Oregon activists challenge immigrant detentions and local prison-based economy
Protestors line the fence outside FCI-Sheridan, a federal prison that has now been filled with immigrant detainees, in Sheridan, Ore., June 18. | Unidos Bridging Community

SHERIDAN, Ore.—People unfamiliar with Oregon’s Willamette Valley have probably never heard of Sheridan, located in Yamhill County. The small town was the scene of a hard-fought lumber workers strike in 1910, won in large measure through the efforts of the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World. An interested person would be hard-pressed to find evidence of progressive movements in Sheridan since those days. In 1989, a federal minimum and medium security prison opened there, and FCI-Sheridan is now the town’s largest employer.

In recent weeks, FCI-Sheridan has come to house over 100 immigrants and asylum seekers. Unidos Bridging Community, a Yamhill County-based immigrant rights organization, allied with other regional immigrant rights groups as the migrant detainees began to arrive at the facility. A vigil attended by 52 people was held at the facility on June 10. Meanwhile, the efforts to support imprisoned immigrants and asylum seekers held at a detention center in the city of The Dalles in north-central Oregon and in Portland at the Macadam Avenue Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center continued in full force.

The organizing activity in The Dalles has been particularly interesting as local activists there have won much community support and have kept up a strong presence in their community. Immigrant rights and faith community groups have frequently joined in protests in front of the jail in The Dalles and have learned much from the movement there. One of the key issues people pick up on when they visit The Dalles is the prison-industrial economy, since the facility was built to house people convicted of crimes from the immediate area but is now housing undocumented people facing deportation.

This arrangement has involved privatizing the jail or jail services in an effort to make the facility financially sustainable. The pressures resulting from these arrangements have led to several hunger strikes by people being detained there and to court challenges. People facing deportation who were held at a Tacoma, Washington ICE detention facility have rebelled and have been transferred to The Dalles, but protests at both facilities have led to additional transfers and to some improvements in conditions being made.

The resistance movement in The Dalles is a bright spot for Oregon. The movement there has taken on many political issues which speak to the local working-class communities and the struggle for social justice. The local people engaged in making the movement work are a determined and joyful group, multi-generational and forward-looking. As of this writing, another group of immigrants rights activists is using civil disobedience tactics to block the front gate of the Portland ICE center and is risking arrest. That group is calling for the abolition of ICE and linking the demand to ending racism and the prison-industrial complex.

The Yamhill County group coalesced with eight groups which work regionally on immigrant rights, labor, and political issues and broadcast a call for a solidarity vigil or demonstration near FCI-Sheridan on June 18. The small town is unfamiliar to people from outside of the area and is not easy to get to. Some people coming from Portland drove two hours in order to attend the action. Still, a crowd of over 500 people showed up to protest the detentions, the separation of families, ICE activity, and Trump policies.

A message for Father’s Day in Sheridan, Ore., June 18. | Unidos Bridging Community

Strong organizing efforts moved by Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project and Causa Oregon brought in the large crowd and kept people engaged for several hours. A local Church of the Nazarene provided parking and portable toilets. The crowd seemed to come largely from faith communities, but members of the American Federation of Teachers and the painter’s union and Portland Jobs with Justice were in attendance, as were immigrant rights collectives and members of the Communist Party and Democratic Socialists of America.

Union organizer and immigrant rights leader Sam Davilla and regional immigrant rights activist Alonso Oliveros sang moving music from the immigrant rights and freedom movements. Rep. Diego Hernandez, of Oregon’s District 47, also attended. Hernandez is a hero to Oregon’s immigrant rights and labor activists.

Also attending was Bill Burgess, a candidate for the Marion County Board of Commissioners. It was their 40th wedding anniversary, but Bill and his wife Cindy Burgess both attended the event. Bill Burgess is facing a tough electoral fight against a “pro-life” Republican. Neither Hernandez nor Burgess made much of their presence, keeping the attention on the issues. Sheridan’s police force has a reputation for being especially reactionary, but they were not out in numbers. Only three counter-protesters showed up.

Speakers at the rally drove home the points that the immigrants and asylum seekers being held at FCI-Sheridan come from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, and South and Latin America and that they are living under especially crowded conditions and are often unable to communicate with their cellmates.

At least some of those being held do not have access to their community and faith leaders and are being fed meals which violate their religious and cultural customs. They are, of course, separated from their families and communities.

Innovation Law Lab is assembling needed legal and support help and Unidos Bridging Community is collecting funds for phone calls and commissary items. People wishing to donate should send checks to Unidos Bridging Community, 309 NE Third St. Suite 1, McMinnville OR 97128 and should include “For Sheridan” in the memo line.


Bob Rossi
Bob Rossi

Bob Rossi is a long-time activist writing from Oregon.