SEATTLE: In the spring of 2013, Buta Singh, a 34-year-old Sikh from India’s Punjab state, fled his homeland out of fear of religious and political persecution, hoping for a new start in the United States. It has been a bewilderingly long and brutal quest, spanning a traumatic 10-week journey, 11 months in detention and several years in legal limbo, with no immediate end in sight and new US President Donald Trump now looming large.
On a recent afternoon in a busy immigration courtroom in downtown Seattle, Singh’s appeal for asylum was finally scheduled for trial-on October 8, 2020. “I can’t do anything without patience,” he said afterwards. “I just want a safe place-my life in India is all done.” Trump has begun his term with hardline actions on immigration, temporarily barring the arrival of all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and beginning the process of building a wall along the country’s southern border with Mexico.
Singh’s tale illustrates the emerging and complex nature of the ever-evolving US immigration landscape. Although small in number compared to the hundreds of thousands arriving annually from Mexico and its neighbors, migrants and refugees from beyond the region like Singh now make up a significant and steadily rising proportion of those reaching America’s southern doorstep.
And they have stretched its sprawling immigration system, from border enforcement to asylum adjudication, with no signs of abating. Last year, the US detained more than 32,000 individuals from countries beyond Mexico, Central America and Cuba either trying to cross illegally or deemed inadmissible at entry ports, according to a review of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data. The largest number came from Haiti (6,503), followed by Brazil (4,665), India (3,622), Ecuador (2,996), China (2,595) and Romania (2,569).
“I’d always represented people smuggled through Latin America… what was a trickle many years ago is now a tidal wave,” said John Lawit, a Texas attorney representing Singh and many other such asylum-seekers. The spike over recent years includes thousands of people from countries Trump has included in his visa ban-such as Somalia, Syria and Iraq-and other nations the US has long considered particularly vulnerable to terror-related activity and recruitment, like Pakistan.
The overwhelming majority presented themselves at official crossings where they could claim asylum-rather than attempting to enter illegally. So far, no terror-related incidents on American soil have been linked to any such arrivals. But an executive order issued last week by Trump, ordering authorities to start building a wall on Mexico’s border, said: “Continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States.”
It added: “Among those who illegally enter are those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct.” Congressman Ted Poe, a Texas Republican who serves as chairman of the House’s subcommittee on terrorism and trade, noted that during a visit to his state’s southern border, officials had detained three people from Ukraine.
“How did Ukrainians ever find Texas?” he said. “Word needs to get out that you’re not getting into the United States across the southern border because we’re going to have border security.” Experts say criminal networks and South American emigrants forged this increasingly well-trodden route over decades. They give various reasons for the recent surge, from word-of-mouth and recruitment by traffickers to recession in Brazil and natural disasters in Haiti.
Roads, rivers and jungles
Singh’s journey highlights the perils of the path. After his father sold land and paid smugglers in India about $40,000, he flew via Europe and South America to Nicaragua. From there, he was hidden in suffocating bunks in truck cabins, traveled on rivers using ramshackle rafts and trekked through jungles.
A smuggler in Suriname stole his passport; Honduran military police demanded bribes, he said. A vegetarian by faith, Singh found little he could eat, and often went long periods without water. “I think nobody treats an animal like this,” he recalled tearfully. “I thought, ‘I may die’.” Singh finally reached the American border at El Paso, Texas, to claim asylum.
Under US law, arrivals without entry visas join those apprehended crossing illegally in expedited removal proceedings. However, officials interview anyone expressing fear of persecution back in their home countries. If deemed credible, they can then appeal deportation in a lengthy asylum process. Those who can prove their identity and ties to a community-through a relative, sponsor or employer-can also win relocation of their case and bonded parole. Courts in southern border states saw a 21 percent rise in non-Central American cases last year, according to Justice Department data.
‘Felt like a criminal’
Singh, who has a sister living in Seattle, passed his asylum interview three weeks after arriving. But an El Paso immigration judge repeatedly denied him parole, transfer, and appeals against deportation. So after 10 months, Singh joined a nine-day hunger strike with dozens of other Indian detainees. “I felt like a criminal there,” he said.
After a diplomat from the Indian consulate in Houston visited the group, Lawit got Singh’s case reopened and transferred to Seattle. Within a month, he was paroled on a $7,000 bond, living with his sister’s family, and working first at a gas station and then as a driver for his brother-in-law’s trucking company. The transfer improved his asylum chances.
In El Paso, judges approved on average just three percent of asylum appeals between 2011 and 2016; in Seattle, it was nearly 40 percent over the same period, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University shows. – AFP