ACLU Files Brief in Support of Religious Freedom of Detained Immigrants at Sheridan Prison

Federal Public Defender, ACLU Say Immigrants Are Barred from Practicing Faiths at Federal Prison

Affiliate: ACLU of Oregon
August 1, 2018 2:00 pm

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed a friend-of-the-court brief last night urging the court to order officials at the Sheridan Detention Center to allow detained immigrants to freely practice their religions. The ACLU brief was filed in support of petitions for habeas corpus filed by the Federal Public Defender for the District of Oregon on behalf of 74 immigrant detainees.

The detained immigrants at Sheridan “have been unable to engage in basic religious practices, such as praying, attending religious services, wearing religious headgear, complying with religious dietary mandates, reading religious texts, possessing items of religious significance, and visiting with clergy,” the ACLU wrote in the brief.

“Our country was founded on the belief that everyone is entitled to religious freedom,” said Heather L. Weaver, attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “Denying these men the fundamental right to practice their faith makes a mockery of our most cherished principles.”

The Federal Public Defender petitions reveal that several of the men practice Sikhism. Some of the Sikh men describe being unable to practice core tenets of their faith, including wearing a turban to cover their hair. The prison denied turbans to the asylum-seekers despite the Bureau of Prisons having an express policy that allows religious headwear, including turbans. The ACLU brief says subjecting the detained immigrants to stricter rules than those typically held in the Sheridan prison is plainly unlawful.

“The United States has long been a safe haven for people seeking religious freedom, yet, in Sheridan prison, asylum seekers are being barred from practicing their faiths,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon. “The denial of this core freedom is made worse when you consider that many asylum-seekers are seeking asylum because they are fleeing religious persecution in their home countries, including some of these men.”

Two months ago, the Trump administration sent 124 immigrants to Oregon’s only federal prison. The men were among approximately 1,600 immigrants transferred to federal prisons in five states. In June, non-profit law firm Innovation Law Lab offered pro bono assistance to the detained immigrants. The group attempted to send lawyers into the prison, but they were repeatedly barred from entering. Holding people in prison without the ability to communicate with the outside world, including family, clergy and lawyers violates fundamental constitutional rights that apply to all people in the United States, regardless of their citizenship.

The ACLU of Oregon filed an emergency lawsuit on June 22 on behalf of Innovation Law Lab to force the government to allow the immigration detainees access to legal help and were quickly granted a granted a temporary restraining order. This week federal Judge Michael Simon granted a preliminary injunction in the suit to ensure the detainees continue to have access to attorneys, despite the government’s objections.

“The ruling sends a message that federal courts will intervene when necessary to protect the constitutional rights of all people, including immigrants,” said Keith Ketterling, an attorney with Stoll Berne.

Innovation Law Lab represents 80 of the immigrants being held at the Sheridan prison. Every one of their clients have completed “credible fear screening interviews” with an asylum officer – one of the first steps in the asylum process. Of the 74 asylum seekers who have received determinations following their interviews, all were deemed to have a credible or reasonable fear of persecution in their home country.

“The success that Innovation Law Lab’s pro bono attorneys have seen in counseling these asylum-seeking men is overwhelming and strong evidence that access to counsel makes a profound difference,” said Nadia Dahab, an attorney at Stoll Berne. “The right to an attorney is fundamental to our legal system, and is especially crucial in immigration proceedings, where the laws are complex and the stakes are extraordinarily high.”

Attorneys on the friend-of-the-court-brief include Heather L. Weaver and Daniel Mach with the ACLU and Mat dos Santos and Kelly Simon with the ACLU of Oregon. Attorneys on the lawsuit for legal access for the detained immigrants include Mat dos Santos, Kelly Simon, and Leland Baxter-Neal with the ACLU of Oregon and Keith Ketterling and Nadia Dahab of Stoll Berne.

The friend-of-the-court brief is online at

The order granting a preliminary injunction is online at

More information about Innovation Law Lab vs. Nielsen is online at

This release is online at

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