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The El Paso Processing Center in El Paso, Texas, USA. [Photo: Joel Salcido]

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The Saga Of Buta Singh:
Fleeing India, A Manhoos Land
Part II







manhoos (Punjabi, Urdu): wretched, inauspicious.[Dictionary] 


Having fled oppression in India through a perilous and arduous journey and seeking refuge in the United States, these Sikhs find themselves once again hounded by Indian authorities, though now on free and civilized soil. 

Continued from yesterday ...

At dawn the next day the policemen traded shifts with the men who had left the night before. They brought Buta Singh outside and tied his hands to a branch hanging over the farmhouse well.

Buta Singh was delirious.

One of the policemen took a sharp blade and made a series of shallow incisions on the inside of his left wrist, then rubbed powdered red chili into the wounds and stuffed handfuls in his mouth.

Buta Singh blacked out.

(Buta Singh’s accounts of torture are difficult to corroborate fully. This story is based on extensive interviews with him, along with asylum and other immigration documents. He has scars that match the incidents he described, including one between his eyes where he says he was struck by a rifle butt and several parallel scars on his wrist where he says he was cut. He provided a copy of his ID card for the Shiromani Akali Dal Mann, and rights groups have documented harassment and torture against separatists. Torture by police across India is a widespread, documented problem.)

Buta Singh awoke that night inside, he said, to a new police officer splashing water on his face. The rest of the men were passed out around the room, and the bottle of whiskey was empty.

The officer lifted Buta Singh to his feet and slowly walked him about a half mile down the road, where his father was waiting. Weeping, Buta Singh’s father explained how he had scraped together the Rs 300,000 -- roughly $4,500 -- that the police had demanded for his release.

Within a few days, Buta Singh said, he fled to the city of Agra to live with his sister. During the three months he stayed there, his mother’s cancer turned critical. While his sister went back to Punjab to help care for her, Buta Singh stayed behind, afraid to return home.

The call saying his mother had died came on September 5, 2012. In the Sikh community, it is customary for some to have the oldest son cremate the body of a parent, so Buta Singh snuck back into Punjab to light the pyre. He returned to Agra that night without stopping at home.

*   *   *   *   *

The man in the parking lot of the New Delhi airport had muscular arms, a big gut, and a shaved head. He went by Baba. Buta Singh showed up carrying new ID cards with pictures of his younger, beardless self, and Baba handed him the rest: plane tickets and a passport stamped with a one-month tourist visa to Suriname. He told Buta Singh to go straight to the short, dark-skinned teller at the window farthest to the right -- no one else.

Buta Singh disappeared into the airport crowd. That morning in April 2013, he hadn’t known where exactly he was going, only that this was the first leg of a journey that would take him to America and that, his father would later tell him, cost $40,000. Buta Singh knew nothing about Suriname, including the fact that nearly a third of the tiny South American country’s population is descended from contract laborers imported from India in the 19th century. So when he got off the plane, he was puzzled to find a man, immediately recognizable as Indian, waiting for him.

Buta Singh approached him eagerly.

“Sat Sri Akaal,” he said in greeting: God is the truth.

“Hello,” the man said, curtly and in English.

They climbed into a beat-up white car that shook violently the whole way out of Paramaribo and into the rainforest, arriving finally at a rickety, single-room wood structure. The next morning, the man from the airport showed up with a pair of scissors and cut Buta Singh’s hair and beard.

Buta Singh would spend a month in that safe house, in the company of another young Sikh, never seeing the outside except for a rectangle of sky where the wall met the ceiling. In the ensuing weeks, as Buta Singh made his way up through Central America, he was unable to shake the lifelong habit of bringing his hands to his head to tuck in the folds of a turban that was no longer there.

Indians have recently been taking arduous migration routes through Central America in much larger numbers, feeding the growth of a highly lucrative smuggling industry. Each smuggling network includes travel agents, document forgers, drivers, and, perhaps most important, corrupt government officials such as police officers and customs agents.

“You have people playing different roles who come together to accomplish a specific goal, like moving a particular load,” said William Ho-Gonzalez, a federal prosecutor who has helped bring cases against smugglers focused on Indian nationals. “It’s quite effective.”

