The perils of finding ‘the American Dream’: An Indian’s journey

The perils of finding ‘the American Dream’: An Indian’s journey

SEATTLE: Buta Singh, a 34-year-old Sikh from India's Punjab state, fled his homeland in the spring of 2013 out of fear of religious and political persecution. Singh hoped that this new start in the United States would help him turn around his life.

The journey has not been without struggle. It has been a bewilderingly long and brutal quest, spanning a traumatic 10-week journey, 11 months in detention and several years in legal limbo, with no immediate end in sight. The journey is seemingly facing a new obstacle with US President Donald Trump in power.

On a recent afternoon in a busy immigration courtroom in downtown Seattle, Singh's appeal for asylum was finally scheduled for trial on October 8, 2020.

After the trail, Singh said, "I can't do anything without patience. I just want a safe place. My life in India is all done."

Trump has started his term by clamping down hard on refugees and immigrants, temporarily barring the arrival of all refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, and beginning the process of building a wall along the country's southern border with Mexico.

Singh's tale highlights the emerging and complex nature of the ever-evolving dynamics of US immigration. Although immigrants from Singh’s region are comparatively small in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans that arrive annually in America, they still form a steadily rising proportion of those reaching America's doorstep.

In response to this, the US government has stretched its sprawling immigration system, from border enforcement to asylum adjudication, with no signs of abating.

Last year, the US detained more than 32,000 individuals from countries beyond Mexico, Central America and Cuba, either trying to cross illegally or deemed inadmissible at entry ports, according to a review of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data. The largest number came from Haiti (6,503), followed by Brazil (4,665), India (3,622), Ecuador (2,996), China (2,595) and Romania (2,569).

A Texas attorney representing Singh and many other asylum seekers said, "I'd always represented people smuggled through Latin America, what was a trickle many years ago is now a tidal wave."

The massive increase of immigrants over recent years includes thousands of people from countries Trump has included in his visa ban, such as Somalia, Syria and Iraq, and other nations the US deems particularly vulnerable to terror-related activities and recruitment, like Pakistan.

The overwhelming majority of these immigrants presented themselves at official crossings where they could claim asylum, rather than attempting to enter illegally. So far, no terror-related incidents on American soil have been linked to any such arrivals.

But an executive order issued last week by Trump, ordering authorities to start building a wall on Mexico's border, said, "Continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States."

It added, "Among those who illegally enter are those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct."

A Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who serves as chairman of the House's subcommittee on terrorism and trade, noted that during a visit to his state's southern border, officials had detained three people from Ukraine.

"How did Ukrainians ever find Texas?" he said. "Word needs to get out that you're not getting into the United States across the southern border because we're going to have border security."

Experts say criminal networks and South American immigrants forged this increasingly well-trodden route over decades. They give various reasons for the recent surge, from word-of-mouth and recruitment by traffickers to recession in Brazil and natural disasters in Haiti.

Singh's onerous journey puts the perils of the path in limelight.

After his father sold land and paid smugglers in India about $40,000, Singh flew via Europe and South America to Nicaragua.

From there, he was hidden in suffocating bunks in truck cabins, and traveled on rivers using ramshackle rafts while trekking through dense jungles.

Singh recalled the time a smuggler in Suriname stole his passport, which consequently created problems with Honduran military police who demanded bribes from him.

A vegetarian by faith, Singh found little he could eat on the perilous journey, and often went without water for long periods.

Recalling those moments tearfully, Singh said, "I think nobody treats an animal like this. I thought, I may die."

Singh finally reached the American border at El Paso, Texas, to claim asylum.

Under US law, arrivals without entry visas join those apprehended crossing the border illegally in expedited removal proceedings.

However, officials interview anyone expressing fear of persecution back in their home countries. If the threat to their life is deemed credible, they can then appeal against deportation in a lengthy asylum process.

Those who can prove their identity and ties to a community, through a relative, sponsor or employer, can also win relocation of their case and bonded parole.

According to data of the Justice department, courts in the southern border states of America saw a 21 percent rise in non-Central American cases last year.

Singh, who has a sister living in Seattle, passed his asylum interview three weeks after arriving.

But an El Paso immigration judge repeatedly denied him parole, transfer, and appeals against deportation. So after 10 months, Singh joined a nine-day hunger strike with dozens of other Indian detainees.

"I felt like a criminal there," he said.

Later, a diplomat from the Indian consulate in Houston visited the group and got Singh's case reopened and transferred to Seattle.

Within a month, he was paroled on a $7,000 bond, living with his sister's family, and working first at a gas station and then as a driver for his brother-in-law's trucking company.

The transfer improved his asylum chances.

In El Paso, judges approved on average just three percent of asylum appeals between 2011 and 2016. In Seattle, however, it was nearly 40 percent over the same period, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University shows.

Human rights groups complain that with a massive and growing caseload, the US has started impeding asylum access by turning people away at busier border crossings, like Tijuana and Nogales, Arizona.

They also say authorities are using harsh and arbitrary treatment in custody to deter others from making the journey.

Member of the Centre for Migration Studies, Kevin Appleby, said, "It's going to be tougher and tougher for anyone to get due process. Whether that will decrease the numbers coming is unclear."

Customs and Border Protection officials said Trump's orders had led to no change in asylum policy on the southern border, and added that the US upholds all immigration laws and continues to be a welcoming nation.

Singh's ongoing wait for trial is indicative of the overloaded system, which according to TRAC has nearly 534,000 cases pending and just 292 judges.

Stuck in this backlog, under the looming threat of the Trump administration, Singh says he is scared.

"But I believe in the United States' laws," he added. "I believe the court will make a good decision."