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Federal Bureau of Prisons photo

Federal Detention Center in Sheridan.

Government ordered to allow Sheridan migrants to meet with attorneys

(AP) -- A federal judge on Monday ordered the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow the 121 migrant detainees being held at the federal prison in Sheridan to meet with immigration attorneys.

Men from 16 countries have been held for 26 days and prevented from meeting with counsel. Under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, they were referred for prosecution after being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in late May.

The detainees were subsequently transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Sheridan.

"We are a nation that recognizes the rule of law," said U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon. "The right to counsel is a right that has long been recognized."

Portland immigration lawyers have been trying to arrange meetings with the prisoners ever since. Those lawyers actually traveled the 60 miles to Sheridan more than once, only to have prison officials rescind their earlier decision to allow the meetings.

The temporary restraining order issued by Simon clears the way for those meetings to take place as early as Tuesday. It also blocks the government from deporting them or staging asylum hearings until after they've met with counsel.

Dianne Schweiner, representing the Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, argued that the agencies had taken steps to address the immigration lawyers' concerns. She claimed the lawyer meetings would be allowed in the near future.

She said Sheridan officials had gotten one day's notice that 123 immigrants would be shipped there. They've been scrambling ever since to deal with the newcomers, who effectively doubled the population of the facility. Two detainees have since been reassigned for medical reasons.

The bureau's "first priority was to ensure that they were housed safely," Schweiner said.

Before ruling, Simon asked attorneys for the immigrants and for the government for their thoughts on President Donald Trump's weekend Tweet on immigration.

"We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country," Trump wrote over the weekend. "When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no judges or court cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order..."

The tweet came three days after Trump signed an executive order ending the controversial practice of separating immigrant families as a deterrent to illegal migration. An estimated 2,300 children have been lodged in detention centers since the policy began.

The tactic led to a firestorm of criticism and Trump's high-profile policy change. But if his tweet is any indication, Trump is not veering off his strong anti-immigrant stance.

Keith Ketterling, a Portland lawyer who volunteered to represent the Sheridan immigrants, urged Simon to grant the restraining order. "The court is our last resort in this case," he said. The lawyers for the migrants feared federal officials would try to deport the prisoners before they got the opportunity to meet with lawyers.

Schweiner told the court that the first hearings in the detainees' asylum cases were scheduled to begin Thursday. These so-called "credible fear" hearings provide immigrants an opportunity to persuade immigration officials that being returned to their home country would put them in danger.

Lisa Hay, the federal public defender in Portland filed a habeas corpus petition Friday on behalf of one of the prisoners claiming the conditions at Sheridan violate their Constitutional rights.

-- Jeff Manning and Jim Ryan

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