At least five of the men being held at a federal prison in Oregon claim they sought asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry in southern California, along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to an immigration attorney.
After they presented themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents, they were detained, the attorney said.
Two of the men said they were separated from their families.
“Those that came with families, with their spouse and children were immediately separated and since that moment they have not heard from them, they have not seen them, they have no way of knowing where they are,” Luis M. Garcia, an immigration attorney based in Lake Oswego.
As recently as Monday, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said the agency is not separating families that seek asylum at ports of entry.
"And finally, DHS is not separating families legitimately seeking asylum at ports of entry," DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters at the White House on Monday. "If an adult enters at a port of entry and claims asylum, they will not face prosecution for illegal entry. They have not committed a crime by coming to the port of entry."
On Wednesday, DHS said in an email that there are some circumstances where they separate children and guardians who claim asylum at ports of entry.
"DHS does have a responsibility to protect minors we apprehend and will separate in three circumstances: 1) when DHS is unable to determine the familial relationship, 2) when DHS determines that a child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian, or 3) when the parent or legal guardian is referred for criminal prosecution," a spokesperson said to OPB in an email.
In April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a zero tolerance immigration policy. The policy calls for anyone entering the United States unlawfully to be criminally prosecuted. Parents and children crossing the border together have also been separated from one another.
Earlier this month, ICE announced it was going to send some 1,600 immigration detainees arrested along the U.S.-Mexico board to to federal prisons in five states. Currently, there are 123 people being held at the Sheridan Corrections Institution in Oregon and 203 people at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center in Seattle.
Access to the detainees at the Sheridan prison has been extremely difficult.
Immigration attorneys in Oregon tried Monday for the third time to meet with the men that are being held at the federal prison and who, so far, largely seem to be seeking asylum. But the attorneys were turned away by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There have been three attempts over the last two weeks to enter the facility all of which were coordinated and communicated with ICE officials locally,” said Ian Philabaum, program director at Innovation Law Lab, a Portland-based immigration firm.
Garcia was granted access to the Sheridan prison as part of a delegation with the Mexican Consulate. He said the two men who were separated from their families had not been provided with any way to contact them.
One man’s youngest child was about 18 months old, Garcia said.
“One of the men broke down in tears and pleaded with me to help him locate his family because he didn’t even know if they were well,” Garcia said. “He didn’t even know if their baby was doing OK.”
ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said the agency is working to get detainees legal representation.
“ICE is currently coordinating with the [Bureau of Prisons] and working to ensure that detainees have appropriate access to their legal representatives,” Cutrell wrote in an email. “Bureau of Prisons facilities are governed by BOP standards, and the inmate handbook applies to ICE detainees currently housed at these facilities.”
The detainees in Sheridan come from 16 countries and speak 13 different languages.
Detainees are from countries like China, Mexico, Russia, Armenia and Eritrea, said Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender.
Unlike immigration attorneys, her office has been able to meet with 66 of the detainees.
“We’re not asking them about their immigration claims other than if they’re trying to stay here and seek asylum,” Hay said Tuesday, just after returning from meeting some of the detainees in Sheridan. “We’re trying to understand the conditions they're being kept under right now and whether they’re so punitive it would violate the Constitution.”
Detainees are housed three to a cell, almost all day, she said. They wear prison jumpsuits and at times have been transported in chains, Hay said.
The detainees are only being allowed out of their cells for 15 minutes at a time, three times per day, she said, adding that some are getting more time out of their cells.
“They all have to eat in [their cells],” Hay said. “They have to eat their food next to their open toilet bowl, which is not only not hygienic but a terrible way to treat people who are seeking asylum.”
Hay said her office is considering a lawsuit. She said the federal prison isn’t set up for civil immigration detention.
In Seattle, immigration attorneys have had more success in meeting with detainees at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center.
All of the 203 adults at SeaTac are working through the asylum process, said Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is representing detainees at the SeaTac facility.
Most detainees are from Central America. Adams said 75 percent of the people he's met with were criminally prosecuted after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Most were sentenced to time served or a few days jail time.
"All of them completed their sentences and then after that they were transferred to SeaTac," he said. “So the imprisonment that's now being imposed upon them has nothing to do with the criminal prosecution. It's only because the current administration is insisting on detaining and separating families during the asylum process."
Adams said some of his clients tried to turn themselves in at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, but were refused. Those that entered anyway and then claimed asylum were criminally charged, he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that detainees were at times transported wearing chains.