Lawmakers blast immigration detention in Oregon
SHERIDAN — Local lawmakers condemned a crackdown of federal immigration policy with fiery attacks and even a few tears during a press conference held in the shadow of the Oregon prison where more than 100 of the potential asylum seekers are being held.
"This policy is morally bankrupt," U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said, his fist rapping a makeshift mic stand to the beat of each word. "It has to end."
Sens. Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, all Democrats, spoke and answered questions for roughly 30 minutes outside the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution, about 55 miles southwest of Portland.
Just before the press conference, the lawmakers met with 123 detainees who have been held under a new policy that puts anyone caught illegally crossing the border behind bars, even if they petition for asylum due to persecution or unsafe conditions in their home country.
Since enforcement began in May under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the policy has drawn criticism for separating parents from about 2,000 children, some of who have ended up inside a converted Walmart in Texas.
Merkley made national headlines and reignited speculation about a possible 2020 campaign for president after he live-streamed an attempt to visit the McAllen processing center on the U.S.-Mexico border, which ended when the police arrived and Merkley was denied access.
At Saturday's media meeting, Wyden praised Merkley for "taking the lead."
"What we saw over the last hour demonstrates that the Trump 'zero-tolerance' policy makes zero sense and shows zero understanding of American values," Wyden told reporters. "America and Oregon are better than this."
The would-be refugees jailed in Oregon include 52 people from India, 18 from Nepal, 12 from Guatemala, 10 from Mexico and five from China, according to a spreadsheet provided to the legislators. The detainees, who are all men, hail from 16 countries and speak 12 different languages. There are about 33 Spanish speakers.
Wyden press conference
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden talked with immigration lawyers about the detentions. See his press conference here: >twitter.com/ronwyden/status/1008471757299175424?s=21
The lawmakers said there were some language barriers despite translators' best efforts, but about six of the men had been separated from their children and another had been split up from his wife. The immigrants are confined to triple-bunked cells for about 22 or 23 hours a day, according to a June 15 letter by federal public defender Lisa Hay to Sheridan Warden Josias Salazar. They are let out for short intervals when the other prisoners are inside their cells.
The lawmakers said the detainees have no money to use the prison's pay phones and that they lost immigration attorneys' phone numbers after their civilian clothing was confiscated. "This is a prison, where people go after they've been convicted of a crime," Bonamici said. "The people we spoke with here today are people who are fleeing violence …. What they should be getting is a hearing."
Republicans have pushed back against Democratic disapproval, noting that many immigrant women and their children were held together for long periods in detention centers during the presidency of Barack Obama. Supporters of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy say those breaking the law should be treated as criminals, arguing that a secure border is necessary for the unity of the nation.
But for Blumenauer, the notion that America will "criminalize those being persecuted" was especially painful.
"They each ought to have a chance to prove their case. That's the law — not phony stuff that Trump makes up," he said, his voice breaking as he explained he was thinking of his own grandchildren.