About three dozen Indian immigrants ended a ten-day hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention inside a Texas Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center last Wednesday, according to the Indian advocacy organization North American Punjabi Association (NAPA). The immigrants were separately detained for at least six months and went on a hunger strike to seek “early resolution of their plight” and called for officials to grant them asylum, according to a NAPA press statement.
Between January and November 2013, about 100 Indian nationals in their early 20s crossed the southern United States- Mexican border without documents. According to NAPA, the men were “members of a minority political party in Punjab [and] fled India because they are said to have fear to their lives.”
“Despite proving their identities and certifying their reasons for entering [the United States], they have been detained indefinitely by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department,” NAPA Executive Director Satnam Singh Chahal wrote in a letter to an ICE official, “We are urging you on [humanitarian] grounds to release these detainees on parole or on bonds as soon as possible.”
According to a December 2013 Colorlines article, 32 Indian men “passed their credible fear interview but remain in detention nonetheless. Some entered in May 2013, were granted an interview and established credible fear the same month. Yet seven months later, these 32 men remain in detention, without any indication of when they will be paroled.” Credible fear is the first step in a long process that requires asylum applicants to prove to an immigration asylum officer that they would face persecution or torture if they were returned to their native countries.
One of the demands that the immigrants hope to resolve is to “seek their parole and transfer their cases from [the] 5th Circuit Court to [the] 9th Circuit Court,” according to Singh Chahal. NAPA explained that the move would enable “relatives and family friends to follow the cases easily.”
The law requires that undocumented immigrants who apply for asylum must be held in mandatory detention until their credible fear hearing. If their claims are found credible, applicants could end up in a detention system while waiting for their asylum cases to be adjudicated. They are not guaranteed parole during this time. Immigrants must also undergo a FBI criminal background check. If approved for credible fear, applicants will still have to provide evidence of a “much higher standard than credible fear.” If an asylum claim is denied, the applicant could be deported. First-time asylum seekers are often released on bail, but previously-deported asylum seekers are generally kept in jail.
An ICE document on credible fear indicates that “arriving aliens … are to be detained for further consideration of the application for asylum,” but that they “may be paroled on a case-by-case basis for ‘urgent humanitarian reasons’ or ‘significant public benefit,’ provided that the aliens present neither a security risk nor a risk of absconding.”
One discrepancy emerged during ThinkProgress’ inquiry into the issue: on Monday, an ICE official said that the detainees began their hunger strike on Thursday, April 10th, while the NAPA spokesperson said that the detainees began their hunger strike on Monday, April 7th.
Keeping asylum applicants in detention centers while they indefinitely wait for officials to begin their “reasonable fear determination” process is not novel. Prior to 2001, some undocumented immigrants called “lifers” or “unremovables” were held in indefinite administrative custody. Some of those detainees had criminal records, but others “simply lacked immigration status and the ability to return to their country of origin.” Before the Supreme Court ruled in 2001 to limit the detention time to about six months for individuals where “there is no significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future,” immigration officials at the time “estimated that it had 5,000 aliens in indefinite administrative custody.”
The ACLU of Northern California moved forward with a class-action lawsuit last week that aims to change the length of detention for previously-deported immigrants seeking asylum. By law, U.S. officials must complete the “reasonable fear determination” process within ten days and decide whether those applicants can proceed with a hearing for protection before an immigration judge. The ACLU lawsuit found that it took the government an average of 111 days to process a “reasonable fear” case. According to the 2014 Department of Justice immigration statistics, not one asylum applicant, who applied through the El Paso Processing Center, was granted asylum in the 2013 fiscal year.