Midway through his journey, after spending 15 hours holed up with two Nicaraguan migrants in the pitch-black, suffocating bed compartment of an 18-wheeler, Buta Singh was bundled onto a commercial bus. He didn’t know where he was until a handful of military police officers climbed on board and he saw that their shoulder patches said “Honduras.” When he and the two Nicaraguans were unable to show papers, the officers arrested them.

A well-built, friendly cop in his twenties spoke to Buta Singh in English -- the first time in many days Buta Singh had had a conversation with anyone. “We know you’re going to the United States,” he said. If Buta Singh gave him $5,000, he would make sure he got there.

After Buta Singh and the two migrants spent a whole day in a jungle safe house, guarded by teenage-looking cops with assault rifles, the English-speaking officer showed up to say he had connected with their “agent,” and they were free to move on. A new guide showed up and led them on a night-time trek through the jungle, during which, unbeknownst to Buta Singh, they crossed the border into Guatemala.

In the weeks that followed, Buta Singh spent countless hours hiking through rainforests, riding in cars, trucks, and buses, and, on one occasion, clambering alongside dozens of other migrants onto a shallow boat that he was convinced would sink.

He eventually made it to Mexico City, where his smugglers put him up in an apartment near the airport. He couldn’t sleep, even though the apartment was more comfortable than anywhere he’d been until that point in the voyage. He spent the night sitting by the window, watching the endless loop of commercial airliners ascending, descending, and ascending again.

The next night, he boarded a bus that took him to Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso. There, he spent about a week in a threadbare motel that he would later learn was about 10 minutes from the border.

Finally, on the morning of June 16, 2013, he received a visit from the last of his smugglers, a husky woman in her fifties who had a boyish haircut and chain-smoked cigarettes. She drove Buta Singh to a parking lot next to a long pedestrian bridge connecting Mexico to the United States.

Buta Singh took off, walking north, traffic streaming beneath his feet, his legs numb and his heart pounding under the noon sun.

*   *   *   *   *

The U.S. government has reacted with fear and suspicion to the swell of Punjabi migrants at the border. Current and retired officials at the Department of Homeland Security (which includes ICE and Customs and Border Protection) and the Justice Department (which includes the immigration courts) described anxiety over the possibility that the same smuggling networks bringing in Punjabi Sikhs could be exploited by terrorists.

“We have had people from the region become national security concerns, whether from Bangladesh, India proper, or the Punjab,” Greg Twyman, an intelligence analyst at Customs and Border Protection, told BuzzFeed News.

The same smuggling networks are used by people from around South Asia, many of whom receive similarly harsh treatment by American immigration authorities. There are no known cases of terrorists using these networks to enter the United States.

There is also widespread skepticism regarding the asylum claims of Punjabis. “The overwhelming majority of these individuals are economic migrants,” Twyman said. “They are young males seeking their fortune.” Some officials described a general suspicion that smugglers moving large numbers of Indians have evolved to coach migrants in how to plead for asylum once they arrive in the U.S., much like the operations run by Chinese Snakeheads did at their peak in the 1990s.

“I call them the designer claim of the month,” said Bruce Solow, a retired immigration judge. “Word gets back to similarly situated individuals -- ‘Oh, if you say X, Y, and Z in the courts they’re going to believe you.’ Then you get the copycat cases, and every damn case coming down the pipe is the same story and fact pattern.”

Officials also said they believe the smuggling networks extend into the United States, helping get new migrants out of detention and facilitating their disappearance as undocumented workers within the country. The two retired ICE officials interviewed by BuzzFeed News said these combined suspicions account at least partially for the agency’s tendency to deny Indians parole.

One official described this as a decentralized policy: She was unaware of it while working at ICE headquarters in D.C., but it was clear when she worked in a field office near the border.

Although ICE did not comment specifically on Buta Singh’s case, these suspicions may explain why he, along with every other Sikh arriving in the El Paso Processing Center between 2013 and 2014, was denied parole.

The morning after Buta Singh turned himself in at the border, he was moved to the El Paso Processing Center, which holds roughly 800 detainees at a time. Within a few weeks, he had passed his credible fear interview, which is used to determine whether an asylum-seeker can stay in the U.S. and proceed with a claim.

