Sikhs imprisoned in Oregon: How a national scandal hit a small farming town

Oregon is a diverse state and one in which I did lots of religion coverage during the my early reporting years. There are generous concentrations of Jews, Christians and Muslims and sprinklings of other groups — but Sikhism are one faith that isn’t heard about often.

This 2013 Oregonian piece estimates there are probably less than 1,000 Sikhs in the entire state, which may explain why officials at a local prison knew nothing about this 500-year-old faith when a load of Sikh immigrants was dumped at their door.

The mistreatment of these Sikhs –- and the number of Oregonians who volunteered to help them -- led to an Associated Press story that ran last week.

We’re going to be looking at several interesting stories, because this is — sadly — a story that isn’t going away anytime soon.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — With the sun bearing down, Norm and Kathy Daviess stood in the shade of a prison wall topped with coiled razor wire, waiting for three immigrants to come out.

It’s become an oddly familiar routine for the Air Force veteran and his wife, part of an ad hoc group of volunteers that formed in recent months after the Trump administration transferred 124 immigrants to the federal prison in rural Oregon, a first for the facility.

The detainees were among approximately 1,600 immigrants apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border and then transferred to federal prisons in five states after President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy left the usual facilities short of space.

Almost half of those sent to the prison outside Sheridan, an economically struggling town 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Portland, on May 31 are from India, many of them Sikhs — part of an influx of Indian nationals entering the U.S. in recent years...

The story is not new.

In June the Portland-based Willamette Week covered a demonstration of religious leaders railing against the detaining of so many religious refugees at this prison.

Religious leaders from the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice today denounced the treatment of the 123 immigrants detained in a federal prison in Sheridan, Ore., saying many of the men are religious refugees fleeing persecution in their home nations.

At least six of the men in the prison were separated from their families because of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy. Advocates say many of the men in the prison came to the U.S. seeking asylum from religious persecution. … The religious leaders will meet at the the prison in Sheridan, Ore., at 10 am Sunday, June 24 to say prayers that they hope will be heard over the walls, where the immigrants who have been detained are currently being held.

Word of the Sikhs’ detaining swiftly reached members of the Indian diaspora in this country and from there to media in India. I saw several articles about this on Indian web sites.

This piece appeared July 16 in TribuneIndia.com:

"It's heartbreaking when you go in there and you see the young kids like the ages are close to starting from 18 onwards, 22 to 24 in those jumpsuits ... and you wonder how they ended up being treated as criminals. They've not committed a crime, they have crossed the border and they have asked for a refugee or asylum and that is a law of this land," Navneet Kaur, a community college professor, told PTI…

When they were arrested, Navneet said, the Indian asylum seekers were chained.

"When they were in handcuffs and chains for 24 hours they ate with their handcuffs on. Even the hardcore criminals are not treated like that. Then they were kept for 22 hours a day in a cell with the people who did not speak the language," she said. "It's inhuman," she said.

The situation is worse for the Sikh inmates as their turbans have been taken away in the jail.

Word was leaking out and on July 24, CNN reamed the Oregon prison system with this piece.

The Huffington Post did this article on similar conditions at a prison in Victorville, Calif.

(U.S. Rep. Mark) Takano told HuffPost the conditions are “marginally better” now than they were last month, and a Bureau of Prisons Public Information Officer said the immigrant population is now down to 460 (though that fluctuates daily). Takano said a large percentage of the immigrants he met Wednesday are Sikh or Hindu and were initially being served sandwiches containing lunch meat. Many of these immigrants are practicing vegetarians, so they were effectively subsisting almost entirely on bread.

The HuffPost piece gives lots of good background as to why this problem started in the first place and why the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy on immigrants has backed up prisons everywhere. Read this:

John Kostelnik, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969 and a union representative for prison employees, shares Takano’s concerns.

“Since day one, it’s been chaotic,” Kostelnik told HuffPost. “The chaos has not stopped. It’s a mess. We still have no procedures in place. We got four days notice [of the detainees’ arrival].”

This isn’t an exaggeration: Immigrants received jumpsuits shortly after their arrival on June 8. They then wore the same clothing, including underwear, for 40 days straight because the prison mistakenly ordered only 1,000 sets of the garments, apparently not realizing they’d need to be taken off and washed regularly.

In case you think I’m picking solely on Donald Trump, here’s a 2015 piece from The Guardian complaining about similar situations under the Barack Obama administration.

The Oregonian has also been following this. From an Aug. 22 piece:

Those early days had been bleak, the migrants said. There were housed three-to-a-cell, sharing a common toilet, and restricted to their quarters 22 hours a day…A handful of detainees couldn't take it and volunteered to be deported. But the remaining 120 or so were determined to stick it out.

They got some high-level assistance: The American Civil Liberties Union and the Innovation Law Lab, a Portland legal nonprofit specializing in immigration cases, put in countless volunteer hours preparing the detainees' first asylum hearings.

After touring the Sheridan facility, the local federal Public Defender filed habeus corpus petitions on behalf of the detainees, claiming the prison conditions were unconstitutional.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, and most of the rest of state's congressional delegation toured Sheridan in mid-June and were appalled at the conditions.

An Aug. 29 piece, also from the Oregonian, specifically addressed the Sikhs and the cluelessness of prison officials about their religious needs. After two public defenders went to bat for them.

Once prison staff became aware of the practicing Sikh detainees, they tried to find a vendor from which they could purchase turbans. Unable to locate a supplier soon enough, the prison turned to the local Sikh temple in Salem, which offered to donate the needed turbans and the prison warden accepted, according to Charles Varner, religious services assistant at Sheridan prison.

On Aug. 3, three priests from the Salem Sikh temple met with the Sikh detainees to donate the turbans.

The detail about the turbans is good. However, did the reporter realize there is no such thing as a “priest” in the Sikh religion?

Sikh religious services are lay-led and the closest thing to clergy is a granthi, a person who reads holy writings to the congregation.

The prison also realized it didn't have religious texts in its library for some of the detainees' religions or languages. As a result, the prison's Religious Services library bought additional books, including Bibles in Spanish and Armenian, Sikh holy texts in Punjabi and Hindu holy texts in Hindi.

"We are continuing to work to find texts in more obscure languages, including Bengali (for the detainees from Bangladesh), and Tigrinya (for the detainees from Eritrea),'' Varner wrote in a court declaration.

The section of Oregon near where this prison lies is heavily Hispanic because of the need for migrant workers for the local farms. How could this prison be lacking Spanish-language Bibles?

Back to the AP story:

The prison is Sheridan’s largest employer, though the town of 6,000 has paid little attention to the migrant issue, the mayor said. The volunteers are mostly from other communities in the Willamette Valley, including Salem and Portland, Oregon’s largest city.

Kathy Daviess said she got involved because “we’ve got a legal system, and it’s supposed to apply to everyone.” Her husband, who spent his career with the Air Force in uniform and as a contractor, felt the immigrants were being denied due process.

So, the locals weren’t too interested in the detainees but folks from the cities were.

Portland is about an hour’s drive from Salem on a good day, but Interstate 5 easily gets backed up, so the rescuers are definitely going out of their way to help. The story goes on about how volunteers have fished these people out of jail, made sure they posted bond, then settled them in more humane housing. They’d been in jail since May.

At this point, it’s definitely a feel-good Americans-rescue-religious-immigrants story, so I’m hoping the coverage doesn’t stop here. What chance have these men in court and will their new friends stick around to see them through the legal process? Stay tuned.

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