have been separated from their families."
Congresswoman Bonamici spoke with several men through a translator, Bornstein said.
"Unfortunately, she was unable to have in-depth individual conversations. None of the men she spoke to from India came to the US with other family members."
Bonamici's office provided a statement, saying, 'Through a translator, I was able to speak with several of the detainees from India who are seeking asylum. I was saddened to hear the detainees tell us that they are being confined in their cells for up to 22 to 23 hours a day.'
'Many of the men said they were not getting enough time outside of their cells, and even when they were outside the cells, they weren't going outdoors much at all. They had been there since May 31st.'
'During our conversation, many of the men stated they were Sikh, and one man said he was Christian. Some of the detainees said they did not have access to adequate vegetarian meals.'
'They stated they were seeking asylum because they lived in fear of attacks or religious persecution in their home country.'
'Many were concerned because they had not been able to make phone calls to their families in India to let them know they were alive. Some had said they had money in their commissary accounts for an international phone call, but they could not access a phone enabled to dial internationally.'
'Some had been in contact with the public defenders, but none had spoken with an immigration attorney about their asylum cases.'
'I support ending the zero tolerance policy and stopping the criminalisation of asylum-seekers. Alternatives to detention exist that operate with a high degree of effectiveness, don't traumatise children and families, and are far more cost effective.'
Indian consulate officials based in San Francisco also reportedly visited the prison, but were denied access, according to indicanews.com, a California-based news portal.
Speaking to Rediff.com later, Baxter-Neal said the American Civil Liberties Union heard that at the end of May that the federal government had transferred about 123 prisoners to the federal prison in Sheridan, part of a mass transfer.
ACLU officials who heard about the asylum-seekers tried to go to prison to inform them of their constitutionally guaranteed rights, Baxter-Neal said.
"After coordinating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) day after day we would go to the prison... After two weeks of this we got frustrated and filed a lawsuit," Baxter-Neal said.
The immediate result has been the court's restraining order.
Baxter-Neal said Hay, the public defender, who had access, faced her own problems, including a lack of interpreters.
Now ACLU and other organisations are coming together to organise attorneys and volunteers to help with the work.
Victoria Muirhead, development director at Innovation Law Lab, told Rediff.com that clergy, attorneys, volunteers, all are working together to make sure the rights are upheld.
She mentioned that the 121 immigrants came from 16 countries and spoke 13 languages.
Local people too have stepped up, holding prayers and other events before the institution.
Bahadur Singh, who owns convenience stores in the area, spoke of the Sunday service the Sikh community was organising with the Trinity Lutheran Church and other groups.
According to Jai Singh, a field organiser for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon working at the Sheridan prison, "The detainees have culturally specific needs that are not being met -- including translation services, legal assistance, and religious services."
"Isolating them from these resources is both illegal and inhumane," Jai Singh added. "They have rights as asylum-seekers that are being neglected. Seeking asylum is not a crime. Choosing to detain our communities in a federal prison and in essence criminalising them is racist."
APANO wants to source a network of volunteers to help and is pushing people to donate to Innovative Law Lab (external link) for a legal assistance fund, and directly to a fund to pay for commissary needs.
Oregon's history is rife with anti-immigrant sentiment, Jai Singh explained, specifically against Asians and Pacific Islanders.
"It's not surprising that this is happening in our backyard," Singh said, adding that APANO was fighting efforts that remove an 1987 statute (181A.820) that state agencies do not help find or arrest a foreign citizen who has only broken immigration laws.
Addressing the issue of immigrants from the subcontinent, he said, "South Asians have become some of the biggest users of this expanding immigration pipeline. In the 11 months ending August 2016, at least 4,060 Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalis and Pakistanis traveled to the US along this route, compared with just 225 seven years earlier, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics."
"Of those, 3,604 were arrested while crossing illegally, nearly a fourfold increase from 2012."
The Trump administration, Jai Singh said, has "unleashed a further militarised immigration force, set on tearing apart families and utilizing dangerous rhetoric to justify its attacks on immigrants."
"DHS's (the Department of Homeland Security) intentional infliction of trauma on families is nothing short of State-sponsored terror and is diametrically opposed to our moral and legal obligations to protect people from being forcibly returned to harm," Jai Singh said.
Asylum-seekers and refugees often flee conditions that are a result of previous US intervention and result in long-term, endemic challenges that require decades of recovery, he added.
Unauthorised crossings over the US-Mexico border has dropped, Singh said.
"The furor over the border 'crisis' is a government-manufactured one," he said, pointing out the 2014 case in El Paso, Texas, where 37 Sikhs who languished in jail for a year after seeking asylum went on a hunger strike to protest their condition.
"Ultimately, ICE officials negotiated an end to the hunger strike by promising to move cases to be heard for parole and bond hearings," Singh said, adding that, by contrast, in 2016, Bangladeshis who went on hunger strike because they did not receive due process were deported back home.
In 2016, Singh pointed out, India had 290 asylum-seekers, well behind China (3,207) and Haiti (326).
In financial year 2017, ICE incarcerated a daily average of 38,106 people, Singh said.
"Now the president is requesting that detention facilities be expanded to hold 52,000 individuals per day for FY 2019," Singh added.
After the court judgment, Baxter-Neal quoted President Trump -- specifically his tweet that called for sending back anyone illegally entering the country without having judges or due process play a role.
"The due process clause of the constitution (Section One of the 14th Amendment) applies to folk who have no legal status in this country," Baxter-Neal said, citing US supreme court decisions.
As far back as 1896, in Wong Win v. United States, the US supreme court said that 'even aliens shall not be held to answer for a capital or other infamous crime, unless on presentment or indictment of a grand jury, nor deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.'
That argument has been consistently affirmed by the court, with the most recent relevant case being Zadvydas v Davis, 2001.
According to the court's opinion there, 'The due process clause applies to all "persons" within the United States, including aliens, whether their presence here is lawful, unlawful, temporary, or permanent.'
It cited a number of cases and then quoted from Shaughnessy v Mezei, 'Aliens who have once passed through our gates, even illegally, may be expelled only after proceedings conforming to traditional standards of fairness encompassed in due process of law.'
"We cannot simply hold people in a federal prison, not allow them to see an attorney, and attempt to deport them, despite what the president believes," Baxter-Neal argued. "And we are very pleased the courts saw it that way as well."
Asylum facts and figures, 2016
Affirmative asylum FY 2016
- To affirmatively apply for asylum, a foreign national must submit Form I-589 within a year of their arrival in the United States.
- Of the 115,399 affirmative asylum applications filed in fiscal year 2016 only 11,729 were granted.
- A total of 699 South Asian asylees were granted affirmative asylum in fiscal year 2016: 44 were from Bangladesh, 174 from India, 236 from Nepal, 268 from Pakistan, 21 from Sri Lanka.
Defensive Asylum FY 2016
For asylum processing to be defensive, the foreign national must be in removal proceedings in immigration court.
In FY 2016, a total of 65,218 defensive asylum applications were filed and only 88,726 were granted.
Of those granted defensive asylum, 93 asylees were from Bangladesh, 309 from India, 265 from Nepal, 70 from Pakistan, 34 from Sri Lanka.