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Advocates Palvinder Kaur and Silky Shah discuss the case of the El Paso 37, asylum-seeking detainees who have launched hunger strikes to protest their indefinite detention

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

On April 25, a dozen Sikh American activists embarked on a thousand-mile journey to raise awareness of the plight of the El Paso 37, 37 asylum-seeking Sikh detainees. The men, who have already carried out an extended hunger strike to protest their detention conditions, have been held for the past year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso, Texas, in some cases longer than a year.

For full disclosure, I myself am from a Sikh family and have reported on issues facing Sikh Americans for The Real News.

Now joining us to discuss this are two guests.

We’re joined by one of the members of the caravan to El Paso, Palvinder Kaur, who is a community organizer for the Jakara Movement.

And we’re also joined by Silky Shah, who is the interim executive director at the Detention Watch Network.

Thank you both for joining us.



NOOR: So, Palvinder, talk about why you decided to take this thousand-mile journey. And what have the detainees told you about the conditions that they have been facing for a year and sometimes longer?

KAUR: So I think we heard first about the El Paso detainees back in December. And that’s when one of our members have actually post about it on social media. But at that time, you know, it was still within the normal protocol, the six-month period for ICE. So it wasn’t–you know, it was on our radar. And I think it was after their hunger strike, but around that time, when we realized that it’s been way too long. It had been ten months since they had been detained, which shouldn’t have been that long. And so, you know, that’s kind of why we decided to go ahead and make the trek out there to try to meet with them, and also to raise awareness along the way.

So we had different stops. So we started the journey in Fresno, headed down to Bakersfield, where we were met by partner organizations and the media, and L.A., and so Pacoima and then Artesia. And we were going to make a stop in Phoenix, but because we got late in Artesia and due to the SoCal traffic we had to kind of miss that stop. But we went to El Paso. And we were fortunate enough to have one of our members actually meet with the detainees.

And it was–I think it was somewhat surprising, but not really, in terms of their stories and what they had told us about their time there. It was unfortunate that a Indian consul member /ɛmpiɵˈseɪni/ was actually allowed to meet with them, which is surprising, just because I think that they’re asking for political asylum from this country, and a member of the consulate is allowed to meet with them. I just don’t see how that makes sense.

And then, other than that, three of the detainees were actually isolated. They were put in isolated cells, and one was actually hospitalized. So, you know, it’s unfortunate that after the hunger strike that’s what happened and that’s how ICE is, you know, treating the detainees.

NOOR: Now, we wanted to get your response to what ICE told Action News. They Said, quote,

“ICE remains committed to sensible, effective immigration enforcement that focuses on its priorities, including convicted criminals and those apprehended … while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States.”

What’s your response to this statement?

KAUR: Yeah. So, according to–I mean, they didn’t do anything against the law. So they definitely did come here, and they were seeking political asylum, but they went according to the protocol and the policies that one does to seek political asylum. So they weren’t actually caught. So there are 32 seeking political asylum that arrived last summer, and then there’s probably a dozen or so more that arrived prior to that.

The 32 that arrived last summer, they actually turned themselves in. So, you know, they don’t have any criminal background, they didn’t do anything illegally here. They actually went to the ICE facilities themselves and turned themselves in as soon as they crossed the border, because that’s what they’re supposed to do.

NOOR: And, Silky, we just heard Palvinder describe the conditions that the El Paso 37 faced. Is this unusual or is this–how unusual is this for detainees in the immigration system? And we know that you were just at the White House earlier this week and a handful of people got arrested protesting against immigration policies, specifically quotas around detainees that need to be in immigration detention. Tell us what you know.

SHAH: So in terms of the experience that people have inside detention, something to keep in mind is that first and foremost the only reason anybody’s in detention is to show up to a hearing. So even if they had a crime–and, of course, these men did not, were not convicted criminals–even if they did have a crime, they’ve already served time for that crime, so they’re there just for an immigration status violation, which is a civil violation. And it’s usually in undetermined amount of time, which is what we’ve seen for them.

But across the board, of the 250 facilities across the country, there’s very little oversight. And, in fact, there’s no codified standards, meaning that, you know, people can have terrible food, you know, poor medical care, poor mental health treatment, thrown into solitary for very few reasons, and they’re incredibly isolated locations, very little legal service. And there’s no way of holding any of these facilities accountable. So I think it’s across the board for the immigration detention system and there’s little oversight.

The primary sort of purpose for both county jails and private prison companies is to turn a profit or to pad their county budgets, and that’s a priority, as opposed to the immigrant that’s been held in the facility. So I think it’s really common that we see these problems across detention centers around the country.

