Although news accounts have focused on the plight of Latino immigrants separated from their families, the majority of the detainees being housed at the federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon, are not from Mexico or Latin America.
The 121 men were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. But according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 52 of the detainees listed their country of origin as India. Another 18 said they’re from Nepal, and two came from Bangladesh.
So the majority of the immigrants being held at the federal prison are asylum seekers from South Asian countries.
“What is unfolding in Sheridan, Oregon, is simply an illustration of the desperate measures that so many individuals from South Asia, along with so many immigrants from across the globe, (are facing),” said Suman Raghunathan, executive director of the South Asian Americans Leading Together, a national racial justice organization.
She says in recent years there has been a succession of individuals from India and Bangladesh attempting the arduous journey from their home countries to seek political and religious asylum in the United States.
Raghunathan says there are growing reports of individuals leaving South Asia, traveling through Latin America, then attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of these individuals surrender themselves at U.S. entry ports because they are fleeing political and religious persecution in their home countries.
Little is known about the detainees at Sheridan because, so far, immigration lawyers have been granted little access to them. Sara Hottman, state communications director for Sen. Jeff Merkley, says based on conversations with detainees through translators, many of the men said they flew into Mexico and then made their way to the border.
Most of the 121 detainees at Sheridan are asylum seekers. Two of the men were relocated for medical reasons.
The ACLU of Oregon sued the Trump administration last week after attorneys were repeatedly denied access to the prison.
Jai Singh, a field organizer with Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, says there has been an outpouring of concern for the detainees. Volunteers from as far as Washington, D.C., and New York have offered to assist with translation for the detainees.
There are multiple factors driving people from South Asia to the U.S.-Mexico border, Raghunathan says.
In India, a rise in Hindu nationalism threatens the Sikh, Dalit and Christian communities, particularly activists and organizers in those populations. Raghunathan says individuals fleeing are trying to escape political or religious persecution.
“With respect to Bangladesh, we are seeing individuals who are choosing to organize against certain political organizations or parties and in turn facing persecution and feeling the need to come halfway across the world,” Raghunathan said.
Immigrants from Nepal are still flocking to the U.S. after a spate of earthquakes in 2015 devastated the country. Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced the termination of temporary protected status for Nepal citizens as of June 24, 2019.
“I think that all these global factors are linked," Raghunathan said. "When you have individuals on the other side of the world who feel they are not able to freely express their voices and their priorities and feel safe in doing so in their home countries, they are in good faith fleeing to the nation that has historically presented itself as a place of refuge."
This is not the first time South Asian detainees from the U.S.-Mexico border have made headlines. In 2015, 54 men from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan held a weeklong strike at an ICE processing center in El Paso, Texas.
In 2014, 40 Sikh detainees from India were granted political asylum after organizing a hunger strike at the same El Paso processing center.
“From our perspective, it is not a solution nor is it a victory for us to simply move from a family separation system to a jailing system. It is at best a stop gap move to a broader, really government-manufactured crisis in particular at the U.S.- Mexico border,” Raghunathan said.
According to SAALT’s partnering organizations in Georgia, a group of 50 asylum-seekers from India and other parts of Asia are staging a hunger strike to protest being held in a federal detention center in Atlanta.
Country of Claimed Origin # of ICE Detainees
El Salvador 1
Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration
Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more "Sharing America" coverage here.