Eight asylum-seekers have been released from detention at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, and more are expected to be released in the coming days.
The men were granted bond after court appearances before an immigration judge, not at the discretion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At least five of those released are Sikh men seeking asylum from India. All of them have family and friends in other states, including Maryland, Georgia, California and New York. One of the men released has been reunited with his family.
"It's like a dream," said Karandeep Singh, one of the men who was released.
Sixteen additional clients of Innovation Law Lab, which provided pro-bono legal services to 79 asylum-seekers, were authorized for release on bond by an immigration judge this week.
Lawyers and activists, meanwhile, have said that ICE has refused to respond to bond requests, which leaves questions about the fate of release for the more than 100 detainees still in detention at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan. The Innovation Law Lab has filed 29 applications for release with ICE.
"ICE has the authority to release each asylum seeker under appropriate conditions," said Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, development director with Innovation Law Lab. "But so far we have not received any releases as a result of our petitions to ICE."
But the releases this week mark the first in Oregon since the Trump administration funneled approximately 1,600 immigrants to federal prisons in five states, including the roughly 120 or so men sent to detention in Oregon.
"When we were brought to Sheridan, even the prison officials didn't know why we were there, or who we were," said Lovepreet Singh, one of the men released, through an interpreter. "So for about two weeks were were not able to get out of our rooms, let alone call our families."
Katy Mitchell, program manager with Innovation Law Lab, said the first asylum-seeker who left the detention facility got on his knees upon release, kissed the ground and asked "is this real?"
Federal court documents have outlined conditions for immigration detainees being held at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution. The documents showed detainees had thoughts of suicide, spent hours confined and were denied medical care.
"We were depressed during the time, seriously depressed," Lovepreet Singh said. "Who's going to help us? Even our families don't know where we were until Innovation Law Lab and public defenders came out and we felt like they are our family now."
A detainee's release is at the discretion of ICE or an immigration judge, which is based on where they presented themselves for asylum. If a person seeking asylum presented himself or herself at a U.S. port of entry, they're under the discretion of ICE. If the person enters the U.S. elsewhere, he or she is at the discretion of an immigration judge. That's significant because only an immigration judge has granted detainee releases so far.
"Because of the slow pace of ICE decisions, and because of the prolonged detention that our clients have already had to go through, we have turned to the immigration court to request that the court rule and give men the opportunity to leave on bond," Muirhead said.
Most of the immigrants detained in Sheridan are asylum-seekers. The initial group of men sent to Sheridan came from 16 countries, which include India, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Religious groups say they've activated organized respite networks for the men, which include support for housing. Families and friends of the men released are largely responsible for bond payments and travel costs for reunification with the released asylum-seekers. Muirhead said bond ranges from $1,500 to $5,000 and is higher in some other states.
Once an individual is released on bond they'll go to the location they've indicated to a judge or ICE that they'd be residing in. Asylum seekers will go through a series of check-ins with ICE and the immigration court before given a date for a hearing where they can order their asylum cases. They'll also need to submit a formal application for asylum.