Five Sikh migrants released from US federal prison after initially falling afoul of Donald Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy

Five illegal Sikh migrants are among eight others asylum seekers who have been released on bond from a prison in the US state of Oregon, where they were locked up for three months after getting caught in the Trump administration's controversial "zero-tolerance" policy, immigration lawyers have said.

A group of 52 Indians, mostly Sikhs, has been held at a detention centre in Oregon in May for being part of a large contingent of illegal immigrants seeking asylum. The Indians form the largest group of detainees in the total 124 illegal immigrants being held at the facility in Sheridan.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Five Sikh migrants, all twenty-something men from India, made their first public appearance on Wednesday after nearly three months at the Oregon prison, which put them in the centre of a political firestorm.

"In the beginning, I had no hope," Karandeep Singh, 24 was quoted as saying by the Oregon Live. "Now it's like a dream. I'm so happy. Thank you all of the people who have helped us."

Many of the Indians are practising Sikhs, a designation they claim subjects them to religious and political persecution in their native land. It also presented problems inside the Sheridan prison, where they were prevented from following some basic Sikh practices, the report said.

"I don't blame the prison officials," Karandeep said. "They probably didn't know how Sikhs pray."

Those early days had been bleak, the migrants said. "We were seriously depressed," said Lovpreet Singh, 22, through an interpreter. "We couldn't get out of our cells at all, let alone use the phone to call our families. Even the prison officials didn't know who we were. How were our families supposed to help us when they don't know where we are?"

Eight asylum-seekers have been released from detention at the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, and more are expected to be released in the coming days, said Victoria Bejarano-Muirhead, a Development Director with the Innovation Law Lab.

The initial group of men sent to the federal prison at Sheridan came from 16 countries, which include India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

After hearings determine the asylum seekers have a credible fear of being repatriated, they are eligible for release while their asylum applications are processed. The bond amounts typically run from $1,500 to $5,000 and are usually put up by family or friends, Muirhead said.

The first of their clients to be released from the Sheridan prison walked out of the prison gates on Monday evening."Upon leaving the building this young man got on his knees, kissed the ground and asked, 'Is this real?'" said Katy Mitchell, also with the Innovation Law Lab.

The release comes almost two months after the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon and the Innovation Law Lab sued to provide pro bono legal counsel to the asylum seekers. Immigration attorneys helped the detainees who asked for representation from the Innovation Law Lab to successfully pass their credible fear interviews, which begins the process of applying for refugee status in the US, it said.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed the men in the federal prison because the federal immigration agency ran out of space in its detention centres designed to house asylum seekers and other immigrants who have not been convicted of a crime. Under US President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy, the US prosecuted anyone trying to enter the country illegally, including asylum seekers. Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents, with the adults being shipped to jails and children placed in the custody the Office of Refugee Resettlement between 19 April and 31 May of this year.

The controversial decision, however, has been reversed by Trump through an executive order following widespread protests against the move.


Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 10:49 AM

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