Several youngsters from villages in Punjab, who arrived last June in El Paso, Texas, by foot via the U.S.-Mexican border seeking asylum, have been held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities for more than a year.
The 70 detainees — former farmworkers in their ‘20s who belong to a minority political group in Punjab which once advocated for the creation of Khalistan — have all passed “credible fear interviews,” which determine whether they face tangible harm in their home countries. Passing a credible fear interview normally allows a detainee to be paroled on bond from ICE detention and live with friends or relatives while the asylum case is reviewed.
In this case, however, most applications for parole during the asylum review process were denied, and many of the men were deported.
Ironically, even after many of the men had been formally declared deportable, they were still held for an inordinately lengthy wait period in ICE detention facilities, while the Indian government processed their travel documents.
John Lawit, a Dallas, Texas-based attorney who represents 15 of the asylum seekers, told India-West that all detainees will be granted asylum as ICE has bungled the matter.
Shortly after their arrival, ICE officials coerced the men to return home, in violation of rules determined for U.S. asylees. Several of the detainees were re-located to other ICE detention facilities across the country, but 37 of them remained in El Paso.
In April, the El Paso Punjabi prisoners embarked on a hunger strike. ICE officials allegedly attempted to force feed them, according to Lawit, but failed. Prison staff tried to lure the hungry strikers with promises of tandoori and roti, which Lawit termed cruel.
The Indian Consulate in Houston, Texas was then called in to intervene. Lawit claimed that Consul N.S. Saini came to the facilities and attempted to coerce them to return home.
“India is a good place,” said Lawit, quoting Saini. The prisoners asked if they would be guaranteed safety if they returned to India. The Consul allegedly told them he could not, according to Lawit.
As the conversation became more heated, Saini threatened to send all the detainees back to India and jail them in the notorious Tihar prison in New Delhi, according to Lawit.
Saini could not be reached for comment.
“ICE lost it, it broke the law. The (detainees) were outed by the U.S. government. ICE goons and the Indian consulate threatened them,” all in violation of laws protecting asylum seekers, Lawit told India-West.
Asylees have protection of anonymity, especially from their native country. By invoking Saini into the melee and naming the detainees to the Indian Consulate, ICE violated rules that virtually guarantee that all detainees in this case will eventually receive asylum, stated the attorney.
Satnam Singh Chahal, executive director of the North American Punjabi Association, told India-West he believes there are many more Punjabi asylum seekers in ICE detention. An e-mail he received from ICE reported 93 detainees, eight who were there on criminal charges for violating immigration laws.
But Chahal believes there are many more, as ICE obtained its statistics simply by plugging in Singh or Kaur as the parameters for a search. “There could be double or triple that number,” he said.
The Indian American activist said the detainees were being held in substandard conditions, and forwarded an e-mail he had sent Aug. 29 to Jesus Planceia, ICE assistant field officer at the El Paso Service Processing Center.
In the e-mail, Chahal wrote that he had spoken to several of the detainees in El Paso, who said the cooling system in Barrack L-Charlee – where 165 people are being detained – was not working. With outside temperatures reaching over 100 degrees in the past two weeks, asylees told Chahal it was difficult to breathe and sleep in the overheated barrack.
“This is not only inhumane but also a violation of human rights and discrimination of a specific community,” Chahal wrote to Planceia.
Planceia wrote back, referring Chahal to another official. Five days later, nothing had been done to remedy the situation, reported Chahal.
Chahal would not comment on whether Sikhs still face a tangible threat of physical violence in India. Nor would he say whether the freshly-elected Modi government posed an additional possibility of endangerment to his minority community. NAPA is fundraising to secure money for bail bonds on which certain asylum seekers can be released while their case is processed.
A group of students from Fresno, Calif., who call themselves the elPaso37, travelled by bus from Fresno to El Paso last April to draw attention to the detainees during the hunger strike. They are now attempting to draw attention to the situation over social media.