President Donald Trump Nov. 1 announced his intent to ban asylum for people arriving on the U.S.-Mexico border, ostensibly to punish the “caravan” of migrants arriving from Central America, but also impacting the thousands of Indian Sikhs and other South Asians who have increasingly been arriving on foot via those pathways.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is housing hundreds of South Asian asylum seekers at a medium security federal prison in Victorville, Calif., where Sikhs are banned from wearing their turbans and provided no access to vegetarian food, in violation of federal laws. Others are being housed at medium security federal penitentiaries in Sheridan, Oregon; Seattle/Tacoma, Washington; La Tuna, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona. In 2015, 1,000 Sikh asylum seekers held at ICE facilities across the U.S., went on a hunger strike to demand the ability to practice their faith.
Immigration advocates believe the asylum ban would be beyond the scope of the president’s authority.
“This is not something he can implement with the stroke of a pen,” Pakistani American attorney Maleeha Haq, who specializes in asylum cases, told India-West.
Haq, who is of counsel with the Newark, Calif.-based Mathews & Peddibhotla Law Group and has represented asylum seekers in proceedings before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “The law is very clear. As long as you are in the U.S., you can claim asylum. This is just fear-mongering before the election.”
Indian American attorney Shikha Hamilton, who in August volunteered at the Karnes, Texas ICE detention center to help asylum seekers with their hearing, told India-West: “There is a real danger asylum seekers are trying to escape from. Imagine a mob taking over your town, recruiting your children into violence, and police not being able to help because they’re afraid.”
“Who would walk on foot that far with kids on their backs, through rivers, risking the dangers of the trek unless there was a real threat at home? They are escaping life and death situations,” said Hamilton, who with works the Brady Campaign & Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “They have a legal right to present themselves at the border, however they got there,” she stated.
“Asylum is not a program for those living in poverty,” said Trump in a speech at the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “There are billions of people in the world living at the poverty level. The United States cannot possibly absorb them all. Asylum is a very special protection intended only for those fleeing government persecution based on race, religion, and other protected status.”
The president denounced the nation’s asylum laws as antiquated. He stated there would be no bond hearings for those seeking asylum. “We're going to catch; we're not going to release. They're going to stay with us until the deportation hearing or the asylum hearing takes place. So we're not releasing them into the community,” said Trump, asserting that many asylum seekers released on bond never show up in court. “They never show up for the trials. They never come back.”
He said the Army Corps of Engineers would erect tents to house undocumented immigrants arriving at the border until their hearings, which will take years, said Trump, underscoring his attempt to punish people who arrive at the border.
Trump derided the credible fear interview which is the first step in seeking asylum. “An alien simply crosses the border illegally, finds a Border Patrol agent, and using well-coached language — by lawyers and others that stand there trying to get fees or whatever they can get — they're given a phrase to read. They never heard of the phrase before. They don’t believe in the phrase. But they're given a little legal statement to read, and they read it. And now, all of a sudden, they're supposed to qualify. But that's not the reason they're here.”
Haq told India-West the standards for passing a credible fear interview have become impossibly high with the advent of the Trump administration. People who don’t pass do not get a full hearing and are summarily deported, she explained.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has stated that domestic violence, gang violence, and similar brutalities by private parties no longer constitute eligibility for asylum.
Sessions has removed a lot of power from immigration judges, Haq told India-West, noting also that cases have to move fast because of the large number in the system, in violation of the due process rights of applicants.
Bond hearings are very difficult to get, said Haq. In the rare cases where bond is granted, it can be unusually high for South Asian applicants, she added, noting she has seen bond amounts of $40,000, which require an asylum seeker’s relatives in the U.S. to mortgage their homes.
Particularly tragic is the large number of children who show up in immigration court, almost always without representation. “It’s like the saddest day care you’ve ever seen,” said Haq.
“These are the world’s most desperate people,” said the attorney, exhorting the president to use his resources wisely by redirecting the funds he has used to send 5,000 troops to the border to add 5,000 judges and attorneys to immigration court.
“We are losing our humanity,” Hamilton told India-West. “Trump’s made-up rules are becoming more important than human lives.”