This spring, the Trump administration secretly transferred 124 asylum seekers from the border to a federal prison in rural Oregon. Fleeing violence and persecution in more than 16 countries, most had presented lawfully at ports of entry to request asylum—but found themselves in horrifying conditions inside a prison, where they were barred from meeting with attorneys.
After multiple attempts to meet with the imprisoned asylum seekers, we filed an emergency lawsuit to put an immediate end to the unconstitutional denial of attorney access. A federal judge sided with us and forced the government to allow attorneys in to see the detained men.
This week, six months after we filed that lawsuit, we filed to dismiss it. Today, not a single immigration detainee is left inside the Sheridan prison. The vast majority have been released according to law to live with family, friends, or sponsors while they pursue their asylum claims in immigration court. This incredible result is the product of an unprecedented collaboration between volunteers, advocates, lawyers, and community organizations across the state—and, of course, the courageous perseverance of the asylum seekers themselves.
As we have said before, our country should be a beacon of hope for immigrants fleeing violence and persecution. Instead, 124 people seeking refuge at our border were imprisoned here in our state.
According to court documents, prison officials were told of the transfer just 24 hours before the asylum-seekers were brought to the prison. The men, speaking thirteen different languages, were locked three-to-a-cell-for up to 22 or 23 hours per day, forced to eat meals next to the open toilet in their cell, denied religiously appropriate meals or an adequate place to pray, denied religious clothing such as turbans, and provided inadequate medical care, among other concerns. The detained immigrants described mental anguish, thoughts of suicide, and fear and confusion over their treatment. Some were separated from their families.
Shortly after imprisoning the asylum seekers at Sheridan, the government began immigration proceedings that could result in the men’s deportation back to the very countries they were fleeing. The nationally renowned immigration nonprofit Innovation Law Lab made a bold promise to represent every asylum seeker person detained Sheridan, but the prison barred the men from accessing legal counsel.
When we and our cooperating attorneys at the law firm Stoll Berne went to court, the government argued, among other things, that the detainees had no right to attorneys. The day before the hearing on our emergency motion, President Trump tweeted,
“We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.”
At the conclusion of our hearing, the judge recognized that denying access to counsel was unconstitutional and granted our request for legal visitation. Despite the president’s tweet, there would be due process, as the Constitution provides for all people in the United States.
The Trump administration believed it could use Oregon to play games with the lives and rights of 124 asylum seekers. But thanks to the incredible outpouring of community support and the zealous lawyering of volunteer advocates, 100 percent of the asylum seekers who had access to attorneys were found to have a credible asylum claim and were cleared to make their case in immigration court. We came together to stand up for our values in Oregon, and successfully pushed back on one of the worst abuses of the Trump administration.