In April 2014, 42 illegal migrants from Punjab, India went on a hunger strike in the federal immigration detention center in El Paso, Texas,where they were seeking asylum in the U.S.
Among them was Buta Singh, a clean-shaven Sikh of about 30, whose flight to escape alleged police torture the previous year had taken him first to Central America by air from New Delhi. From there he traveled north by land and was arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Border patrol.
He landed in the El Paso facility with others who were also seeking safety and freedom, allegedly from fear of arrests and continued torture in custody by state police. In India, they were suspected to be linked to a political group that, while not banned, was not in the government’s favor. The Texas detainee group, which included some women, received support from various civil rights advocacy organizations in the U.S., who alleged that they had been detained far too long — almost nine months — and immigration and customs officials had not even begun processing their asylum requests.
Historical reasons for Indian asylum-seekers
This was not the first time that undocumented Indians seeking asylum in the U.S. were caught at a port of entry, nor would it be the last time. Driven sometimes by a hostile socio-political climate that subjects members of one religious or political group to persecution by police or other government agencies, Indian asylum- seekers, especially from Punjab, have been coming to North America since at least the mid-1980s.
It was in that decade that then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched an army operation, code-named Operation Bluestar, inside the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The goal of the 1984 maneuver was to flush out Sikh militants fighting an armed struggle for the hypothetical state of Khalistan in Punjab. Many Sikhs fled from Punjab primarily to find asylum in Canada, but some also came to the U.S.
Asylum-seekers also came from Jammu and Kashmir during the height of militancy in the state and the consequent security forces operations. But experts say their numbers do not match those from Punjab.
In 2016, an in-depth story in BuzzFeed News chronicled the journey of El Paso detainee Buta Singh.
The story, based on extensive interviews with him and others, including ICE agents, said that in 2013, the year Buta Singh arrived in Texas, 83 percent of Indians facing deportation were imprisoned — a far larger percentage than for immigrants from any other country, including Mexico, which had the highest overall rate of detention between 2003 and 2014.
According to reports, the number of Indian nationals caught trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S. exploded suddenly in 2010, growing six-fold to 1,200 from just over 200 the year before.
In 2016, the Center for Immigration studies said in a report quoting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the number of people arriving at U.S. land borders and ports of entry to file asylum applications had soared dramatically in 2015 and was now about 10 times higher than it was in 2009.
The arrests in Oregon
Earlier in June, as many as 52 asylum-seekers from India, most of them Sikhs but also reportedly a few Christians and Nepalese, were held at a federal detention facility in Sheridan, Oregon, for being part of a large contingent of illegal immigrants. “Through our Punjabi translator, we learned that these men were planning to request asylum" because they allegedly faced “severe religious persecution in India," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who led a delegation of lawmakers visiting the facility.
The advocacy group, the Sikh Coalition, tweeted that as it recognized World Refugee Day on June 20, 42,500 people a day are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.
“This includes Sikhs that are now being detained at detention centers in states like Oregon,” the group tweeted.
Although violent police repression in Punjab, which was the order of the day at the height of militancy in the 1980s, has since died down significantly, many young Sikhs along with other Indians continue to come to the U.S. seeing asylum. Experts say their reason is not always political.
“The political basis for applying for asylum during the 80s might have been quite high but then one could argue that there is a democratic government in Punjab for the past many years, and it has sometimes been led by the Akali Dal party, believed to be the Sikhs’ party,” said Muzaffar Chishti, director of Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, in an interview with India Abroad.
“So, the argument of political persecution does not seem to hold at all these days as far as people from Punjab are concerned.”
The Asian Human Rights Commission, which studied 550 cases of reported custodial torture in India between 2005 and 2015, believes that state agents in India resort to torture to force persons in custody to confess to crimes, to extract bribes and to intimidate and silence them so they do not speak out against state agencies, powerful politicians, or financially or politically influential persons. It does not provide any figures for 2017.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees said in its annual Global Trends report in late June that more than 7,000 people from India filed applications for asylum in the U.S. last year. The U.S. was the largest recipient of new asylum requests in 2017.
Asylum seekers are not just from Punjab
But it is not just people from Punjab or Kashmir who have sought asylum in the U.S.
People from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s native Gujarat are among those seeking affirmative asylum unlike most Indians who plead for defensive asylum.
Affirmative asylum is sought by someone who has already entered the U.S. legally, as either a tourist, a student or an H-1B worker. People file for defensive asylum when caught at the port of entry or in deportation proceedings.
A Cleveland, Ohio law firm shares the story of a Gujarati women, identified as Mrs. P on its website. The attorneys describe how she came from Gujarat to the U.S. to further her education and begin a life free of discrimination and persecution. She and her family were said to be living not only in “a dangerous environment” of chaotic riots, attacks and bomb blasts in Gujarat, they were also “heavily persecuted” because of their native language and other forms of identity linking them to the Gujaratis. In May of 2018, she was granted asylum due to the potential dangers she could face if she returned to India, the law firm said.
