Last summer, forty Sikh men from Punjab were brought to an El Paso-based Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility, a facility that Colorlines reports predominantly houses immigrants from India or Central America seeking political asylum in the United States. All forty of the Punjabi men — most aged 22 to 27 years old — were politically active in a Sikh minority party in Punjab, and all forty were targeted by opponents with violent retribution for their political activities.
Says Buta Singh, one of the detainees: “They will kill us if we go back, sir. That’s why we came here — to protect our lives.”
So, the forty men fled to America, and were brought to the El Paso facility immediately upon their arrival, hoping to receive political asylum in America.
Instead, these forty men have spent the last 11 months imprisoned in an ICE detention facility, while their cases languish in administrative limbo. And now, faced with a seeming indefinite detention, they have been forced by government inaction to launch a hunger strike in a final desperate plea to draw attention to their case.
According to ICE protocol, immigrants seeking political asylum in the United States are detained until they can demonstrate to an immigration judge that they have “credible fear” of a “significant possibility” that they will face persecution or torture if returned to their country of origin. ICE protocols require that asylum seekers wait at least 48 hours prior to administration of their “credible fear” interview; if the asylum seeker is able to demonstrate “credible fear”, a second interview is to be conducted no more than 7 days later to determine whether or not the asylum seeker qualifies for parole — which basically establishes that the asylum seeker can be released pending further processing of their immigration application either due to medical concerns, or if they pose no significant threat to the public and are not a flight risk.
This is the point at which ICE seems to have simply forgotten about these 40 Punjabi men.
Many of the men have been detained for a far longer period than is reasonable — as long as 11 months for one detainee. Several have had their first “credible fear” interview administered, and those who have had those interviews have passed. All of the men have even provided documentation of relatives living in the United States who are either citizens or permanent residents, speaking directly to the issue of these men being a potential flight risk.
By ICE’s own established procedure, these asylum seekers should have been granted a parole interview and subsequent decision nearly a year ago.
Instead, for nearly a year, nothing has happened.
These men have committed no crimes. They face no criminal charges. They are not a danger to the public. They do not pose a flight risk. And yet, they are being denied their freedom and are instead being detained — seemingly without end — under prison-like conditions.
Late last December, the men attempted to protest their continued detention and ICE inaction, but the protest was almost immediately ended by ICE guards. Meanwhile, mainstream media and even online blogs have failed to bring attention to these men and their case.
This week, the men have launched a final desperate effort to force attention to their cause. Last Tuesday, the 40 men started a sustained hunger strike; as of right now, 37 of the men are still refusing to eat, hoping that this protest will finally bring the full weight of the media to bear upon the months of ICE inaction in their cases.
ICE reports that the men have all been advised of ICE hunger strike protocols, which involves access to food outside of scheduled meal times, routine physician checks, and the possibility of forced feeding if the detainee’s life or health is in danger — a procedure that is, itself, controversial and can be traumatizing.
The countdown now begins. We must do everything we can to try and draw attention to the plight of these men, and thereby spur ICE into necessary action. These men have been traumatized enough by the threats of violence against their body in Punjab; at the very least, they deserve the right to expediency in the processing of their immigration status, not a lengthy and unjust detention as the forgotten victims of government inaction.
Act Now! 18MillionRising has joined forces with The Aerogram to create a petition urging ICE to release the #ElPaso37 and more efficient processing of the cases of all asylum seekers currently being detained in ICE facilities — please sign it and share it with your networks!
Update: A breaking article from the El Paso Times suggests that the hunger strike may have ended. However, these reports are unconfirmed by the detainees’ own lawyer, and further do not mitigate ICE’s ongoing inaction over this case. It shouldn’t take a hunger strike to get people to pay attention to the failing bureaucracy of the immigration process in this country, and the ending of a hunger strike should not justify a return to mainstream inattention to this issue.
Update (4/19/2014): A report from The Hindu reveals some additional details. After lasting a week, the hunger strike was ended by most of the detainees this past Monday. However, 6 of the detainees were hospitalized after they attempted to continue the hunger strike further into the week: Harmandeep Singh was taken to a hospital outside of the El Paso detention facility whereas five other detainees were treated in the facility hospital. With the hospitalization of the 6 men, the hunger strike has effectively ended.
In addition, 5 unnamed detainees were transferred to a special area of the ICE detention facility called LO-AHA, described as a prison-like 5 x 10 foot room with a toilet and a bed where criminally dangerous detainees are held. The detainees’ lawyer told online advocates yesterday that he has been unable to get in touch with his clients for the past two days.
Update (4/21/2014): Contrary to reports from the El Paso Times, The Times of India is reporting not only that the hunger strike continues, but that there are more than 100 detainees participating in the strike. Thus, at the moment, conflicting reports are emerging out of the El Paso detention facility; I will work with advocacy groups to try and get confirmed details.