Response to El Paso Hunger Strike by Sikh Coalition

On February 15th, the Sikh Coalition joined other civil rights organizations, immigration attorneys and activists for a day of action in response to Sikh and Cuban detainees protesting their detention conditions and unfair asylum bond denials at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) El Paso Processing Center.

Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Amrith Kaur, and Community Development Manager, Inderpreet Kaur, joined Michigan immigration attorney, Ruby Kaur, to meet with Sikh detainees – including those who had been force-fed after hunger striking – inside the El Paso and Otero detention facilities. The visit was to assess detention center conditions, the health and treatment of the detainees and to ensure the rights to a fair judicial process were respected. They also met with U.S. Representative Escobar’s office and called for a congressional inquiry into the detention conditions.

“Nobody should flee their home country, pass their credible fear asylum interview and then spend the next year being called “Indian garbage” by ICE officers,” said Sikh Coalition Legal Director, Amrith Kaur. “There is absolutely no excuse for the violations that are occurring here.”

The Sikh Coalition was initially denied the right to visit with Sikh detainees at both the El Paso and Otero detention facilities, but finally was able to meet with 42 detainees, including those on the hunger strike.

Since January, when news broke that several Sikh detainees were on hunger strike protesting their detention, the Sikh Coalition has engaged to raise concerns about their physical safety, not sharing detainee information with the Indian Consulate, and protecting their religious rights inside the detention facility. On February 12th, the Sikh Coalition sent a demand letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and key congressional and senate offices insisting on further investigation and oversight related on all three issues.

Since then, the DHS Civil Rights division has launched a series of follow-ups to inquire into the Sikh detainees’ safety and religious rights, and the Sikh Coalition has demanded a meeting with ICE officials from the El Paso Processing Center. On Wednesday, February 13th, a U.S. district judge insisted that the government stop force-feeding two of the Sikh detainees. However, several Sikh detainees across the country remain on hunger strike as they continue to protest their conditions and unfair asylum bond denials.

“The Sikh Coalition does not provide immigration legal services, but as a civil rights organization, we have a responsibility to make sure that our government is respecting Sikh detainees’ religious rights, treating them without prejudice throughout the judicial process and further ensuring that their human rights are not violated here in the United States. For our organization, this is about making sure that everyone has equal access to due process and is treated with fairness,” said Sikh Coalition Executive Director, Satjeet Kaur.

The Sikh Coalition has previously provided support to detainees whose civil rights are being violated because they are not permitted to freely practice their religious beliefs while detained. Last year, this support included providing background expertise on Sikh religious observance as part of a court filing for the Oregon Federal Defender’s Office, which represents a number of Sikh detainees at the Sheridan Detention Center. This court filing, in part, led to the detention facility changing their policy and allowing Sikhs to maintain their dastaars.

Additionally, the Sikh Coalition continues working with organizations and sangats to gather actionable data on Sikhs who are detained so that we can better identify needs and resources. This support includes making dastaars, gutkas, parsad, and clean prayer space available at detention facilities and connecting detainees to Punjabi translators and lawyers, while providing oversight on humanitarian conditions within the detention facilities.

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