As I have been reaching out to faith-based organizations (FBOs) about their work with immigrants, I contacted The Sikh Coalition and was surprised by the number of Sikhs who have attempted to cross the U.S. southern border. After migrants from Latin America, more Indians are detained at the U.S. southern border than citizens of any other country. In the last decade, the number of undocumented Indian nationals apprehended while crossing the southern border into the United States has significantly increased. In 2009, just over 200 Indian migrants were detained, and in 2019, nearly 10,000 Indian migrants were detained at the southern border. Many of these migrants are Punjabi Sikhs who fled India and arrived to plead asylum in the United States.

What factors are contributing to this significant rise in Indian nationals seeking asylum in the United States? According to a 2020 article in The Guardian, the rise of India’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has inflamed sectarian violence. Minorities, including Muslims and Sikhs or low-caste individuals, have endured forced conversions, fatal beatings, and even lynch mobs. Fearing for their lives, they undertake the costly and dangerous journey to the United States’ southern border. “Some Indian migrants fly from India to Europe, before arriving in Mexico. Others fly into Central or South America and follow the well-trodden migrant trail into Mexico.” No matter what route they take, the Indian migrants face the same dangers as other migrants. All migrants risk rape, robbery, and death on the journey. In 2019, a six-year-old Sikh girl died of heatstroke in an Arizona desert after her mother left her with other migrants to go in search of water.

Even if they survive the arduous journey to the southern U.S. border and surrender to border agents, they are not guaranteed entry into the country. Eduardo Jacobo, a spokesman for the El Centro Sector Border Patrol, acknowledged that none of the local border patrol agents speak Punjabi or Hindi. Agents use hand signals to communicate with the migrants until an interpreter is available. According to Graham West from The Sikh Coalition, much of their organization’s work is focused on language access issues. They ensure that communities who speak Punjabi rather than English have equal access to information on everything from voter registration to vaccine information. Although The Sikh Coalition doesn’t provide direct legal services on asylum or immigration cases, they work in U.S. detention centers to respond to the civil rights infractions and human rights abuses that Sikhs face in U.S. detention facilities. The Sikh Coalition works to address issues including inadequate or no access to interpreters, denial of religious accommodations including turban material, the opportunity to engage in group prayer, and difficulty obtaining food that complies with the detainees’ religious-based diets.

Author: Bailey Haraburda