US lawmakers denounce President Trump’s cruel and callous ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, June 23, 2018 – Under President Donald Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance’ immigration policy, 52 Indian nationals are being held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a federal prison in Oregon without any meaningful legal access which is in violation of the US Constitution, federal immigration laws and international treaties.
Earlier this month, ICE announced it would send some 1,600 immigration detainees trying to enter the US along the border with Mexico to federal prisons in five states. Currently, there are 123 men being held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, the majority hailing from India.
Members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation – Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer – who were able to meet the detainees on the eve of father’s day told journalists about the appalling conditions in which they are being held since mid-May.
The immigrant civil detainees are confined inside the federal prison for upwards of 23 hours a day. Three men are bunked in each cell as the facility does not have adequate resources to house ICE detainees along with the pre-trial inmates who are normally held there. Several men have been separated from their families with no information about their location or condition.
US lawmakers revealed that the “ICE detainees described stress as they sit in cells day after day without knowing when they will get a hearing or get a lawyer or what comes next”.
“What I saw at Sheridan was inhumane”, Senator Wyden said. “America is better than President Trump’s cruel and callous treatment of asylum seekers that rips apart families and denies them regular medical care or access to legal and spiritual counsel”.
Among the Indian nationals he met were Sikhs and Christians who claimed they are fleeing persecution, a commonplace assertion made by asylum-seekers.
Besides India, the detainees hail from Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Russia, Brazil, Cameroon, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Mauritania, Peru, as well as Congo and Eritrea – two of the most common countries of origin for asylum-seekers in the US.
“It is not a crime to come to the United States to seek asylum; in fact, it is a right provided by international treaty”, Congresswoman Bonamici said after meeting the immigrant detainees “who came to the United States seeking a better life”.
“And even if they are not able to win their case in front of an immigration judge, they have the right to make that case. And they certainly should not be incarcerated in prisons and separated from their families while their cases are pending”, she reasoned.
Senator Wyden said he would like a copy of the contract between the immigration enforcement agency and the Bureau of Prisons that “defines and allows ICE to put their detainees in federal prisons”.
In a statement, Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Oregon revealed, “Our legal teams again went to the federal prison in Sheridan for planned visits with ICE detainees and again were turned away. Clergy and faith leaders were also denied access”.
Stephen Manning, executive director of Innovation Law Lab, weighed in, “Detention should never be used to punish or deter a person from applying for asylum to save his life. It is a core principle of the United States that no person in this country should be imprisoned without due process of law”.
On Monday, a vigil was held outside the federal prison in Sheridan which drew over 1,200 people, a record crowd for the city with just over 6,000 residents. Activists held signs which read: ‘Seeking asylum is not a crime’; ‘No human being is illegal’; ‘Families belong together’; ‘We all have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws’; and ‘Liberty and justice for all’. They raised their voices in support of the detainees hoping those housed inside the prison could hear and know they are not alone.
Senator Merkley decried what he called the Trump administration’s new message to asylum-seekers: “We will treat you as a criminal, lock you up, and rip away your children”.
“This is a stain on our nation, and President Trump and (US Attorney General) Jeff Sessions need to listen to the outcry from Americans across the country and end this cruel and immoral policy”, Merkley said.
Senator Wyden minced no words in denouncing what he called “the grotesque Trump treatment – lumping detainees together, separating children from parents and dumping human beings like waste into prisons”.
“What Senator Merkley, Rep. Bonamici, Rep. Blumenauer and I saw in Sheridan’s federal prison demonstrates that the Trump ‘zero tolerance’ policy makes zero sense and shows zero understanding of American values”, he told journalists.
At a shadow hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Congresswoman Bonamici spoke about her visit to the federal prison housing the ICE detainees which, she admitted, shook her to the core. Noting that there are 123 men who are seeking asylum and that no women are in this federal prison, the lawmaker disclosed, “several of them came to this country with children, sometimes with a spouse. They all thought that they entered at an appropriate border crossing”.
“Interestingly, a lot of the men were from India seeking political asylum. They all came in at regular border crossings”, Bonamici said, adding they have no idea about the whereabouts of their spouse or children. “Now, we are hearing about people being deported while their children remain in the United States”, she lamented.
The shadow hearing was hosted by Democratic Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, co-chairs of the Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform and drew nearly two dozen lawmakers including House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. The standing room only event focused on examining the impact and human cost of President Trump’s draconian family separation policy.
The turnout was impressive given that House members were set to vote on a conservative GOP immigration bill that afternoon which President Trump supports.
Jayapal, the first-ever Indian-American woman to serve in the US House of Representatives, underscored, “The only thing we should be sending to the President’s desk is the Keep Families Together Act because that is the only bill currently that addresses the crisis of family separation and abuse of children”.
Regarding Trump’s abrupt change of course by signing an executive order to keep parents and kids together, Jayapal countered, “Any notion that the President actually reversed this order (of separating families at the border) is misguided because he didn’t. All he’s done is allow for the indefinite detention of children”.
Following the hearing, we spoke to Eleni Bakst, an Equal Justice Works Fellow on the Refugee Protection team at Human Rights First, who told us that undocumented immigrants from various countries and backgrounds are being detained in the US, not just the Hispanic, mostly Mexican, majority that one hears about. “We are seeing individuals from India, China, various African countries, in detention facilities”, she said.
Bakst informed us that she met two Indian women, both asylum-seekers, detained at a center in Texas. One woman, she mentioned, was in continued detention as her passport was stolen.
At the shadow hearing, Jayapal emphasized the need “for more accountability around detention facility conditions”.
In her remarks, Democratic Leader Pelosi shared accounts of cruelty and negligence in treating women and child detainees. At times, she was overcome by emotion.
She underscored the importance of protecting the constitution and country, including the borders, “in a smart and strong way, not rash and ruthless. We need to protect our borders, but not in a way that puts children in cages”, she said.