Detained Asylum-Seekers Say Government Violated Their Religious Freedom

By catherine lizette gonzalez Jul 27, 2018

Asylum-seekers being held at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, say authorities are denying them time and space to freely practice their faith.

A lawsuit filed yesterday (July 27) on behalf of 74 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees alleges that prison authorities at the Sheridan Correctional Institution have violated the Constitutional and religious freedom rights of detained immigrants—many of whom are Sikh and Hindu—by ignoring religious dietary restrictions, failing to provide language interpreters and seizing sacred items and clothing. Several Sikh men also say that officials confiscated their turbans upon arrival. 

According to the lawsuit, detained asylum-seekers have been held in custody for eight weeks without religious accommodations or access to language interpreters or anyone in the outside world, including legal advocates, family members and religious leaders.

Since late May, ICE has transferred more than 1,600 immigrants to federal prisons, as a result of a dramatic spike in immigrant arrests under the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" policy on border crossings. The asylum seekers at the Sheridan facility make up 123 of them; they are mostly from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, as reported by BuzzFeed News

Prison officials at the Sheridan facility have reportedly removed detained immigrants’ makeshift head coverings and forbidden the removal of shoes during prayer. Many of the men have also been forced to pray beside open toilets in their prison cells.

The filing is part of a string of legal battles the Oregon Office of Public Defense Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon are waging against the Sheridan facility, which has denied detainees access to legal representation for more than a month. Last week, William Teesdale, chief investigator for the public defender’s office, detailed some of the horrid conditions inside the facility, including poor medical care, overcrowded cells and reports of depression and suicide attempts. 

The latest suit states that ICE and the Federal Bureau of Prisons are required to make religious accommodations under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, two laws that are meant to protect inmates and detained immigrants’ right to freely practice their faith.

Per BuzzFeed News, conditions somewhat improved for detained immigrants when they were transferred from the general prison population into a separate area. However, as Teesdale writes in Thursday’s filing, "detainees continue to report significant limitations on their ability to practice their faith."