Seeking asylum in Oregon

The ICE detainees of Sheridan

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Courtesy Doug Brown

More than 120 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees were imprisoned in May 2018 in Sheridan, Ore., after seeking asylum in the United States. The guests of a Portland church, First Unitarian Portland, have hosted 11 asylees for one to five nights. Nine more men are expected to join.

In late August, 87 percent of men represented by the legal group Innovation Law Lab held in detention were released. As court hearings for the remaining asylees press on, some of the released men have taken residence at First Unitarian. Growing respite efforts led to the contact between First Unitarian Portland and the legal group. Staffed with 50 congregants and community members assisting in the endeavor, First Unitarian opened its doors to the former detainees while their sponsors coordinated travel arrangements.

As Innovation Law Lab searched for attorneys, legal assistants and interpreters for their legal efforts, over 900 volunteers responded to the request for assistance. Volunteers have since completed 101 legal screenings, 202 legal meetings, defended clients at 85 credible fear interviews—a process in which asylees verify a credible fear of returning to their country of origin—and initiated release applications for every client. These ventures were done in nine different languages.

While the legal group continues its pro bono representation of the remaining prisoners in Sheridan, the congregation has committed $4,000 to Innovation Law Lab, helping to secure bonds for the release of their clients.

The 87 percent of prisoners released were all under the representation of Innovation Law Lab. As the court hearings persist, the legal group has arranged the Law Lab Bond to create a new system for the U.S. bond process.

After the experience in Sheridan and several other detention centers in the U.S., Innovation Law Lab founded the Bond as a way to create a legacy for immigration justice. “[Innovation Law Lab] has provided pro bono representation for 80 of the 120 men unjustly detained in Sheridan,” said Social Justice Director of First Unitarian Dana Buhl. “They have been the lead force in getting into Sheridan and being sure that all of the men detained had access to due process of law.”

Buhl was part of the initial organizational meeting assembled in August as Innovation Law Lab began planning the response to the asylees still being held in Sheridan. “We have been a part of the ongoing immigration justice, participating in ICE vigils before Occupy ICE happened,” she said. “It was a natural progression to host as many asylees as needed.”

Along with providing a well-kept environment and assisting with travel arrangements, First Unitarian has also addressed the religious and spiritual needs of their guests. “I’ve heard their stories of resilience, the relationships that they have formed together while in prison, the challenge of keeping hope and the separation of family. I can hear their anguish,” she said.

First Unitarian is only one part of a larger network of community and interfaith groups working towards resolutions while housing former detainees in the interim. Another organization involved is the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, “one of the lead community collaborators,” as stated by Buhl.

Most of the men hosted at the organization are from Southeast Asia, having suffered the same detainment the men residing at First Unitarian faced. APANO was in conjunction with the Sikh temple in Salem that was also assisting these men upon release, Buhl stated. Along with IMIrJ, Unidos Bridging Community and the Rural Organizing Project gave considerable assistance as well.

As part of a larger seven-day protest called “Sheridan to NORCOR”—NORCOR being the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles, Ore.— a rally was scheduled for Oct. 1 outside the Sheridan prison. However, that demonstration was cancelled in order to protest outside the Washington County Courthouse after ICE detained another two people.

Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, a coalition of individuals and leaders of diverse faiths working in Oregon with northwest and national affiliates, has been another necessary piece in building a response to ICE. In partnership with Innovation Law Lab, the IMIrJ has dedicated time reaching out to other organizations in hopes of building respite efforts for asylees.

Outside the prison, vigils and marches continue, keeping asylum detention by ICE visible to the community in Sheridan and the greater public.

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