A St. Helens attorney has found her way to the center of the national immigration debate.
On May 31, more than 120 immigrant detainees from 16 countries were transferred to the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. When attorneys were repeatedly denied access to them, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon and Innovation Law Lab drafted a lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order against the government, which U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon granted on Monday, June 25.
One of the attorneys denied access was St. Helens local Chelsea Strautman, Esq. She is licensed in the State of Colorado, but her practice in Oregon is limited in scope to federal immigration law. Strautman is one of seven attorneys to make a declaration in the federal lawsuit, based on her time at the prison and her interactions with staff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“It’s a huge constitutional violation,” Strautman said. “When you’re deprived of liberty, when your physical body is in the custody of the government, you have a right to legal counsel at the moment that you’re being detained. It’s a habeas corpus issue. These people have been detained for almost a month.”
Strautman signed up to provide her services pro bono when the Innovation Law Lab sent out a call to the immigration bar for volunteers. They needed immigration attorneys, translators, counselors and medical professionals. Strautman said around 700 people responded, but the coordination of that response to aid the detainees wasn’t happening fast enough for her liking. So, on June 18, she took it upon herself to drive down to Sheridan to try to gain access and begin providing counsel.
From the beginning, Strautman said, it was like a wild goose chase. “To me, it seemed like this intentional marching order to just deprive these humans of access to counsel and almost keep them in kind of a black box, so to speak, and move them through the procedural hurdles, intentionally depriving them of the ability to state their truth,” she said.
Strautman said it was possible that the vast majority of the detainees were asylum seekers, but until the restraining order was granted, there was no way to know. There are no charging documents yet, no documented information about the detainee’s cases. It’s very possible, according to Strautman, many of them even presented themselves at a port of entry. “It’s also possible that a lot of them were accosted at the border, but until we are able to get in there as attorneys, we don’t have any way to assess that,” she said.
The first step for the detainees is a Credible Fear Interview (CFI), before which, attorneys like Strautman would normally ask the detainee questions to understand their particular fact pattern and if they might be eligible for asylum. Strautman said many of them don’t have a clue what the CFI signifies.
“A lot of people go to these CFI’s without having an attorney and statistics show that upwards of 90 percent of asylum seekers who do not have representation, or who do not receive a ‘Know Your Rights’ presentation will fail the CFI,” Strautman said. “And that’s not to say that those 90 percent don’t have valid claims. It’s just so hard to navigate this. I mean, that’s why we have a constitutional right to counsel.”
Even outside the context of what’s happening under the Trump administration, Strautman said there has been a pattern and practice for years of expedited removal, of moving people through these systems and deporting them before anyone can intervene to help them.
Strautman said the CFIs for the Sheridan detainees were already scheduled for Thursday, June 28 - just three days after the judge’s ruling forced the government to allow attorneys inside the prison. During the government’s rebuttal at the hearing on Monday, Strautman said they claimed the detainees were not being permanently denied the right to counsel. It was just temporary, they said, and they were doing the best they could.
“So, basically, they were just going to have the interviews and not have any time to prepare or meet with counsel beforehand, and might have made some weak move to, you know, pretend that they were giving access to counsel by allowing an attorney in the room or something during the CFI - but not meaningful access to counsel,” Strautman said.
When Strautman first entered the Sheridan prison on Wednesday, June 20, the road at that time was free from any security blockade or gate closures. She was able to drive straight to the central building. According to her declaration, when she presented herself to an officer, he made an internal phone call and was instructed to give her the main phone number and ask for a Mr. Price, a manager of the housing unit where the immigrant detainees were being held, and she was told to leave and make that call from her car.
A woman who answered the main number told her Price was in a meeting, so she left a message. Strautman was also advised to leave a message with the executive assistant for public information, which she did.
When she re-entered the facility, she spoke with a woman she names as “Ms. Baker” in her declaration. Baker initiated conversation, asking what Strautman was trying to accomplish, and so she explained herself. Baker told Strautman that she needed a registration number for a specific inmate to enter, as well as to obtain permission from ICE. However, the Portland ICE office was closed due to protests, so again, Strautman left a message.
The next day, Strautman was contacted by the Sheridan Pro Bono Project and ACLU Oregon staff who requested she return to the prison to meet with them, “upon knowledge and belief they had been given authorization from ICE to meet with immigrant detainees.”
When Strautman returned to the prison with a paralegal for Innovation Law Lab’s Stephen Manning and an ACLU attorney, unlike the day before, their vehicles were stopped by a gate closure at the security checkpoint. They were approached by an officer and two men wearing unmarked desert camouflage uniforms who identified themselves as prison staff. To their surprise, they were told that there were already attorneys from the public defender’s office inside the facility who were authorized by ICE, and that no other attorneys would be allowed entry that day.
“Even if they were in there, the reason why Lisa Hay and her public defenders team would be in there is completely separate. They’re not going to be inquiring about asylum,” Strautman said, “We were the attorneys that were supposed to be allowed entry and had gained authorization from ICE Portland to go in and consult with these people and advise them on immigration issues.”
