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Fighting for Asylum Seekers Who Look Like Me

A Sikh American law student writes about working with detained Sikh migrants.

Essays, Nonfiction | Kanwalroop Kaur Singh
February 20, 2019

Editor’s note: Asylum seekers in Texas and Massachusetts are currently on hunger strike to protest conditions in immigration detention. Recently, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement began force-feeding nine migrants from India. On February 13, after a federal lawsuit and objections from the United Nations human rights office, a US district judge ordered ICE to stop force-feeding migrants.

My first year in law school I visit an immigrant detention facility in Calexico, on the California-Mexico border. The desert heat is unrelenting, like the border itself. The Joshua trees stand against the empty blue sky. The sun beats down and the sweat drips slow. Men cry here. Their big brown eyes are full of questions.

I am with a group of Sikh American community members. We are united by the fact that we look like those we visit, although we do not share their fate. We sing hymns of resilience with our detained brothers and sisters. We speak words of encouragement. We sit together, cry together, and hug one another. Behind the barbed wire of the detention center, the border is visible, a permanent stain upon the earth. I feel the border divides me. Had my parents never made it across, I could have been one of the detained: risking my life to travel miles and miles, jailed in an imperialist nation, beholden to the first-world masters of my fate.

A Sikh priest who accompanies us on the visit tells us that, a week earlier, a Sikh boy’s body was found at the bottom of a nearby river. That is when I feel the heat burn my back.

Everything I do is precedent. Those who look like me have not done this before. I tie my turban, and it hugs me like armor. Every day, on my way to law school, I walk past brick buildings the color of bloodstains, feeling shaken by the act of studying a legal system based upon British common law: I am the descendant of people colonized by an Empire that weaponized this very system of law against us. They used it to maim and mangle us into lesser versions of ourselves.

One hundred years ago, Sikhs in California studied, farmed, sang, prayed, and organized an anti-colonial movement into existence. They sought to break the chains of the British colonization of South Asia. They were charged with sedition and deported by US law, then imprisoned and hanged by British law. One hundred years later, at UCLA, I stand on illegally occupied Tongva land, learning to use the same legal weapons once used to justify the murder of my ancestors, and the ancestors of my indigenous classmates. Our presence in law school must be anti-colonial struggle, and we, like our ancestors, are subversive to survive.

FCI Victorville II – ICE is built on a toxic waste dump, a site that has been known to cause cancer and birth defects for the population that inhabits it. Like most prisons in California, Victorville is in the middle of nowhere. It was meant to be a federal prison, not an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center, but ICE needed some place to house the thousands they could not tolerate at our borders. When we visit Victorville, we must put our phones in ice boxes so that they won’t be damaged by the scorching heat.

Inside the facility, we must wait for about four hours before we are allowed to see clients. During that four-hour wait, two groups of detainees are transferred from the facility to unknown locations. We are told to remain in the visitor waiting room with the door locked. When we get right up close to the windows and peek through, we see brown and black feet shuffling by in orange clogs, chained together by steel. They are slow, heavy, resigned, a cruel picture of the system.

“How can this be your law?” they have asked us. I have no answer.

Sikhs have survived a long history of incarceration. Our people have been incarcerated as: political prisoners under Mughal rule during the 17th century, freedom fighters imprisoned and hanged by the British colonial regime in the early 1900s, peaceful protesters arrested and jailed for demanding the formation of a Punjabi-speaking state in India in the 1960s, and activists who were imprisoned and tortured during the struggle for Sikh sovereignty throughout the 1980s and 1990s—some of whom continue to be incarcerated today.

At a time when the US immigrant detention system has expanded to become the largest in history, incarcerated Sikhs now sit in desert jails in the southwestern United States. There are hundreds of them—detained Punjabi Sikh migrants in detention facilities all across Southern California. Theo Lacy, Adelanto, Victorville, Calexico.

Here I am, in their midst: one of just a handful of Punjabi-speaking, Sikh, soon-to-be attorneys in all of Southern California. I hope we can free them—this latest generation of Sikhs imprisoned for their resistance, political prisoners punished because they dared to move freely at a time when freedom of movement for formerly colonized people is deemed a crime.

I volunteer as a Punjabi interpreter. I translate a bond hearing for an unaccompanied minor. His hands shake and his legs are shackled together. On his notebook, he has scrawled, over and over and over again, Sikh prayers in Punjabi: Satnam Waheguru Satnam Waheguru Satnam Waheguru. Praise the divine spirit. Truth is its name.

We must wait, all of us, all the time, on the outside and on the inside. We must wait in courtrooms while we become sponsors for our children, we must wait outside courtrooms for a glimpse of our husbands, we must wait at detention centers to hug our cousins, we must wait for the only landline in our village to ring so we can testify for our nephew, we must wait to translate from Punjabi to English for our brother at his asylum hearing.

We must wait in waiting rooms for our clients while ICE officers question our credentials, we must wait for money to be transferred from India for bond, we must wait for our son, for whom we sold our land, to make the journey through South America and arrive at the US border, and we must wait for the words that will confirm he is alive; we must wait for them to give us back the turbans and the karas they took from us at the border, we must wait for the day we can taste masala in our food, we must wait to be able to shower, we must wait to use the prayer rooms, we must wait to see the sun, we must wait to meet our lawyers, we must wait to call our mothers and fathers, we must wait to be taken to court, we must wait while they strip search us, we must wait while they shuffle us into vans, we must wait while they mispronounce our names, we must wait while they speak to us in English, we must wait for the judge to affirm that we have faced religious and political persecution in India, we must wait to know whether we will be deported, we must wait while the walls close in. We must wait for release from this system, and from the way it grips us all.

Advocates of South Asian asylum seekers are accepting donations to support detained migrants.