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, after months of monotony and denied parole requests, Singh and more than forty other Sikh detainees staged a hunger strike, consuming only water for seven days. (Two Mexican asylum seekers joined them, in a show of solidarity.) 

Some of the strike’s leaders were hauled off to solitary confinement. ICE officials threatened to force-feed others. The protest made the papers in India, but it was barely reported on in the U.S.  

Then, several days into the strike, ICE did something unusual: it allowed N. P. S. Saini, a representative from the Indian consulate in Houston, to come and talk to the detainees. Sharing information about a person seeking political asylum with a representative of the very country that person is fleeing is unorthodox and a violation of federal regulations governing the confidentiality of asylum applicants. And Saini, a fellow Sikh, was not there to support the men’s cause. “ ‘You’re not making any headway here,’ ” Grewal recalls him saying. “ ‘You’re probably not going to get out.’ ” Saini even made a point of noting that the men were not “model” immigrants. “He told us, ‘What are you even doing here? None of you are doctors or engineers,’ ” Singh recounts. Then Saini pushed deportation papers into the hands of the Indian detainees and urged them to sign, stressing that they were unlikely to find any other way out of detention and assuring them that their travel back to India would be taken care of. After Saini’s visit, several of the detained men’s relatives in India received calls urging them to push the men to drop their asylum claims.

“[That visit] violates every protocol there is for the protection of asylum seekers,” says Dallas-based immigration attorney John Lawit, who represents Singh, Grewal, and five other Sikh detainees in El Paso. “Our government went out of its way to turn them in to their own government, and they did it with impunity.” (ICE and the Indian consulate did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) 

Asylum seekers are often vulnerable to manipulation because they are not guaranteed a right to an attorney. More than 80 percent of people in immigration detention lack legal counsel, says Silky Shah, the interim executive director of the Detention Watch Network. Melissa M. Lopez, the executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, says her organization would like to provide pro bono legal services to the Sikhs but can’t find Punjabi speakers in El Paso to help them communicate with the detainees. The only way Lawit has been able to talk with his clients is by paying a Sikh cab driver in Albuquerque $500 a day to drive down and translate for him. That’s one reason he’s trying to get some of his clients transferred to facilities elsewhere in the country. The fact that El Paso immigration courts have some of the highest rates of asylum rejection in the nation—88 percent compared with 49 percent nationally—is a concern for him as well. 

Though ICE hasn’t explained why Singh and his fellow Sikhs have been detained for so long, Lawit and other advocates for their cause point a finger at the 2009 federal appropriations bill, in which Congress, apparently trying to look tough on illegal immigration, mandated that 34,000 ICE detention beds be filled each day. In testimony before Congress last year, ICE director John Morton said that many detainees “did not require detention by law.” But his agency’s hands are tied by the congressional mandate. “The bed quota gives a green light to detention,” says Carlos Spector. “They’re telling ICE, ‘Don’t release. If you have a reason to detain, detain.’ ”

Lawit believes there are other forces at work as well, forces that are trying to stop the flow of immigration from Asia before it gets even stronger. “They’re trying to send a message to the smugglers by imprisoning these guys, and that message is ‘Don’t bring people here.’ ”

Singh, though, has not given up hope. Since the conclusion of the strike, two of his fellow strikers have been paroled, and another eleven have been transferred to an ICE facility in Alabama. Twenty-nine, including Singh, remain in custody in El Paso. On July 31, an immigration judge is scheduled to finally hear Singh’s case—fourteen months after he was first placed behind barbed wire.