37 Sikh Men Are Now On A Hunger-Strike at El Paso To Protest Their Detention


The Vaisakhi harvest celebration is a festive occasion of dancing, singing, music, and religious praise for many Sikh men and women, and marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year.

However, 37 Sikh men in El Paso, Texas, celebrated Vaisakhi in a truly unique fashion this year by launching a hunger-strike.

The 37 Indian nationals are detained at an immigration processing center in El Paso, Texas. How did they get there? Many, if not all, of them suffered religious persecution in their home countries, and tried to seek the protection of the U.S. by journeying through Moscow, Havana, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Guatemala, before finally handing themselves over at the U.S.-Mexico border and requesting asylum from the “land of the free.”

Immigrant rights advocates report that these men have been detained since at least last December, and many for much longer, despite their eligibility for release into the U.S. as asylum seekers.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not comment on individual cases. In the recent past, the agency has issued a memo that are relevant to the situation at El Paso. ICE recommends that asylum seekers–one of the most vulnerable groups of detainees–should be assessed for their “credible fear” of persecution in their homelands, and released into the U.S. to await the completion of their hearings, provided they do not pose a security or flight risk.

However, instead of assessing the men for “credible fear” and releasing them into the U.S. to complete the asylum process, U.S. authorities have detained them, charging many with not having proper documentation to enter the United States. Many of the men who are currently on their sixth day of hunger-strike, have already proven that they have credible fear of persecution in the United States.

The hunger strikers at El Paso are unique in that they are persecuted Punjabi men from India who are seeking asylum in the U.S., and they do not appear to be represented by counsel. 18 Million Rising has come forward and launched a petition to demand their release from detention:

We refuse to stand by as ICE and Homeland Security continue to break their own rules and violate human rights. We know that already two hunger strikers have been hospitalized, and many others are in danger. And we’ve also learned that ICE is on the verge of force feeding striking detainees — a practice that the United Nations has called “torture.”

As immigration reform has stalled in Congress, and the President has promised to look into “more humane” ways to carry out his deportation policies, immigrant detainees across the U.S. continue to be held in inhumane conditions. In Seattle, Washington and Conroe, Texas, immigrant detainees are have also launched simultaneous hunger-strikes to protest their treatment in private detention facilities. Many have been subject to retaliation through solitary confinement, and force-feeding, as well as mass deportation in an effort to end the hunger-strike.

The hunger-strikers at El Paso face a precarious situation. They cannot be deported because the U.S. authorities claim that the men do not have valid identifications from their home countries. And instead of trying to procure identifications through the Indian embassy, the U.S. may just leave the men languishing in detention indefinitely because taxpayers already pay for the beds they occupy in the facility.

Surely, there are better, “more humane” ways to treat those who seek refuge in this country, who are now starving to be free from our prisons.

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By Prerna Lal

Prerna Lal is undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic. As a founder of DreamActivist, Prerna helped to create a robust network of highly-organized and diverse undocumented youth with digital engagement capacity. Since then, her model of organizing has been used by immigration organizations across the country to end deportations. Her work and commentary for immigrant rights has been featured in newspapers such as The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, and magazines such as the US News and World Report, as well as international outlets in a dozen countries.

Prerna currently resides in Washington D.C. with her same-sex U.S. citizen partner, and has been a Board Director at Immigration Equality, an organization that works on issues around LGBT immigrants, since 2010. She is currently working on publishing her first book.