Asylum Politics

Why are dozens of Sikh refugees being detained in an El Paso immigration facility, months after they could have been paroled?
The exterior of the ICE’s El Paso Processing Center.
Photograph by Joel Salcido

In a small visitation room with painted cinder-block walls and one-way mirrors inside an El Paso immigration detention center, Gurbinder Singh sits at a metal table fiddling with his blue ID bracelet. Printed on the plastic band are the 26-year-old’s grainy mug shot, his birth date, and, perhaps most important, his “date of arrival,” May 20, 2013. That was when Singh walked north across a bridge that spans the Rio Grande and, in the little English he knew, asked a border guard for political asylum. Singh showed the guard the twin scars on the sides of his head that he incurred the previous December, when local police in the Indian state of Punjab struck him with batons for attending a rally for Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann), a marginal political group representing followers of the Sikh religion. That was the second time he had been attacked for his political activities. “A few days later my father told me, ‘I am really scared for your life, so you’re leaving today,’ ” Singh recounts through a Punjabi translator. So in January of last year Singh flew from Delhi to Amsterdam and then to a city in Suriname, where he spent more than a month in a safe house before traveling by car and bus—sometimes in the luggage compartment—up through Central America to Mexico.When he got to Mexico, he stopped wearing his turban and cut the long hair that is required of Sikh men. He did so on the advice of his smugglers, who told him that his appearance would make him too conspicuous. He was dazed at the end of his five-month, 12,000-mile journey. “I barely even knew this was America when I crossed,” he explains. 

When most people think of immigration across the Mexico-U.S. border, they think of impoverished Mexicans looking for work. But more than a third of the 414,397 people who were apprehended at the southwestern border of the United States last year were from other countries, and that proportion continues to increase as the number of Mexican immigrants falls dramatically. So many Chinese are being smuggled across the border that Mandarin was selected as the third language to print on the emergency rescue beacons that the Border Patrol has placed in the desert throughout the Southwest. The India-to-U.S. smuggling pipeline has gained popularity in recent years too: the number of Indian migrants apprehended while entering the U.S. in the past few years has ranged from 1,145 in 2009 to 3,837 in 2011, much higher than the 800 or so who were captured annually less than a decade ago. 

Of course, the immigration story grabbing headlines recently is the unprecedented wave of unaccompanied minors fleeing drug and gang violence in the Central American nations just south of Mexico, places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Their parents probably sent them to the U.S. hoping that they would find the same thing that Singh is looking for. “What I want is a life and a future for myself. I can’t have that in India,” he says. “We heard that anyone can make a life in America.”  


Singh at the processing center on June 6, 2014. (Photograph by Sonia Smith)

Instead, Singh has experienced something very different from the American dream he had hoped for. He has spent every day since his arrival—more than a year—inside a dorm room in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s El Paso Processing Center, a group of blue-and-white low-slung buildings tucked behind barbed wire near the airport. He’s one of dozens of Sikh men at the facility experiencing prolonged detention. They’re given laminated cards to use in the cafeteria to receive vegetarian fare, an hour of organized prayer every Sunday, and long stretches of blank time to obsess over their situation. “We came here out of fear for our lives,” Singh says, “but now they just keep us locked up. It’s almost worse.” 

When he began his difficult journey, Singh did not expect to be confined for so long. The same day he was detained, he passed his “credible fear” screening, an interview with a U.S. asylum officer that establishes whether an immigrant has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in his home country based on one of five factors: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. (Sikhs, a religious minority who make up 2 percent of India’s population, have long experienced persecution in their home country.) Passing a credible-fear interview makes a detainee eligible for parole from ICE custody until his asylum hearing. About 80 percent of detainees who pass their credible-fear tests are paroled before their hearing. Internal ICE policy states that asylum seekers can be paroled “provided the aliens present neither a security risk nor a risk of absconding.” Singh does not have a criminal history, and his uncle in Philadelphia would happily take him in. “He’s suffering,” said the uncle, Rachhpal Singh Grewal, in a phone interview from the liquor store he owns in Baltimore. “He calls me and tells me it’s not good in there. Sometimes he cries.”  

Though most detainees are paroled quickly, the El Paso detainees are hardly alone in their plight. The number of immigrants detained in the United States was once negligible; in 1981 around 2,000 people were held in immigration detention. By 2002 the number had jumped to 198,307. Ten years later it had more than doubled, to an all-time high of 478,000. In the El Paso area, the number of beds reserved for detainees has also more than doubled, growing from 840 in 2002 to 1,840 today. And many of the detainees occupying those beds have been held for months, despite no clear legal reason for doing so. “These are legal immigrants seeking refuge under the law,” says Carlos Spector, a seasoned El Paso immigration attorney. “They’re following the rule of law.” 

In the spring, many of the Sikhs decided they had waited long enough. “We had to do something,” says Harshdeep Grewal, another detainee. So on April 8,

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