When Strautman insisted they were authorized by ICE and showed the officer the registration number of the immigrant detainee she was attempting to meet with, the officer radioed the central office. Strautman recognized Ms. Baker’s voice, the woman whom she had spoken with the day before who had advised her on what she needed to do to gain access.
“This lady said she met with you yesterday and she actually has the BOP number of the person she’s trying to see,” Strautman heard the officer tell Ms. Baker.
Through the radio handset, Strautman heard Ms. Baker reply, “I don’t know who she is. I don’t recall meeting with anyone yesterday. They told us that these people are gonna try and gain entry and lie and tell us that they have names of ICE agents and that they’re authorized to get in. Don’t listen to them. It’s not true.”
Know your rights
Strautman’s declaration, and those of the other attorneys in the lawsuit, no doubt played into Judge Simon’s ruling to grant the temporary restraining order to allow the detainees immediate access to attorneys and “Know Your Rights” presentations so that they can come to understand the gravity of the interview that they’re preparing for.
She returned to the prison Tuesday morning, June 26, at 8:30 a.m. to help conduct the first “Know Your Rights” presentation the 120-plus detainees have had. They will also begin conducting intake interviews to learn each detainee’s story and to assess whether they may have an asylum claim or another claim for relief.
Finally, after more than a month of spending 23 hours a day in their cells and with extremely limited access to phone calls or interpreters, they will be able to tell someone why, and how, they are here.
Strautman said the statements made in Monday’s hearing were powerful, and they gave her hope that there are people still adamantly defending the Constitution. She also said something the U.S. District Judge said stuck with her when he pointed out that the hearing was taking place just two weeks before America’s Independence Day.
“The plaintiffs’ third claim alleges a violation of the due process clause of the fifth amendment. We are a nation under law. The rule of law is one of our most cherished principles. Indeed, we fought a revolutionary war and declared our independence to obtain independence from a monarch so that we can live under the rule of law,” Simon said at the ruling.
“And I note that we are less than two weeks away from the celebration of that Declaration of Independence on July 4th. Because we are a nation that lives under law, the right to counsel is a right that has been recognized as required in order for there to be due process under law,” he said.
It was something she needed reminding of after the shocking nature of how divisive the issue of immigration has become in America. It has discouraged her how willing people are to pick up on the soundbites like ‘illegal immigrant’ and to engage in what, she said, is the willful denial of their humanity.
There is an often-believed myth, Strautman said, that these detainees are all criminals because they didn’t come through a port of entry. But, according to Strautman, the Immigration and Nationality Act says that a person can ask for asylum even when they are already present in the United States.
Many don’t claim asylum, and may not know they can, until they’re in removal proceedings or something similar, but they do not have to affirmatively present themselves. And, even if they are charged with a misdemeanor for Entry Without Inspection (EWI), it does not preclude them from the ability to bring an asylum claim.
Additionally, Strautman said, there are numerous documented cases of immigrants trying to enter, “the right way” at a port of entry.
“There’s just countless cases that have been documented by different rights watch organizations, immigrant organizations and the ACLU that show there’s a pattern and practice on the part of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to make it so difficult for people to present themselves at a port of entry, and they’re also making it highly difficult for people that possibly have a valid claim for asylum to even go through that proper course of conduct,” she said.
“The thing that I keep hearing that makes me just totally pull my hair out is, like hearing the director of ICE say, ‘these people are illegal aliens and they’re breaking the law’ and that’s just so hyperbolic, but that’s what people hold onto. ‘They’re not lawful citizens so they’re not entitled to the same rights,’ but you know, our Constitution says we don’t care what your citizenship status is. If you are a breathing human being and you’re in the United States, we will treat you with a certain level of dignity, respect, and will protect your inalienable human rights,” Strautman said.
Now, for Strautman and the other attorneys like her who have finally gained access to their clients, the real work is just beginning - the work of protecting and providing those inalienable rights to those who would seek them. In that endeavor, Strautman said she would urge people to take a minute to pause and reflect on their own immigrant history.
“We are a nation of immigrants. It is safe to say that the vast majority of refugees and asylees who resettle in America have endured unspeakable trauma,” she said. “The collective wound that displacement leaves in immigrant communities is long lasting. It is well documented that a common trauma response for people who have lived through this is to not talk about it.”
“In an effort to start over and to survive in a foreign land, they do not speak about what they have endured. And, quite honestly, a big part of what happens when families and communities and refugees and asylum seekers are traumatized, once they get to their new place, they’re so traumatized that they just try to forget what happened and assimilate. Then, those stories of trauma and dislocation and being displaced persons is lost to the next generation,” she said, “and that includes our own family histories.”
“Many people who hold anti-immigrant, nationalistic viewpoints now do not realize that they themselves are likely only a couple of generations removed from some migration story in their own family,” Strautman said. “It’s history repeating itself, and until people kind of wake up to that, gross human rights violations are going to continue to be perpetrated and that’s going to devastate the next generation of Americans.”