37 of them on hunger strike since April; consular officer warns they will be deported

A harrowing journey that began for Simranjeet Singh (22) in New Delhi in January 2013 culminated five months later on a warm night, at one end of a massive bridge in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

But as he stood on the Mexican side of what is euphemistically known as ‘The Bridge of the Americas,’ Simranjeet Singh’s mind must have raced as the unknown men who had transported him through multiple countries across the world shoved him towards the bridge offering him a simple choice: walk across it onto U.S. soil or throw yourself into the dark waters beneath and swim.

Search for remedies

This week, in what was said to be their first ever media interview since their detention by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the other side of that bridge, Simranjeet Singh, from Kapurtala, Punjab, and another detainee, Sarabjit Singh (29), from the Shahid Bhagat Singh district, Punjab, spoke to The Hindu about their journey, their incarceration and their search for legal remedies.

Their account indicates that their attempts to win asylum in the U.S. — the only realistic option for them — appear to be running into a dead end leaving a question mark on when, if ever, they will be able to leave the detention facility.

Along with these two men, at least 54 individuals appear to have been transported from Punjab to Mexico in 2013, via a circuitous global route involving Moscow, Havana, Ecuador, El Salvador, Surinam and Guatemala, only to wind up as detainees in the El Paso ‘Processing Centre’ of ICE.

En route, Simranjeet Singh said, his Indian passport taken from him after he left Surinam, by a group of men who met him outside an airport. They also took away all his other papers and personal belongings including clothes, he added.

Harassment in India

However brutal this journey may have been for the detainees, their accounts suggest that their reality in India was worse. Most plead for asylum on the grounds that they are victims of “political harassment,” of one sort or the other back home, including by local police, and a sizeable number of them have passed what ICE calls “credible fear interviews.”

Both men who spoke to The Hindu said they had family members in the U.S. who were trying to help them build the case for asylum, but they have run into roadblocks such as the asylum officer in charge, in Houston, Texas, refusing to return their calls.

In protest, at least 37 of these detainees were confirmed to have been on hunger strikes since April, with reports also surfacing that some among them subsequently required hospitalisation, even in off-site locations.

While Simranjeet Singh may have chosen the “safer” option of walking across the bridge from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, the fact that he did not have papers classified him as a case of ‘Entry Without Inspection,’ immigration attorney Sheela Murthy said to The Hindu, and under U.S. law he could thus be subject to mandatory detention and possible deportation.

Further, Ms. Murthy explained, the credible fear interviews may represent only the preliminary steps in the asylum-seeking process and an Affirmative Asylum Application may have to be filed — and it was not clear that the detainees had done so.

India’s reaction

Meanwhile the Indian consulate in Houston sent its representative to meet the detainees on April 14 and, according to an Indian embassy spokesman, “The Consul expressed readiness of the Consulate to grant travel documents at the earliest after ascertaining their Indian nationality to any detainee who sought them.”

Yet according to the detainees, the consular officer, whose name is known to The Hindu, said to them that they were not “engineers, doctors or graduates, so why would the U.S. grant you a visa?” The officer also reportedly warned that they would be sent back to India.

Neither the Indian consulate in Houston nor Ms. Zamarripa provided any further reactions to the details supplied by the detainees.

Satnam Singh Chahal of the North American Punjabi Association (NAPA), a group providing legal assistance to the detainees, said that this case highlighted the problem of “human trafficking” as a criminal act that had victimised Punjabis.

Even as their cases hang in apparent limbo Simranjeet Singh said, “We don’t even care about food and water anymore — just give us freedom.”

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