A growing number of Asian Indians are crossing the border to seek asylum in the United States. In the 2019 fiscal year, there have been over 7,000 Indians in deportation proceedings in courts across the nation, making India among the top 10 nations with its citizens undergoing asylum hearings in the U.S., behind Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Venezuela.
The death of Gurupreet Kaur, a 6-year-old migrant child from India who died of heat stroke in a remote Arizona desert in June, has brought attention to people beyond Central America who are crossing the U.S. border without documentation.
Migration Policy Institute estimated that between 2010 and 2014, there were 267,000 undocumented Asian Indian immigrants in the country. Pew Research put that number closer to 500,000. But there’s no confusion around the fact that the number of undocumented Indians is rising rapidly.
Looking at border apprehensions along the southwest border, there were 77 Indian nationals seeking asylum in 2008 and that number jumped to 3,000 in 2017, which tripled to 8,997 in 2018, according to the U.S. Border Control.
The Los Angeles Times reported recently that at Victorville detention facility in San Bernardino County, approximately 40 percent of the detainees are of Indian nationality. A majority of Indian detainees are from India’s northern state of Punjab, and practice the Sikh religion, a minority religion in India. Young Gurupreet belonged to the Punjabi Sikh community.
When I observed an immigration court session in San Francisco about a year ago, I was taken aback at the number of Indians in the courtroom, all Punjabis, who spoke little English and were in removal proceedings. Eight out of the 15 cases I heard were of Punjabis from Stockton, Petaluma, Yuba City, Manteca, Clovis and Modesto and worked either in the trucking industry or as agricultural farm workers.
Punjabis have been fleeing India to seek better opportunities in the U.S. since the late 1800s. Many early Punjabi immigrants came armed with a deep respect for and expertise with farming to become agricultural workers in the Central Valley enclaves of Sacramento, San Joaquin, Imperial Valley and San Bernardino.
Others became part of the railroad and lumber crew. California Council for Social Studies noted that, between 1903 and 1908, 2,000 Punjabis were employed by Western Pacific Railways laying down a 700- mile stretch of roadway starting at Oakland and snaking eastward to Utah. When the railway and lumber jobs dried up, they reverted to their first love: farming.
According to a legacy blog, in Yuba Sutter county, Punjabi farmers account for 95 percent of peach farming, 60 percent of prune farming, and 20 percent of almond and walnut cultivation.
More recently, Punjabis have been steering the trucking industry, with 40 percent managing trucking companies and 150,000 Punjabis driving long-haul and other trucks.
Punjabis have been part of the diverse American identity for decades, yet little is known about this community. Punjabi Sikhs outwardly carry signs of their faith, marking them visibly different. In addition to a metal wrist bracelet, practicing Sikhs wrap their long, uncut hair in a turban, which has caused the uninformed to mistake them for Muslims making them targets of the metastasizing hate and bigotry, especially since Sept. 11, 2001.
Lack of knowledge of the Sikh religion and the cultural signifiers of the Punjabi culture have led to several atrocities committed against Punjabis in detention facilities.
There have been reports of Sikh detainees at Victorville being forced to take off their turbans and faith-bracelets. Journalist Sunita Sohrabji, writing for India West, quoted Deepak Ahluwalia, an attorney who works on Sikh asylum cases, as confirming these reports, “with no accommodations being made for religiously-mandated dietary restrictions” at Victorville.
Manpreet Kaur, a community organizer from the Punjabi community working for Jakara — a grassroots movement to foster a sense of identity among Sikh youth — talked to me recently about her visits to the downtown Bakersfield detention center. She estimates about 50-60 South Asian detainees at the facility with most being of Punjabi heritage.
Among the reasons cited for seeking asylum, Kaur said she heard “not having any other options,” “financial burdens” and “job scarcity,” in addition to minority repressions perpetrated by the Indian government.
But America has become numb to the idea of migrant hardship, so these reasons are losing relevance. Immigration judges are rejecting more and more asylum cases under the Trump administration. According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, in 2018, 65 percent of all asylum cases were denied, compared to six years ago when the asylum denial rate was at 42 percent.
With the changing composition of asylum seekers and the new ways the Trump government is rejecting and reconciling asylum cases, it is incumbent upon us, the American public, to acquaint ourselves with who we detain, how we detain and the histories of those we detain.
Given the increase of Punjabi Sikhs in detention facilities, this is the moment to pay attention to who Punjabis are, their migration journeys and the skills they bring with them. It is this knowledge that will humanize the community inside and outside the containment walls. It is this knowledge that will help us advocate for and make more informed decisions about the people we give refuge to.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan