The first Asians to arrive in the Americas are believed to be Filipino sailors who landed in North America as far back as the late 1500’s, and who famously established a small settlement in Louisiana in the 1700’s. However, one of the largest influx of Asian migrants to America in the 19th century was comprised of Chinese labourers, merchants and students who starting in the 1820’s with the establishment of trade between the US and Asia embarked on the dangerous journey from China to the western shores of the Americas.
Chinese labourers — predominantly men — traveled to the United States throughout the 19th century, in addition to labourers from Japan, Korea and the Phillipinnes; all were enticed to make the dangerous ocean journey by promises of jobs or education in what the Chinese dubbed the Gold Mountain. In truth, these Asian labourers, or “coolies” as they were pejoratively called, were brought in under exploitative contracts as indentured labourers and found themselves working for bare subsistence wages as part of the manual workforce that sustained the economies of Hawaii and the Southwest. As a cheap source of labour, they worked in sugar plantations and in other agricultural positions, and were essential in completion of the western lines of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Despite early excitement that greeted Asian American immigrants, for most of the 19th century, Asian American labourers found themselves despised as invaders that threatened to erode American culture and economic opportunities, and thus targeted by laws designed to minimize their integration into American society. Starting in 1862, California imposed a monthly head tax on every Chinese in the state, and other laws excluded Chinese residents from living in most residential areas, resulting in the formation of Chinatown ethnic enclaves. Chinese immigrants, as well as other Asian immigrants, were also routinely victimized by vigilante mobs; they were run out of their homes, robbed, and even murdered.
By May 6, 1882, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an immigration law that codified Yellow Peril fears by functionally banning all further immigration from China. This law stood for nearly 60 years.
The process for seeking asylum in the United States involves an asylum seeker demonstrating “credible fear” of physical violence to ICE if returned to the country of origin; if credible fear can be demonstrated, a second interview to establish a parole decision — parole is granted if the applicant is neither a threat to public safety nor a flight risk — is to take place no less than 7 days after the “credible fear” interview.
It is at this step that the El Paso 37 have been stuck for nearly ten months in the El Paso detention facility. Although most have demonstrated credible fear, and have further provided documentation that they are not a flight risk, these asylum seekers are being held — seemingly indefinitely — awaiting their parole decisions. They have not been charged with a crime, and yet have had virtually all freedom removed from them. Instead, these forty arguably non-violent asylum seekers — who each should have received a parole decision last year — have instead been senselessly detained for far longer than is reasonable under the watch of armed guards, at a total cost of nearly $1.9 million dollars to the American taxpayer.
The case of the El Paso 37 is a clear example of the need to engage in comprehensive immigration reform of our current system: one characterized by inefficient or arbitrary red tape while it simultaneously mandates that prospective immigrants live in administrative limbo — unable to work, to marry, to travel — for months or years at a time while awaiting ICE decisions. It is a commonplace story that applicants awaiting visa decisions are separated for years from their family, unable to even return to their country of origin for such personal events like a sick parent or a dying sibling lest they nullify their application; alternatively, affianced couples may be forced to live in separate countries for years while awaiting marriage-based green cards. For the El Paso 37, as for every hopeful immigrant into the United States, dealing with this country’s broken immigration system too often results in a life interrupted.
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.