On Friday, April 25, a group of young Sikh American activists piled into a van and drove 2300 miles from Fresno, California, to El Paso, Texas, on a mission. The activists, members of the Jakara Movement plus one staff member from Asian American activist group 18 Million Rising, were hoping to raise awareness about the dozens of Sikh refugees dubbed the “El Paso 37” who’ve been held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility for more than nine months. The detainees first came to public attention mid-April, when they began a hunger strike that ended on April 18, allegedly after threats of force-feeding.
In part because of news that Indians were entering the U.S. across the Southwest border in significant numbers, Jakara Movement members had been interested in immigration issues for some years now. So after hearing about the detainees, they mobilized a crew to investigate the story spreading across the racial justice blogosphere. They discovered more than 40 Punjabi detainees in Texas said to be in legal limbo — hoping the U.S. will grant them political asylum. The lawyer for some of the detainees says they have already established their reasons for seeking asylum, it’s not clear why they’re still in custody.
I talked to the Jakara Movement’s Deep Singh to hear about the group’s journey to see the detainees, dubbed “The El Paso 37.”
Can you share some highlights of the trip?
We had a caravan of 12. We we were going to make a 2,500 mile trip. We left [Fresno] about nine o’clock. Our first stop was in Bakersfield. We went to [a gurdwara] and had other groups come out and support us who we had been in conversation with, including Faith in Action Kern County, which is largely a Mexican youth group, but not exclusively. It was really great to have their support. They had been engaged with immigration issues for some time.
Our next stop was in Pacoima, California, which is in the San Fernando Valley. We stopped at the gurdwara called the Khalsa Care Foundation. There is a large sangat community out there, probably 50-75 people.
Then we headed out to Artesia, met up with friends, as well as Asian Americans Advancing Justice. We ended up flyering, getting people to sign the petition [to release the El Paso 37]. Then we ended up heading out to El Paso, arriving Saturday morning around 8 a.m., getting out to the ICE detention center around noon, where we held a rally.
A Sikh chaplain who got a chance to lead a service inside the detention center was able to share some general sentiments of the detainees with the [our] group. From information we gained from the person that got in, we’ve been taking care of [the detainees’] needs and going forward with how to help them.
Were the detainees aware that your group was there?
The Sikh chaplain that entered [the detention center] shared that information with the detainees, which gave them quite a bit of hope and quite a bit of excitement, that other groups in the United States were actually taking up their cause, and actually cared about them. Up until then, they had little to no visitation from anybody. A number of Punjabi organizations had been speaking on their behalf to the media, [but] the detainees shared they didn’t know who these groups even were.
What do you think are the takeaways from your group taking the trip?
The biggest thing was to raise [the detainees’] profile, and to have ICE know that people are taking this very seriously. What seems to be occurring is ICE is taking advantage of a situation where there’s no outside pressure for these people. Once you pass a “credible fear” exam, you should be released on parole very quickly, within six months. All of these men have passed their “credible fear” exam, so there should be no reason they’re actually being detained. These are asylum seekers. These are people who came in legally, went directly to the proper authorities and surrendered themselves. It seems like ICE itself, though having in some ways too much leeway, is being particularly punitive by indefinitely detaining them.
How can other concerned citizens help?
I’d say just by supporting activists that do this kind of work. We’re helping them get proper legal representation because a lot of them get taken advantage of by hack attorneys that end up not filing the papers because they know the person is a detainee and can’t hold them accountable.
You can find more information and pictures from the trip at ElPaso37.org. Want to support Jakara Movement and 18 Million Rising in their efforts to release the detainees? The caravan has ended, but they are still fundraising to support the campaign to free the El Paso 37.