Sheridan Sikhs detainees get their religious effects

After weeks of protest and a lawsuit, the Federal Bureau of Prisons finally released the material brought in weeks ago

 

Ritu Jha

 

Sikh asylum-seekers held at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution serving for months finally saw their religious rights respected.

The prison took the step after an outcry by several civil rights organizations and after Lisa Hay, the federal public defender for Oregon sought a court order directing the government to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of ICE detainees.

The asylum-seekers are in prison as a result of the President Trump’s administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration. The 121 immigrants and asylum-seekers from 16 countries in all were brought in May 31 to the Sheridan facility. Of these, 52 were from India, a majority of them being Sikhs.

Past Friday, they were given headscarves and turbans, according to the Federal Bureau of Prison.

Asked why the Sikh detainees were not allowed to wear headscarves, a press representative of the bureau replied, “ Upon arrival at FCI Sheridan, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detainees were not wearing turbans.”

“This past Friday, religious services staff have arranged for turbans to be distributed to interested Sikh detainees,” the officer said, without explaining why the headscarves were not distributed earlier, despite being brought in several weeks ago.

Public defender Hay declined to comment to indica, saying that she could not discuss pending litigation. She has filed a motion for emergency interim relief and an order requiring religious accommodation to ICE detainees.

The Federal Bureau of Prison did not respond to indica’s questions about concerns about the food served, with many detainees staying hungry and living on three slices of cucumber and bread. According to the reports from the Federal Public Defender and other lawyers detail a slew of violations of the men’s constitutional freedoms and basic human rights have resulted in many of them sinking into depression.

According to the lawsuit filed in the first weeks after their arrival on May 31, the detainees were not allowed to contact anyone in the outside world, the Sikhs’ turbans and other religious material were taken away when they were taken into custody, and many detainees were unable to communicate with the authorities unschooled in their native languages.

According to the complaint, the custodians failed to advise detainees of what rights they had, how to seek religious accommodations, and what accommodations could be made. Although some punitive conditions have been ameliorated, the inability to fully practice their religions has been very distressful to the detainees.

Clergies along with interfaith leaders demanding the release of asylum seekers in Sheridan, Aug. 7.

Meanwhile, August 7, leaders of the clergy and people of faith with the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ) in Oregon, called for an “August of Action,” and an end to immigrant detention.

They walked to the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to request a meeting with Acting Regional Director Elizabeth Godfrey, demanding the release of over 100 asylum-seeking individuals at the Sheridan prison.

“Three clergies were arrested at the ICE building in Portland. They were there to demand the release of the asylum seekers at Sheridan prison,” Sarah Armstrong, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, told indica.

Reverend Michael Ellick said in a press statement, “We won’t let the Pharaohs of today rest until freedom is secured for all of God’s people, and we’re willing to put our bodies on the line for this.”

Meanwhile, lawyers from Innovation Law Lab reported early this week that all of more than 70 individuals they are representing at Sheridan have passed their credible fear interviews, and said that they hoped Godfrey will release the men into the care of the community.

Care packet prepared for Sikh asylum seekers by APANO, a social justice non-profit organization.

Jai Singh, field organizer for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon sounded skeptical when asked if the detainees would be released early. He told indica that the community was waiting for the detainees to be released soon, though, and are preparing for that.

“This is so unprecedented that it’s hard to say [when they will be released]. There is no timeline in this kind of situation,” he said. “It could be a long process.”

Singh said the group has got five sponsors to support the Sikh detainees, and more than 100 volunteers to support the detainees. The Dashmesh Darbar Sikh temple in Salem, Oregon, has agreed to shelter 25 detainees if and when they are released.

“[In preparation], we have delivered 25 care packages carrying toothpaste, brush, gift card and snacks to the gurdwara this Saturday,” Singh said.

“They can stay as long they need,” he said, explaining that the gurdwara has a kitchen, and enough other rooms and bathrooms.

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