Lawsuit Seeks Access to Immigrants

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- A rights group filed an emergency lawsuit in federal court Friday against top officials of U.S. immigration and homeland security departments, alleging they have unconstitutionally denied lawyers' access to immigrants in a prison in Oregon.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred 123 immigrants in early June to the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, because other holding facilities have been overloaded since the Trump administration enacted a "zero tolerance" policy in April involving people entering the U.S. illegally.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed the lawsuit in Portland on behalf of the detainees, who are mostly from Mexico and Central America. The lawyers say they've been denied meaningful access to the detainees, many of whom escaped violence in their home countries and are seeking asylum in the U.S.

"The U.S. Constitution protects everyone who is on U.S. soil," said Mat Dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon. "You have fundamental rights to due process of law. You can't just throw them in prison."

An interfaith group, meanwhile, announced it would be holding Sunday morning services outside the prison. The Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, which is organizing the services, is based in Portland.

"With Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions invoking Romans 13 to validate the immoral separation of immigrant children from their families, this can no longer be a time for 'business as usual' for Christian communities," said the Rev. Michael Ellick of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland.

Last week, Sessions cited a Bible verse urging obedience to the laws of government "for the purpose of order."

Among the people being held in the medium-security prison is Luis Javier Sanchez Gonzalez, whose family was separated at the border when they sought asylum at a port of entry, the ACLU said.

He and his partner, Xochitl Ramos Valencia, have two children, ages 1 and 5. Ramos Valencia has not been able to speak to Sanchez Gonzalez since they were separated, and their children are distraught since their father was taken away, the rights group said.

ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said she was unable to comment because of the pending litigation. There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Defendants named in the lawsuit are Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen; Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE; Sessions; and Hugh Hurwitz, acting director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, among others.

ICE said Monday that 123 detainees were in the prison, located 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Salem, the state capital. Bureau of Prisons pre-trial inmates who normally stay at the prison do not co-mingle with the ICE detainees.

A hearing on the lawsuit is set Monday, Dos Santos said at a news conference.

The lawsuit asks the court to provide the detainees with access to the prison's four attorney visitation rooms for a minimum of six hours a day for legal assistance; order installation of telephone lines capable of placing free direct calls to lawyers and allow detainees to access the phones; and take other actions.

The detainees need access to legal advice as they prepare for interviews with ICE officials who will assess whether each detainee faces a credible degree of fear if deported, the lawsuit says.

If they're not provided with legal counsel, the detainees "could face a real and imminent risk of deportation and, ultimately, physical harm, violence, or death," the lawsuit says.

(KA)