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. They also came from Nepal, Guatemala, Mexico and a dozen other countries.
"Zero tolerance" made Sheridan an unusual way station for migrants from around the world. Now, those who pass an initial screening and post bond are being released. And Norm and Kathy Daviess, along with more than 100 other volunteers — retirees, recent college graduates, lawyers, clergy — have lined up to help.
"The best part of this is seeing the big smile on their face, to be out, to have this burden done with," said Kathy Daviess, 71, who wore a floppy white hat as she and her husband stood outside the prison on a recent afternoon. As drivers, the two are ready to go to the prison, a half-hour from their hometown of Dundee, at a moment's notice and often wait there for hours as the detainees are processed.
The freed migrants generally travel onward in a day or two to other states where they have relatives or friends. The volunteers provide transportation, interpreter services, legal counseling, food, shelter and moral support. They raised more than $12,000 to pay bonds for migrants who couldn't come up with the money themselves.
A Sikh temple in nearby Salem also offers the immigrants religious and other services, and a place to recover. Many of the detainees made long, dangerous journeys to reach the U.S., and all either turned themselves in to seek asylum or were nabbed by border agents when they arrived. Since "zero tolerance" took effect in May, everyone who enters the country illegally is charged with a crime.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the crackdown is necessary to eliminate illegal immigration and because abuse of the asylum system has caused a surge in illegal border crossings. "For those who crossed the border illegally, those were the consequences brought upon them," said Sheridan Mayor Harry Cooley, who worked at the Oregon prison for 21 years and is not among the volunteers. He was less certain about migrants who request asylum at points of entry, noting it isn't illegal.
"It would be unfathomable if they were detaining those people rather than just turning them away," Cooley said, but then added it seemed justifiable to detain the immigrants while their stories are verified. "The previous policy was catch and release, which I definitely don't agree with."
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.
The migrants were granted access to lawyers after the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed a lawsuit alleging they were held largely incommunicado. The detainees told federal public defenders they were initially confined to cells for up to 23 hours a day. "It's not right. We don't do that," Norm Daviess said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Kathleen Moss, from nearby Carlton, said it's been rewarding to coordinate around 60 drivers and people offering respite centers.
"It's kind of taken over my life," the nutritionist and advocate for foster children said. To help the immigrants seek asylum, making a case that they fled dangerous conditions back home, Innovation Law Lab has "plugged in" 80 volunteer attorneys, legal assistants and other specialists, said Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, development director of the Portland group.
Volunteers have watched detainees emerge from the prison, surveying the nearby forests, hills and fields for the first time since they arrived. One man borrowed a phone to make a video call to his wife in Nepal as Katy Mitchell, who manages Innovation Law Lab's operations in Sheridan, gave him a ride.
"I couldn't understand their conversation in Nepali, but I could understand the love and excitement in their voices seeing each other's faces and talking for the first time in many months," Mitchell said. "He sat there clutching his heart with the biggest grin on his face and she couldn't stop giggling with joy."
On a recent day, Carlos Marroquin, from El Salvador, and Abdoulaye Camara, from Mauritania, watched the countryside, tinged in autumnal colors, flash by as volunteer Cynthia McCracken drove them from the prison.
"It's been so long, waiting for this moment," Marroquin, sporting a fresh haircut and wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, said in Spanish with a big grin. "I feel an enormous gratitude for all these people, because they helped us in an incredible way: the community, lawyers."
McCracken, of Newberg, Oregon, took Marroquin and Camara to the Dasmesh Darbar Sikh temple in Salem, where they showered, ate and relaxed. She noted she's driven 12 men from the prison gates. Freed immigrants often sit outside on the temple grounds, taking in the fresh air near a driveway lined with red, white, yellow and pink flowers.
"It's wonderful. I think it's a dream," Karandeep Singh, an immigrant from India, said inside the temple as music featuring the soft patter of tabla drums filtered from a speaker. An ornate Persian carpet lay at his feet.
For Mitchell, being involved in the team effort has been bittersweet. "I feel lucky to be witness to this joy, but pained to know the suffering it's rooted in," she said.
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