The blanket detention of Sikh asylum seekers is a loss to U.S.

Buta Singh, a Punjabi asylum seeker, waits in a security line for his immigration hearing at US Immigration Review Court in Seattle, Washington, on January 11, 2017. In spring 2013, Buta Singh, a 34-year-old Sikh from Punjab, India, fled his homeland for fear of religious and political persecution, hoping for a new start in the United States. (Getty Images)

The detention and deportation of Sikh asylum seekers opens a window, however small, on the confusion and incoherence surrounding immigration policy in the White House.

If Sikhs, thought to be by far the largest component among “Indian” border-crossers, have become a target — the United States Border Control folks tell me they don’t differentiate by religion — why are blanket rejections happening now?

There is the political factor. The arrival of “Indians” at both the northern nd southwestern borders of the U.S. have risen significantly over the last five years, especially in 2017 and 2018, according to data on government spreadsheets. This period would cover the BJP government’s first term in power under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Many Sikh asylum seekers have tried (and failed) to claim fear of persecution. Whether or not such claims can be justified, as critics argue they cannot, Sikhs may be apprehensive about another election in April and May, and possible attacks on minorities in India, as some commentators in the Indian media suggest.

Ethnic supremacy, religious nationalism and attacks on minorities do not seem to sway the Trump administration, as the American president’s astonishingly inadequate response to the massacre of refugee Muslims in New Zealand on March 15 demonstrated. The U.S. is also involved in delicate trade and tariff negotiations with the Modi government and would not want to upset the Indian officialdom.

Canada’s experience over the past year may be instructive. After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got a very cold reception from Modi on a visit to India for business and politics in February 2018, Canadian reporters were told unofficially that the Indian prime minister thought his Canadian counterpart was “soft on Khalistan,” a Sikh independence movement. (A Canadian Sikh once convicted of attempted murder of an Indian official was part of Trudeau’s traveling entourage.)

Reporters learned that India was concerned that a big spike in Sikh migrants and asylum seekers among Indian arrivals in Canada might mean support for radical Sikh organizations there. Most of the newcomers were reported to be from Punjab and Haryana.

The National Post in Canada reported that most asylum seekers arrived with temporary residence visas. John Ivison wrote in that newspaper in November 2018 that he had obtained government reports of refugee claims for the first six months of the year, and these may have been used to buttress the Khalistan theory.

Arbitrary Arrest and Abuse

“A frequent basis of claim[s] cited by Indian nationals is the fear of arbitrary arrest or abuse by the police based on accusations of supporting militant organizations,’ Ivison wrote, adding that the government report said that “It should be noted the vast majority of these claims are filed by Indians Sikhs.”

Sikh militants seeking independence or autonomy have staged violent attacks in India, but nothing so spectacular as the blowing up of an Air India 747 off the coast of Ireland June 1985, killing 329 passengers and crew on a flight from Toronto to Delhi.

On their side, Sikhs had suffered thousands of horrific deaths at the end of October and into November 1984 as killer mobs in part fielded by “secular” Congress Party politicians ransacked their homes, businesses and neighborhoods after Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The marauders were engaged in an act of bloody revenge for the assassination, targeting Sikhs in Delhi and across North India.

Her death followed by less than five months Gandhi’s decision to send troops into the Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in pursuit of a militant leader.

Troops defiled its marble floors with their combat boots and destroyed priceless books and relics in the compound. Sikhs also remember that as carnage raged through Delhi after Gandhi’s murder, the home minister at the time, P.V. Narasimha Rao, did nothing to stop the death and destruction for days. He later became prime minister.

The United States does not share these memorable horrors with India or Canada, but perhaps the sudden influx of Sikhs in the U.S. is enough to fuel fears among some in Delhi that the would-be Sikh migrants are up to no good.

There are no agreed statistics on how many Sikhs there are in the U.S., but even at a very high guess of about 500,000, their percentage of the American population is miniscule. Intermarriage and the conversion of non-Indian Americans to the Sikh faith make definitions difficult.

Sikhs in the U.S., however, even supporters of Khalistan, don’t bear that baggage of violence in the eyes of those Americans who know anything about them.

The first Sikhs who came to the U.S. in the late 19th century with their agricultural expertise soon emerged as the most successful, hardest-working farmers in California. Over the years, they also became successful business people, shopkeepers and high-tech experts, among other professions.

In 1999, a Sikh legacy blog claimed that in Yuba-Sutter counties, Sikh farmers accounted for 95 percent of peach farming, 60 percent of plums (prunes) and 20 percent of almonds and walnuts.

Marked by their turbans, they frequently faced ridicule and abuse, a prelude to what confronted them in the months and years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, when ignorant bigots, taking them for Arabs, shot and killed innocent Sikhs in Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Washington and Wisconsin.

Back in the White House, Trump and his xenophobic nationalists are saying they need “qualified” immigrants. And at the same time American farmers tell reporters they want help as their family farms are under stress. Though many Sikhs may have arrived as unskilled labor initially, they are now among the most educated immigrants the U.S. has ever admitted. Their middle-class families have often endured crippling economic hardship to pay for risky journeys.

In India, Sikhs delivered the Green Revolution. From the beginning of their migration to California, they made dry valleys bloom and provided crops that fed a growing population. This is an important part of their American story. If the U.S. wants to continue to be a leader in feeding the developing world through agricultural exports, why keep them out?


Barbara Crossette was formerly the New York Times chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and the paper’s UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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