Scores of South Asia asylum seekers held in Oregon: U.S. senator

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - At least 72 South Asian asylum-seekers are being detained at a federal prison in Oregon after getting caught up in the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal border-crossers, a U.S. Senator’s office said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Senator Jeff Merkley talks to reporters during a news conference at a hotel in Yangon, Myanmar November 21, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The detainees, held at the Sheridan Federal Corrections Institution, include 52 from India, 18 from Nepal and two from Bangladesh.

All of them are single men, who flew into Mexico and crossed the border into the United States, said Sara Hottman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat.

A total of 123 are being held at the prison, representing 16 countries, speaking 13 languages and few speak any English, the senator’s office said.

Officials at the Sheridan prison did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Merkley and other members of Congress visited the Sheridan prison over the weekend to talk to the inmates and asked U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials to get them legal services and interpreters.

The ICE office in Portland was closed for security reasons on Wednesday, an ICE statement said, after protesters blocked the parking lot on Tuesday evening.

The “zero tolerance” policy refers to the administration of President Donald Trump, a Republican, announcing in April that all immigrants apprehended while crossing the border illegally should be criminally prosecuted under the country’s criminal entry statute.

A group of lawyers informally calling themselves the Sheridan Pro Bono group have volunteered to meet with the detainees to advise them on their rights and navigating the legal system, Hottman said.

Indians are the fastest-growing illegal immigrant population in the United States, with about a half a million coming in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. While some overstayed their student or business visas, many others have come in from Mexico and central American countries.

U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat who represents Yamhill County, where the Sheridan prison is located, said the Indians, mainly Sikhs and Christians, say they are fleeing religious or political persecution.

The detainees have been confined in small cells for up to 22 hours a day with no access to medical treatment, she said.

“A Spanish-speaking man showed us where he had been shot, twice,’ Bonamici said. “When asked if he was able to see a doctor, he said no. Another man lifted his pant leg and showed us what looked like an open wound on his leg. He hadn’t seen a doctor, either.”

Reporting by Courtney Sherwood; Writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Grant McCool