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