When immigration lawyer Chelsea Strautman heard over the news that 121 immigrants were being detained in Sheridan, she hopped in her car and drove down to help.
“Hello, Bureau of Prison staff. I’m an attorney and I would like to inquire about how to get in to see the immigrant detainees here,” Strautman said upon arrival.
But, she was turned away.
After a few days, she was told Immigration and Customs Enforcement approved her to enter, but she was turned away a second time. It took an ACLU lawsuit for the bureau to allow Strautman and other immigration lawyers in to see the detainees.
Meanwhile, the immigrants were desperately awaiting the help.
“They were asking me, 'What is happening to us? Are we kidnapped?'” Strautman said of the detainees inside the Sheridan facility.
At Sheridan, detainees are crowded into cells with two other people for up to 23 hours a day. For the first 55 days in detention, they hadn't been charged with anything or received any communication about how long they would be there, she said. The emotional trauma of the situation has even caused some detainees to want to return home.
Since gaining access to the facility, Strautman has taken four of the detainees on as pro-bono clients.
One of the men she is representing is a 19-year-old Guatemalan from an impoverished area who immigrated hoping for a better life, Strautman said. Under the current laws there is no legal pathway for him to come to the country, but ironically the detainment conditions in Sheridan might have given him a case.
Strautman said the man (who didn't wish to be identified by name because of fear of reprisal) told her and representatives from the Guatemalan Consulate that he had been sexually assaulted in the detention center, giving her a route to petition for a visa for victims of certain crimes. But now, he just wants to go home.
“He is so emotionally and psychologically traumatized, and now has been physically brutalized and he just wants to go home,” Strautman said.
Strautman hopes to help him go home within the next week.
A 33-year-old man from Cameroon is another one of Strautman’s four clients. As an English speaker, he is known as an anglophone, which is an ethnic minority in French-speaking Cameroon.
“There is a mass exodus, and really a genocide level atrocity that is happening right now, up to 20,000 anglophones have been fleeing,” Strautman said.
The man’s entire family has been murdered, and “he was told ‘Do not return, you will be murdered,’” she said.
Strautman said he came to America fearing for his life and presented a legitimate asylum claim when he crossed the border. From there, he was taken into custody, placed in prison and classified for expedited removal. He told Strautman the reason he sought asylum here was that he "heard America has the human rights."
Strautman hopes to give this client a chance to plead his case and be given due process before he is deported. One important step has already been scheduled: “We have our Credible Fear interview for him, scheduled next Friday and that is an extremely pivotal moment in his life,” Strautman said.
To hear more of "Think Out Loud’s" conversation with immigration lawyer Chelsea Strautman click the “Play” button at the top of the page.