Astoria: Over 50 illegal Indian immigrants – seeking asylum in the US fearing religious and political persecution back home – are being treated like criminals in a federal prison in Oregon where they have been detained for the past several weeks now, volunteers from legal advocacy groups have alleged.
“It’s heartbreaking when you go in there and you see the young kids, ages close to starting from 18 onwards, 22 to 24 in those jumpsuits…and you wonder how they ended up being treated as criminals. They’ve not committed a crime, they have crossed the border and they have asked for refugee (status) or asylum and that is a law of this land,” Navneet Kaur, a community college professor, told PTI.
Over the past several weeks, Kaur has interacted with most of the 52 Indian inmates in the federal prison at Sheridan in Oregon. She has volunteered to work as a Punjabi translator for the non-profit legal firm Innovation Law lab, which is providing legal assistance to the illegal immigrants in jail.
“Right now, they are (in) a miserable (condition),” she said.
Of the 52 Indians, a majority of them are Punjabi speaking and are Sikhs.
When they were arrested, these Indian asylum seekers were chained, said Kaur recollecting her conversations.
“When they were in handcuffs and chains for 24 hours, they ate with their handcuffs on. Even the hardcore criminals are not treated like that. Then they were kept for 22 hours a day in a cell with people who did not speak their language,” she said. “It’s inhuman.”
The situation is worse for the Sikh inmates as their turbans have been taken away in the jail.
“In a country where everyone has the right to practice their own religion, these men don’t have turbans to cover (their head). Not even a piece of cloth to cover their heads,” said Kaur.
During the last few days, local community leaders have managed to give beanies to a few of the Sikh inmates so that they can cover their heads.
“They (Indian inmates) are in a state of shock,” said Kaur, adding that in spite of this, none of these Indian asylum seekers want to go back home. All of them are seeking asylum in the US on the grounds that they fear for their life in India and that they are subject to political and religious persecution, she added.
“They are feeling very shocked. I don’t know if that means that people are going to say I would rather go home because they’re fleeing for their lives. I think that they’re all feeling like is this worth it if I’m going to be treated this way,” Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, development director at the non-profit Innovation Law lab, told PTI.
The Innovation Law lab has filed a lawsuit to seek access to these inmates and has been providing legal assistance to all Indian asylum seekers who want it.
Some Indian asylum seekers have hired their own attorneys. As a result of the intervention of the Innovation Law Lab, the condition of these inmates has improved and they are being allowed to make both domestic and international calls.
Innovation Law Lab has been sending its legal team of volunteers – accompanied with translators like Kaur – to the Sheridan jail on a daily basis.
“I am horrified at how the US is treating people who are seeking asylum, at how they’re treating immigrants just in general,” said Muirhead.
“Right now there’s so much public attention on this issue, but in reality many of these issues that we have now have just gotten worse, but they were already there even before Trump was elected president,” she said.
“For example, the mass detention and deportation of immigrants was already ongoing before Trump was elected. But I think since his election, it’s just gotten to the next level. We already were detaining families, but now Trump is saying let’s detain them indefinitely. That’s taking it to the next level. So it’s very concerning,” added Muirhead.
Despite the inhuman conditions these inmates are living in, none of them are willing to go back home, said both Kaur and Muirhead.
The Indian consulate in San Francisco had recently sent its officials to meet these inmates. But it is not clear if these Indian citizens accepted the offer of the Indian government to help them go back home.
The next step for those who wish to seek asylum is to have a credible interview, which takes place between an asylum officer and the individual during which the official will try to assess whether or not they have been actually persecuted or have reasonable fear of persecution, said Muirhead.
Secondly, they will try to assess whether or not that persecution is related to the reason for seeking asylum, she added.
“If they receive a positive outcome in that interview and it’s determined that they do have a credible fear, then the next step for us would be to prepare to advocate for their release from detention,” she said, adding that the interviews are beginning now.
The Innovation Lab law has put in a formal notice to the government that it is providing legal counsel for a certain number of individuals. The government is required to tell them when they have scheduled the interview so that the lab can ensure that its clients are prepared, and accompany them to the interview.