In the fiscal 2016, a total of 1,800 Indians applied for defensive asylum, out of which 309 were granted and 201 were denied, and the rest of the applications were still being adjudicated, Chishti said, adding that sometimes an asylum application from one year may be decided the next year, or ever later. “Typically, people in deportation proceedings do better than others on visas who apply for affirmative asylums,” Chishti said.
Many motives for seeking asylum
Many experts believe that asylum-seekers from Punjab are driven to the U.S. more from economic considerations than political ones. The ground situation in Punjab is not what it used to be, they say. During the El Paso hunger strike, an ICE agent told BuzzFeed News that an overwhelming majority of these individuals from India were economic migrants. “They are young males seeking their fortune,” one ICE official was quoted as saying.
Prakash Khatri, who had been a Bush administration appointee as USCIS ombudsman, believes that while there may be a few genuine cases in India for people to seek asylum, by and large most such asylum applications, especially defensive asylum applications, are prompted by financial motives by poor people from remote villages of Punjab who are cajoled by human traffickers to go to the U.S. and apply for asylum. Most of these people, he said, have heard stories about someone from some village going to America and becoming rich, and they borrow money at exorbitant interest rates to pay the middleman a huge amount of money and take a chance in the hope of getting asylum.
“What happens is there are legends — and some of them are true — about people who have come on asylum to the U.S. and eventually got married and have been able to remain here and to become wealthy. Such success stories are circulated by the human traffickers and brokers to convince poor people to pay them huge amount of money in the name of ‘making them rich’ with a ticket to America,” Khatri said.
The theory of economic considerations rather than political or religious persecution as real ground for seeking asylum is also subscribed to by people like Dinesh Dhakal, a former Harvard economics lecturer who is a senior fellow at Duke Center for International Development. He said that in most cases such asylum-seekers are economic migrants to the U.S.
“In my opinion, there may not be solid grounds for people from India and Nepal to seek political asylum in the U.S. since both the countries have strong functional democratic setup,” Dhakal told India Abroad. He said the case of Bhutan may be different since there are still minority discrimination. However, Dhakal, who was economic advisor to Bhutan government in early 1990s, said there might be some individual cases in both India and Nepal that might merit asylum consideration on ethnic or religious grounds.
During the El Paso hunger, strike some officials described in newspaper interviews that a general suspicion exists among ICE and other agencies that over the years smugglers moving large numbers of Indians to the U.S. have evolved to coach migrants in how to plead for asylum once they arrive in the U.S.
Chishti said because it takes time to process asylum cases, which is known to traffickers, it has become “a pull factor” for Indian and other asylum-seekers to try their luck by illegally presenting themselves at the border. Still, the number of Indians is not as high in defensive asylum applications as the Chinese or the Central Americans, but Indians still are among top defensive asylum-seekers.
Chishti did not see any dichotomy in the fact that while people from India apply for asylum in the U.S., the country also hosts refugees and asylees from many countries, including Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. “There are some countries who do the same thing as India,” he said.
Khatri emphasized many times during the interview that there is an urgent need to put an end to human trafficking from India to the United States, under which Sikhs, Christians and even Hindus land up at the border by one way or the other, claiming persecution back home.
“It has become a huge racket thanks to the well-organized human smuggling ring in India who bring gullible and vulnerable people here, charging them tons of money and coaching them to parrot stories of persecution that they teach them at the port of entry. These people need to be prosecuted and deported to India and New Delhi also needs to look into the cases and apprehend the human traffickers,” Khatri said.
Satnam Singh Chahal, then executive director of North American Punjabi Association, had told India Abroad during the El Paso incident that human trafficking “is the hottest issue in Punjab and the state government should initiate measures for proper implementation of Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Bill to save the state's young people from fraudulent travel agents and human trafficking mafia.”
Khatri said in the past there had been some Hindus who had come here from Gujarat, claiming that they were persecuted by the Muslims and also Muslims claiming persecution by Hindus in the aftermath of Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence in parts of Gujarat in 2002.
“Such claims are preposterous. But in some cases, some Indians have been able to somehow convince immigration judges and managed to get asylum,” Khatri said. Chishti earlier noted that the threshold of “credible fear” is very low although the threshold of asylum is reasonably high and because of this sometimes even asylum officers, whose perception about a country is affected by the general discourse in the media will let an asylum seeker in the country.
“Because of this human trafficking and the organized smuggling racket, people in genuine need for asylum from many countries are often denied entry to the U.S. and because of a few bad apples everybody is painted with the same brush and suspected to have produced at the door by human smugglers. The situation needs to change,” Khatri said.