Sikh Immigrants Sue U.S. Govt Over Denial of Religious Rights in Prison

The detainees seek access to articles of faith such as turbans, religious writings, proper prayer locations, visits from clergy, and special diets in accordance with religious beliefs.


Sikh asylum seekers who are currently detained at the Sheridan Detention Centre in Yamhill County, Oregon, have filed a petition in a United States district court, asking the government to allow them to practice their religious rights in accordance with the First Amendment.

The petition will be heard by the chief district judge Oregon, Michael W Mosman, on Aug. 9, the Hindustan Times reported.

The First Amendment of the U.S. constitution specifies that the federal government shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  

The Sheridan FDC facility houses 121 asylum seekers who were allegedly caught by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for entering the United States illegally through Mexico. Of them, 52 persons are Indians, who are mostly Sikh men from Punjab.

The petition about the religious rights has been issued by ICE detainee No. 1 with warden of the Sheridan prison and an ICE official as respondents, the report said.

The detainees have requested the court to direct authorities to return their religious gear, such as turbans, and other personal belongings that were seized when they were apprehended. They also seek access to religious writings in appropriate language, proper areas for conducting prayers and other various daily rituals in a culturally suitable environment, permission of visits from religious representatives, and opportunities to observe special diets in accordance with religious beliefs, according to the publication.

“For the first weeks after their arrival on May 31, the detainees were held virtually incommunicado at the Sheridan FDC, out of touch with anyone in the outside world, under onerous conditions of confinement, without compliance with laws requiring religious accommodations,’’ the petition says.

The detainees were not provided religiously appropriate food for weeks after they were detained, petitioners’ attorney Stephen R Sady said, according to the report.

The federal performance-based national detention standards, which was revised by the ICE in 2016, specifies that detainees of different religious beliefs be provided reasonable and equitable opportunities to participate in the practices of their respective faiths, constrained only by concerns about safety, security and the orderly operation of the facility.

Earlier this month, immigrants sued the U.S. government over harsh conditions at the Victorville prison in California. The lawsuit, filed on Aug.1, also alleged that they were deprived of religious rights by being denied access to a Bible and use of a Sikh turban, the Associated Press had reported earlier.

“As a result of the unconstitutional treatment of these civil detainees, many have expressed a desire to be returned, immediately, to their countries of origin – foregoing their claims for immigration relief altogether – because they would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions,” according to the lawsuit, the report said.

Last month, five lawsuits were filed against the ICE by inmates at the Sheridan detention center, who said that they were kept from attorneys, doctors, and religious leaders, and accommodated in crowded cells with little or inadequate food.

“We were very badly treated. Many Amritdhari (practicing Sikh religion) hair were cut. Many were abused,” a man identified as “ICE Detainee #4” wrote in his declaration, had reported earlier.

The prison’s Hindu population was forced to eat beef on multiple occasions, even after guards were notified this violated their beliefs, according to a report by Oregonlive last month.

The men were arrested in May this year after U.S. President Donald Trump launched a “zero tolerance” policy against illegal immigration, and await criminal prosecution.

Several other Indians were taken into custody after the policy was implemented, and are housed at federal detention facilities such as the Otero County Detention Center in New Mexico, Victorville Medium II in California, a federal correctional facility in Phoenix in Arizona, and a federal detention facility in Washington state.

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