Bonamici Statement on Visit to 123 Immigrant Detainees at Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan

Congresswoman Bonamici (OR-01) visited 123 detained men at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, on June 16, 2018, with Senators Wyden and Merkley and Congressman Blumenauer.

The federal prison in Oregon is surrounded by layers of barbed wire. The security is extremely tight. They carefully checked our IDs, sent us through a metal detector, and stamped our hands. Then we entered a separate room where we were shut in until an ultraviolet light checked our hands. Armed guards are everywhere.

We walked down a long hallway and into a large common room where half of the group of immigrant detainees was waiting. We were there to see more than 120 men who came to the United States seeking a better life. Most were asking for asylum because they experienced violence or persecution in their home countries. Several had traveled to the border with a wife and a child or children; none knew where their family members are.

The men were divided into groups by native language. First we spoke with Spanish speakers who were separated from their families. We asked them why they left their home countries and what they expected would happen to them if they were sent back. One man said that gangs had burned his property, which is a sign that they were going to come and kill him. He sought safety for himself and his family in the United States, but instead of getting an opportunity to make a case to an immigration judge, he was separated from his wife and child and incarcerated in a federal prison. One of the men we spoke with came here with his wife and two children, ages 5 and 18 months. They were separated at the border and he did not know where any of them were.

To clarify — it is not a crime to come to the United States to seek asylum; in fact, it is a right provided by international treaty.

The next group we spoke with was from India. This is the largest group of detainees being held in Sheridan. Through our Punjabi translator, we learned that these men were planning to request asylum because they faced severe religious persecution in India. Most are Sikh or Christian. Instead they were incarcerated in a federal prison. They said they came to the United States for religious freedom, but they felt as if they were “going crazy” because they are being confined in small cells for up to 22 hours a day. (They pointed out that the other non-immigrant prisoners get far more time out of cells.)

Our visit continued with people from Nepal, China, and several African countries. After the first large common room, we went across a courtyard into a second room with the other half of the immigrant detainees.

A gay man from Honduras told me he was not accepted in his country, and feared for his life if he had to go back. Another Spanish-speaking man showed us where he had been shot, twice. When asked if he was able to see a doctor, he said no. Another man lifted his pant leg and showed us what looked like an open wound on his leg. He hadn’t seen a doctor, either.

Most of the men told us that they had not spoken with a lawyer who could explain their rights. Only one showed us a lawyer’s business card. They said that it was hard to make calls; they either didn’t have money for phone calls or didn’t know who to call. One man said he was given a piece of paper with a lawyer’s phone number, but it was with his clothes and they took his clothes away.

These stories we heard were compelling and disturbing. These men were victims of horrific crimes or unbearable persecution. Instead of getting information about their rights to request asylum, they were treated as criminals.

Again — it is not a crime to come to the United States and request asylum.

And even if they are not able to win their case in front of an immigration judge, they have the right to make that case. And they certainly should not be incarcerated in prisons and separated from their families while their cases are pending.

I am extremely concerned about their children, especially young children, and their families. The unnecessary and cruel trauma will have detrimental consequences for the children for years to come. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said separating families will cause irreparable harm, which all parents understand instinctively.

And I’m also very concerned about the rights of the men and how they are being treated. We heard that someone at the prison told some of the men that if they didn’t sign a voluntary agreement for deportation, they could be in the federal prison for five years. With the stress of being incarcerated, two men signed. That kind of coercion is unacceptable, and likely illegal.

The United States of America was built by immigrants and has for centuries offered immigrants an opportunity to build a life with freedom and hard work. That’s the American Dream. Today the Trump Administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are turning a blind eye to our nation’s history and causing long-term damage to innocent children. It’s abhorrent and it must stop now.