Buta Singh had submitted detailed paperwork, including birth certificates from India, showing that his sister and her husband, both naturalized U.S. citizens, lived outside Seattle and could ensure his appearance in court. Nevertheless, ICE denied Buta Singh’s release, asserting in its paperwork that he had “insufficient ties to the community.”

Few in the Sikh diaspora would deny that violent police repression has died down significantly since the height of the insurgency, or that many young Sikhs are driven to the U.S. by economic, not political, reasons. But there is still a sense that the U.S. has failed to keep up with the reality in Punjab.

One Sikh lawyer in the United States, who asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships with government officials, pointed out that the Canadian government gives its immigration authorities relatively detailed reports about modern-day police repression of Sikh politics, whereas the U.S. does not.

“I’ve sat down with officials from the State Department and informed them of these things,” the lawyer said, to no avail.

Police still keep close tabs on families considered to be tied to the separatists or any other “progressive Sikh agenda,” said Sukhman Singh Dhami, co-founder of Ensaaf, the research organization devoted to documenting human rights violations in Punjab. This regime is in many ways indistinguishable from the one that disappeared thousands of people 20 years ago, and operates with impunity, Sukhman said.

For instance, Sumedh Saini, the current head of the Punjab police, occupied a senior position in the same force during the ’90s and has been directly accused of various crimes and rights violations, including some documented by Ensaaf and Human Rights Watch.

Police behavior in Punjab dovetails with a much larger problem: the widespread use of torture by police across India. As the human rights group ‘Minorities of India’ wrote in a 2011 report, “Indian law enforcement culture overall encourages and often demands that police officers systematically employ barbaric torture methods and extra-judicial killings.”

The problem, however, has done little to tarnish India’s reputation as a vibrant and free democracy. Jaspreet Kaur, a lawyer with United Sikhs in New York, recalled interning as a law student for the Indian government in a human rights–related position. At that point, as now, India had signed but not ratified the ‘United Nations Convention Against Torture‘.

“My first project was to find reasons why we should not ratify this convention,” she said.

*   *   *   *   *

Every Sunday evening at 6, the Sikhs in the El Paso Processing Center gathered in a drab meeting room for prayer. Buta Singh usually led the sessions, quoting from the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures, as he had after the killing of his mentor in Punjab. The months dragged on, and ICE continued to deny parole or bond hearings to every Punjabi in El Paso. Buta Singh knew of only one Sikh at the detention center who was granted bond.

The young Sikhs began to use their prayer meetings to organize, and after a couple of weeks of argument, they decided to stage their hunger strike. They picked April 8, 2014, and that morning refused to leave their bunks for breakfast.

As the days wore on and a few Sikhs began needing urgent medical attention, Buta Singh sensed that some of the staff at the detention center were getting nervous. For some reason, perhaps because Buta Singh spoke English, ICE had pegged him as the ringleader, even though he says that the group made decisions unanimously. ICE officials spoke to him every day, and every day he reiterated their demands: Either express a willingness to grant the detainees parole or bond, or move their cases elsewhere in the country.

Then ICE brought in N.P.S. Saini, the diplomat from the Indian consulate in Houston. When Saini told the Sikhs that the U.S. wouldn’t want them because they weren’t doctors or engineers, one detainee, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, replied that he had in fact been studying engineering in India before he left.

Saini, according to Buta Singh and four other detainees who were present for the exchange, switched from cajoling to veiled threats. He told the young men that many of their peers had come to the United States only to be jailed there, then returned to India, where they were jailed again for leaving.

The Indian official reiterated that authorities in India now knew where they were. In the days after the visit, Buta Singh and two other detainees said their families received threatening phone calls from police.

“ICE routinely grants access to consulate officials to visit nationals of their country in ICE detention,” an agency spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “On this specific visit, all detainees met with the consulate official voluntarily.”

Attorney John Lawit, who handles Buta Singh’s case as well as those of several other El Paso detainees, said that ICE’s decision to bring in Saini -- or at least to allow his visit -- violates the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, which protects the confidentiality of asylum-seekers, specifically to avoid outing them to the authorities or other entities they’re fleeing.

