Albert Mukete stepped out from behind the coils of concertina wire, steel and concrete of the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution on Wednesday and into the sun of a late summer day.
He struggled to find the words to describe his feelings, eventually settling on the Bible’s Old Testament to express his relief.
“When the children of Israel came out from the land of Egypt from the hands of pharaoh, I can imagine myself — that’s how I felt," Mukete said. "I felt relieved because I felt so oppressed inside. When I just came out from the building it was like a huge weight just fell off my body.”
While Mukete is not the first detainee to be released from the prison, his release is notable because he appears to be among the first detainees at the federal prison in Sheridan granted parole by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
From Cameroon To Oregon
Mukete arrived at the federal prison in Sheridan on May 31, along with more than 120 other ICE detainees.
At the time, ICE officials said they planned to send up to 1,600 detainees to five federal prisons in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Texas — a move attorneys say is unprecedented.
Mukete is a member of the English-speaking minority in Cameroon, which is seeking to break away from the French majority and form its own country. In recent years, politics there have led to violence.
In 2014, he fled to Thailand where he said he got a work visa and taught English for several years.
Then in January, he got some disturbing news. Government security forces went into his village, Kwakwa. Mukete said they shot and killed his brother. They beat and arrested his mother and sister.
“They set our house on fire and my grandfather was inside the house, (he) was consumed inside the flames as the entire house was set on fire,” Mukete told OPB, choking back tears. “Everything burned down to ashes.”
Human Rights Watch documented the attack in a report released last month. Most of those who remain in the village live in the bush and fear new attacks, according to the nonprofit's account.
Mukete said he fears if he returns to Cameroon he’ll be killed or arrested like the rest of his family.
He said he didn't know what to do, and prayed to God. Then, he decided to flee to the United States. He told his attorney it was because the U.S. has "human rights."
In March, Mukete traveled from Thailand to Ecuador and began his journey to the Tijuana-San Diego border.
On May 19, Mukete said he stood in the line at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry.
He told officers at the border: “I am a refugee looking for safety.”
After Mukete was interviewed, officers detained him in San Diego. He arrived in Oregon more than a week later and remained in ICE’s custody at the Sheridan prison for more than three months.
Last week, some detainees at the federal prison in Sheridan were granted bail by an immigration judge. But ICE’s decision to parole detainees is different.
Detainees like Mukete who present themselves at ports of entry don't get hearings before immigration judges. Instead, their detention is determined by ICE.
It's not clear why ICE released Mukete. But in July, a federal judge blocked the government's detention of asylum seekers after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit.
ICE did not specify if it had changed its policy toward asylum seekers.
“Only in limited circumstances and on a case-by-case basis, should an alien be released from custody for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” ICE spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell wrote in an email.
Mukete learned last month he had passed his credible fear interview — a critical step in the asylum process that means his claim moves forward. It’s also the step that made him eligible for release Wednesday.
Mukete said the conditions in prison were terrible. Still, he thought his months long detention in Sheridan was just part of the usual immigration process in the United States.
“But it was taking forever, so I could no longer hold it. I was getting to feel worried and angry somehow,” he said. “I was starting to lose heart. But God was with me.”
And while immigrant advocates are happy with Mukete's release, the situation in the Northwest is a mixed bag.
Dozens of detainees in similar situations remain locked up in the Sheridan prison. Attorneys with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said there are also around 50 ICE detainees with credible asylum cases that remain detained at the SeaTac Federal Detention Center in Washington.
Mukete is now living with a sponsor in Portland, and his asylum case continues to move forward.