Immigration lawyers say nearly two dozen of the 123 immigrant detainees being held at a federal correctional facility in Sheridan, Oregon, have passed what are known as credible fear interviews, which help determine whether an immigrant may be eligible for asylum.
Asylum officers will now refer those detainees' cases to an immigration judge for a full hearing on whether or not they should be released from detention in Sheridan.
The 123 men have been held for nearly two months. Attorneys have said that nearly all of the men in Sheridan are seeking asylum and that the majority of them have not be criminally charged.
Forty-two additional detainees in Sheridan are expected to complete their interviews by the end of Friday.
"The credible fear interview is a really important step, because if they receive a positive determination, then we can begin to work on requesting their release," said Victoria Muirhead, development director of the Innovation Law Lab, which is providing pro bono legal help to detainees in Sheridan.
"Even though the interviews just began this past Tuesday, there's been a fairly quick turnaround in receiving some of those results."
The ACLU of Oregon and other advocates for the men say it’s very unusual to house asylum seekers in a federal prison, especially if they don’t have a pending criminal charges against them. Additionally, authorities at the border separated some of the men from their families.
While lawyers are now preparing the approved 20 detainees for hearings before a judge, detainees who pass credible fear interviews remain in detention. That's been the case since before President Donald Trump took office.
"Getting a positive decision on the credible fear interview is a step toward being released, but doesn't mean the person will be released," said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Baron said a person who passes their credible fear interview can then ask Immigration and Customs Enforcement for release on parole and, in some cases, also seek release through a bond hearing.
"But we've had immigrant judges up here in our area deny bond even in cases where the person had a positive credible fear determination," he said.
Pro bono immigration lawyers were granted access to the 123 men inside the Sheridan facility late last month after weeks of being denied entry to the facility.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon granted a temporary order that forced the government to allow immigration attorneys access to the detainees, some of whom were arrested as part of the Trump administration’s tougher immigration policy.
That order, which was supposed to expire next week, was extended through July 30.
Oregon's federal public defenders have filed petitions casting new light on the conditions inside the prison — and more are expected, said Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Oregon.
Among the complaints outlined in federal court documents are thoughts of suicide, hours of confinement and denial of medical care.
"As we understand, those [petitions] are only the beginning of many more petitions to be coming on behalf of these asylum seekers being held inside a federal prison," he said.