Shortly after the visit, Lawit filed complaints with the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, who dismissed one complaint and has yet to resolve the others.

On April 25, 2014, speaking to ‘India Abroad‘, a representative of the Indian embassy confirmed that consular officials had visited the detention center. The consulate and the Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls.

The day after Saini’s visit, Buta Singh was pulled out of his unit and left to sit in an isolated room. After a few hours, two ICE officers came in and put a tray in front of him with a sandwich and some juice. They told him that all the other Sikhs had relented and were already eating. When Buta Singh said he didn’t believe them, they left him alone in the room with the tray for a few hours.

Buta Singh didn’t eat.

When the officers came back, they had a higher-ranking ICE official with them, who told Buta Singh that they were willing to negotiate: If the Sikhs called off the hunger strike, ICE would begin slowly moving their cases to other parts of the country, where they would get another chance at parole and bond hearings. That night, Buta Singh and the others decided to eat.

Within a couple of weeks, Buta Singh’s case was transferred to the detention center in Tacoma, Washington. A week after that, the ICE office there granted Buta Singh a $7,000 bond, and his family paid the money.

He was released on May 28, 2014. His sister and brother-in-law were stuck in traffic on the way to pick him up, so he stood and waited outside. It was raining, and a security officer told Buta Singh that he could stand inside if he wanted.

“No, no,” Singh said. “It’s good.”

*   *   *   *   *

The gurdwara in Kent, Washington, where Buta Singh now lives, is one of the largest in the Seattle area. It has a tall flagpole out front wrapped in cloth the color of saffron -- a standard symbolising that it is a Sikh place of worship and connoting emancipation. At the base is a plaque dedicating the flagpole to the martyrs of Operation Blue Star in 1984.

In the gurdwara’s basement on a weekday evening in October, people sat on the floor eating vegetarian food from cafeteria trays. It is an indispensable feature of every gurdwara that anyone who enters may eat a full meal for free. Every wall of the basement was adorned with framed images, some of them taken from illustrated books. The majority marked moments of resistance to state tyranny throughout Sikh history.

One depicted “The Great Holocaust,” in 1762, with Mughal soldiers on horseback trampling the piled bodies of Sikh peasants. Another showed an early martyr sitting placidly in a boiling cauldron of water.

On the other end of the room, someone had put up a series of color printouts of photographs from the recent resistance movement in Punjab. In one village, police opened fire on protesters. The photos showed various gory scenes: men being loaded into ambulances with blood pouring down their faces; a man lying on his side, his back pockmarked with buckshot.

Upstairs, on the main gurdwara floor, a scattered handful of visitors sat on the carpet of a large, dim room. Buta Singh knelt facing the front, where a massive copy of the Guru Granth Sahib rested open on a platform festooned with colored lights. To the side, three musicians played a droning, sinuous hymn on two harmoniums and the tabla.

This, Buta Singh said, is the first place he went after his sister picked him up from the detention center in Tacoma. He sat and prayed for almost four hours before he was ready to see his new home.

It was the first time in years he’d felt peace.


[Courtesy: BuzzFeed. Edited for]
February 4, 2016

Conversation about this article

1: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (USA), February 04, 2016, 7:27 PM.

Waheguru, what a journey! The Indian and Punjab governments have violated the rights and raped the land and its people. No wonder people want to escape, there is no hope. It's time for every Sikh to put effort into changing Punjab in every aspect, it is our motherland after all. We must start supporting our Sikh brothers and sisters ...

2: Harinder Singh (Punjab), February 05, 2016, 9:29 AM.

We've got to change the British Empire's laws which the new country inherited when India was created in 1947. Under these laws the State and the states are given extraordinary power to crush citizens. We need wise Law makers and thinkers to have a new set of laws where rights of individuals are respected.

3: Tinku (Punjab), February 05, 2016, 10:19 PM.

We keep saying India, India, India but fail to acknowledge that its Hindu population is bent on annihilating the Sikh population. Hindu extremists have it all very well planned and organized. Ask any Hindu and he/she will deny any human rights issue happening in Punjab and India.

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Fleeing India, A Manhoos Land
Part II"

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