Attorneys say the Indians fled religious persecution under the BJP and endured harsh conditions once in the US, but could be out of prison as early as next week
“Here we have come to save our lives but I think we will die here in jail,” were the words of an asylum-seeking detainee at the Sheridan Federal Detention Center in Sheridan, Oregon. Out of 124 detainees, 52 asylum seekers are from India.
That bleak statement was part of a filing in federal court in Portland by William Teesdale, chief investigator for the federal public defender’s office in Oregon.
Members of The Innovation Law Lab, which interviewed detainees, termed the condition they are incarcerated as punitive and asserted said that the treatment meted out to asylum seekers is worse than those federal criminal prisoners do.
The group sees the conditions of as unconstitutional and so, July 18, filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of the detainees.
According to the petition, the detainees continue to express distress at their indefinite incarceration despite some improvements in their conditions. It states that group members heard reports that a detainee attempted suicide; that religious headwear is not accommodated; and that medical care is inadequate.
The asylum-seekers were brought to the jail with all their limbs handcuffed/ shackled on May 31 and have lived in cramped conditions for the past two months.
They said they were regularly stripped and searched, and that at mealtimes guards shouted at them to eat quickly and were given hardly 10 minutes to eat.
“We never get vegetarian food at all. They would serve us meat, sometimes beef and sometimes pig meat,” the detainees told the Innovation Lab attorneys. “And whenever we keep some fruits to eat later at night, they take that and throw it away.”
Asked if responses from any Sikh was in the petition, Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay told indica, “Yes, certainly some are Sikh.” But she declined to say anything more, adding, “We do not comment on pending litigation.”
Another detainee quoted in the petition, reportedly asked, “Why do they bring us here? We haven’t done any crime. But they treat us like criminals. We were not happy to leave our country. … We have heard that people living here behave very badly with Indians. Here they strip us down like criminals and because of that we feel very insulted. We wore dirty and stinky clothes for many days. They didn’t give clean clothes.”
They said because of the unsanitary condition of their clothing, they were prone to disease.
“We should know about our cases and be released from here as soon as possible. We are very sad and are sick,” another detainee said.
In a teleconference, July 20, Leland Baxter-Neal of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon, had said, “We believe it’s inhumane and unconstitutional. It still remains unclear why the Trump administration has chosen to transfer more than 120 individuals from the border to the federal prison.”
Jai Singh, a field organizer at the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon and another speaker at the teleconference, told indica they have launched a South Asian Sheridan Support Committee to help the Innovation Law Lab and, ultimately, the detainees.
Asked about the reported case of a turban being confiscated by guards, Singh said that might have been because a detainee tried to commit suicide but cautioned that it was still not clear what the cause was.
“We are training volunteers, collaborating with networks and focusing on a post-detention [system] to support the individuals find places to stay once they are released if there are no other sponsors to receive them,” he said.
“We are also concerned about the detainees being detained of access to clergy and religious leaders. However, at this time the Oregon South Asian support committee is focused on building a robust network for them,” he said.
While dealing with fear and uncertainty, one ray of hope for the detainees has been the likelihood of a deal with asylum officers that might see them released.
“We are anticipating it will be next week or so,” Singh said.
Victoria Muirhead, development director at the Innovation Law Lab told the media, the group’s 80 volunteers provide legal services to the detainees Monday through Saturday, doing 100 screenings in all.
Of 42 people interviewed by asylum officers Friday, 20 had received a positive response.
Describing why people from India were seeking asylum, Muirhead said, “In India there is political and religious persecution that is leading to people to come to the United States.” She said that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party there has been persecuting many individuals, particularly those who have different religious belief.
“We have encountered many such cases at the Sheridan,” she said.