This summer, at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it needed more detention space. So the agency turned to federal prisons for help.
In early June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced it would send up to 1,600 immigrant detainees to five federal prisons in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Texas. Attorneys say such a large-scale use of federal prisons to house ICE detainees was unprecedented.
Many of these detainees are seeking asylum. But the administration is now detaining many asylum seekers, rather than releasing them as they have in the past to await immigration court hearings.
“These individuals … haven’t been charged with any crimes, but they are being incarcerated in a federal prison and treated as such,” says Corene Kendrick, a staff attorney at the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley, Calif.
Kendrick is working with the ACLU and represents immigrant detainees held at a prison in Victorville, Calif..
“There are different legal standards for people who are sent to prison as punishment versus individuals who are being detained civilly,” she says.
Many immigrants are also held in ICE detention centers around the country, but attorneys say that is not the same as prison. For one thing, immigration detention centers are typically less restrictive. In addition, there are usually immigration attorneys and judges on site in detention centers, so immigrants can get through the process faster.
Some immigrants housed in prison were held three to a cell for up to 23 hours a day, according to court filings. Immigrant detainees also complain in lawsuits about the conditions in prison. Some say they were denied medical care. One immigrant attempted suicide.
At a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore. the inmate population has roughly doubled since last spring.
“I think these individuals are languishing in these prisons,” says Matt Adams, legal director for the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. The federal prison in Sheridan, Ore. is roughly 5 hours away from Portland and more than 2 hours away from the state capitol, Salem. “They don’t have judges out there, they don’t have ICE officers out there. So … everything is delayed.”
The government argues that putting immigrants in prison is not punitive. In an emailed statement, ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell says immigrants are not being denied due process. She says the agency is expanding detention space at the direction of President Trump, after he signed an executive order on border security in January, 2017.
“… agency officials are in the midst of examining a variety of detention models to determine which models would best meet anticipated detention needs. As new options are explored, ICE’s commitment to maintaining excellent facilities and providing first-class medical care to those in our custody remains unchanged.”
Seeking asylum from violence in Cameroon
One immigrant trying to get released, Ndeli Albert Mukete, is from Cameroon. In January, he got some disturbing news.
Government security forces went into his village, Kwakwa. They shot and killed his brother. They beat and arrested his mother and sister and burned his family’s house with his grandfather inside.
“The entire house was set on fire,” he says over the phone frominside the prison. “Everything burned down to ashes.”
Human Rights Watch documented the attack in a report released in July.
Mukete was out of the country at the time, and he knew he couldn’t go back. If he returns to Cameroon he fears he’ll be killed or arrested, like the rest of his family.
He’s a member of the English-speaking minority in Cameroon, which is seeking to break away from the French majority and form its own country. In recent years, the division has led to violence.
“I did not know anything to do,” he says. “I thought to myself and I pray to God.”
In May, Mukete traveled to the U.S. Mexico border in Tijuana.
“I’m a refugee looking for safety,” he told U.S. officials at a San Diego port of entry, where he asked for asylum. He’s been detained ever since at the Sheridan federal prison.
He told his attorney he came here because the United States has “‘the human rights.'”
Rush to prepare
Officials at the Sheridan prison were given a one-day notice to prepare for the influx of immigrant detainees.
“We saw in late May, about 100 mattresses being delivered there, so we knew something was happening,” says Lisa Hay, who heads up Oregon’s office of Federal Public Defenders.
The new arrivals at the prison were some 120 ICE detainees from 16 different countries.
Hay says it’s been frustrating for the prison and for the lawyers trying to help.
“In fact when I first went in, they escorted us out and said ‘these people don’t get lawyers,'” she says.
The administration’s new plan set off a number of legal battles.
Hay and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued. It took a federal judge to force the government to allow immigration lawyers inside the Sheridan prison as well as into the federal prison housing detainees in Victorville, Calif.
Mukete is now one of public defender Hay’s clients. At first, Hay says, many of the detainees in the prison were confused about why and how they ended up in a federal prison in Oregon.
“When we first went out it felt almost like Amnesty International where we were telling them where they were; we were trying to talk to them through interpreters to explain this wasn’t normal — that they were locked up, but it wasn’t the usual process,” she says “Then we also let them know that we could call their families and let them know they were alive.”
Hay says those phone calls letting families around the world know their loved one was lock-up in an federal prison in Oregon were emotional.
She says prisons are not set up to house immigrant detainees.
“If you lock somebody up in a foreign country and cut them off from the outside world and don’t tell them the process they can use to end their incarceration, it’s going to cause all kinds of psychological trauma at the minimum,” she says. “A lot of the have also suffered physically. They’ve lost weight … suffered depression.”