And then, in terms of the action that we had at the White House, it was on May 9. We had an action against the quota, the detention bed quota, which was started in 2009, that basically says that 34,000 immigrants are required to be detained at any given time. So that, you know, poses questions of, well, are you holding people in detention longer ’cause you have to fill this quota? Are you looking for particular people to deport just so you have to fill this quota? And so we have real concerns about having a quota system for a detention. And so the action was in front of the White House to say, you know, President Obama and Congress need to eliminate the quota and stop detaining people arbitrarily.

NOOR: And so that action is just the latest. We’ve seen many similar actions in the past weeks and months putting pressure on President Obama, putting pressure on Congress. Is there any sense that we’re any closer to achieving immigration reform and reforming these policies?

SHAH: That’s a really hard question to answer. I mean, I think, first of all, the Senate bill, which is the only thing that’s passed to some degree–of course, hasn’t passed both houses and hasn’t been signed into law, but it was passed by the Senate–it has some positive provisions, but for the most part it actually could make things a lot worse. And so people are very concerned, especially because of the border provisions that were put in at the sort of last minute that would increasingly militarize the border, which obviously, clearly have an impact on places like El Paso.

And so I think, you know, like, there is some potential for immigration reform to happen. What we’re seeing now, most likely it’s not going to happen. And what really needs to happen is we need to get Obama and the administration to respond and, you know, provide some relief provide some relief for folks. I mean, like you said, there’s been a ton of actions happening over the last year, especially the Not One More Campaign, which says, you know, why are you continuing to deport people when it’s clear that these immigration policies aren’t working? And we’re saying the same with the quota system, why do you have a quota system? The immigration policies aren’t working and we need to find some relief for people who are facing detention and deportation.

NOOR: And, Palvinder, let’s end with you. So Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world, but many people aren’t familiar with it, and especially the persecution that Sikhs face in India. Talk about why the El Paso 37 felt the need to flee for their safety and why they are seeking asylum in the U.S.

KAUR: So, unfortunately, we don’t know the specifics of the El Paso 37. Well, there is about 32 of them that came, so the numbers are a little bit off as well. But I think that it’s hard to say particularly just along with the legalities of their case. We don’t have too much of the details of why they came.

But, you know, for those who are not aware, you know, persecution against Sikhs has been happening since, you know, the beginning of the religion, so over 500 years ago. But even, you know, in the early ’80s–it’s been going on since the early ’80s. And it hasn’t been–there hasn’t been much improvement. You know, in 1984 there was Sikh genocide. And it continued into the ’90s.

And, you know, there were no answers for those who went missing or disappeared. And there are a number of, you know, human rights groups such as Ensaaf. The Jakara Movement does some work, and we have an annual conference this year talking about the Sikh genocide. And so, you know, the persecutions have been going on for a while.

And so, as Sikhs, it’s our duty and our responsibility to fight for justice. And this is why, you know, this cause is such a priority for us. And it’s been on our radar for a while. So we started doing the Alternative Winter Break in 2011 with college students to go to the border and partner up with–the Mexico-Cali border, and partner up with an organization called Border Angels. And it’s just to raise awareness in terms of the sad things that are happening at the borders and that are happening with immigrants that we don’t see and that we as individuals don’t see in our [daily] lives. But those who have people coming over or know those who are crossing over, they see it and they witness it. But, you know, college students can go on with their lives and never witness this. And we want to raise awareness to the injustices that are happening.

NOOR: And so in 1984, thousands of Sikhs were killed across India. And as you mentioned, no one has really been held accountable, no top government officials have ever been held accountable for those crimes.

KAUR: No. There are still cases that are pending. Luckily, Ensaaf is probably one of the groups that is on the forefront in fighting at the battle line, whether it’s in India and in Punjab or here to raise awareness. And it’s great work, and they’re making progress, but of course, you know, no one’s been held accountable for it.

NOOR: Well, we’ll certainly keep following developments in this story.

I want to thank you both for joining us, Silky Shah and Palvinder Kaur. Thank you so much.

KAUR: Thank you.

NOOR: You can follow us at The Real News on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments at Jaisal Noor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Silky Shah is the Interim Executive Director at the Detention Watch Network (DWN), a national coalition of 200 organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the U.S. immigration detention and deportation system and advocating for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons. She has worked as an organizer on issues related to detention, mass incarceration, racial justice and immigrants rights for over a decade. Before joining DWN in 2009, Silky worked with Grassroots Leadership fighting the expansion of for-profit private prisons on the U.S.-Mexico border and with Democracy Now, as an outreach organizer.

Palvinder Kaur currently works as the Community Organizer for the Jakara Movement and is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. A firm believer in social justice, she has helped establish Bhujangan Kaur Leadership Retreat for young girls and the Sikh Honor and Service Society to honoring and promoting academic excellence, leadership, and service.