Thousands of Indians Facing Persecution Back Home Seek Refuge In California
When Munisha wants to remember her son, all she has to do is look down at the tattoo on her right arm.
Moksh, the letters spell out in cursive script -- the Hindi term for religious enlightenment, and the name of her 14-year-old boy living in India with his grandparents. Munisha hasn't seen him in person in three years.
Through daily conversations over Skype, she learns that he plans to be a hacker when he grows up, or maybe he'll try to teach himself guitar. The 33-year-old mother wants nothing more than to bring him to the United States to live with her.
But Munisha can't do that until she has legal status -- it's one of the reasons she didn't want her last name used. And she can't return to India, where she has been threatened with violence because she identifies as a lesbian.
Deep down, she's afraid of what even he will think.
"He will leave me if he knows the truth," she said. "So I am just hiding."
Munisha, who also requested that her last name be withheld out of a fear of reprisal in her home country, was raised in a Hindu family in the Indian state of Punjab. Cut off from her family because of her sexuality, she felt like nowhere in India was safe for her to be herself. Now, she's living in Fresno while she waits for the United States to grant her protection from the country she grew up in. Her son, the child born during her brief arranged marriage to a man, is attending school in India and doesn't know she's gay.
Like Munisha, other Indians have sought refuge in the United States and elsewhere. Indian religious minorities are increasingly fleeing religious persecution. More than 7,000 Indians sought asylum in the U.S. in 2017, according to the latest figures from the United Nations refugee agency. Many end up in California as more Indian nationals enter through the southern border with Mexico than ever before.
The reasons are complex, encompassing Hindus in inter-caste marriages, Sikhs fleeing decades of political crackdowns, and Muslims who are increasingly threatened by a powerful Hindu nationalist movement.
But all have to navigate the same convoluted asylum system -- one that immigrant advocates say is biased against Indians, and is growing harsher under the Trump administration.
"We're seeing the increasingly punitive nature of the American regime," Sameer Ashar, a law professor at UCLA, said at a public forum on the issue in March. "We're dealing with an asylum system that is deeply, deeply flawed."
For Munisha, applying for asylum in the U.S. was an escape from the religious conservatism in her home country. It's a problem she's faced since falling in love at age 13 with a girl she considered her best friend.
Munisha started feeling jealous when her friend talked to other girls. When she confessed her feelings, her friend said she liked her too. They began seeing each other in secret until, at age 16, her friend's parents found out about their relationship and moved the family to another state.
When she was 19, Munisha entered into an arranged marriage. After her husband filed for divorce in 2014, she fell in love with a fellow teacher at the school where she worked as a dance teacher. That woman was from a deeply religious, high-caste family.
The cycle began again. When her girlfriend's parents found out about the affair, they threatened to kill her. Munisha's own mother cut off ties with her. Munisha knew she had to leave.
She flew to Los Angeles in 2016 on a tourist visa and quickly got in touch with Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration attorney based in Fresno. He helped her file for asylum based on her fear of persecution in India, where LGBT people face discrimination and threats of violence even after the Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex in 2018.
"India will never change because it's their mentality," Munisha said. "We are just trash people over there. Now they are improving, but inside they are not accepting us."
Some lawyers and activists attribute this to the growing influence of Hindu nationalism in India, which they say has precipitated a political and religious crackdown on minority groups and lower-status Hindus. In the past five years since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, Ahluwalia has seen a sharp increase in clients from India -- encompassing former police officers, LGBT activists, Christian proselytizers and Sikh political activists.
Shan Potts is a Glendale immigration attorney who has several dozen Indian clients seeking asylum. He said many cases are a combination of political, economic and personal problems -- all with religious underpinnings.
One client, a Muslim teacher whose computer science class was mainly composed of Hindu students, faced threats of violence from a local Hindu leader. Another client married a woman of a lower caste, whose family opposed the union to the point of threatening his life.
"You're dealing with gender, you're dealing with religion, you're dealing with social position, you're dealing with politics and you're dealing with ethnicity," Potts said.
Many lawyers don't have previous experience working with South Asian clients, he added, making it harder to understand how to convey their situation to an immigration judge. Sikhs, a minority religious group in India, encounter particular difficulties because their cases often involve political and economic factors as well as religious ones.
THE BUS FROM DETENTION
That intersection is clear at the High Desert Gurudwara in Hesperia, where a bus pulls up five days a week at 8 p.m. sharp, carrying newly-released detainees from the High Desert Detention Center in nearby Adelanto.
Sometimes the bus carries just one person; other days, five or six. They are mainly Indian Sikhs released on bond while they await the results of their asylum claims.
Gurbakshish Singh Jnagal is the head priest at the gurdwara -- meaning place of worship -- 80 miles east of Los Angeles. He welcomes as many as 25 arrivals from the immigration detention facility every week, part of the temple's role in the community since 2009. The gurdwara provides them with food, religious services and a place to spend the night while they make arrangements to live with friends and family, moving on after a few days to other parts of California or around the country.
Not only Sikhs come to the gurdwara, Jnagal said, noting that the doors are open to "anyone who needs help" -- including Christians, Hindus and Muslims, who are told when they leave the detention center that this religious center will give them a place to stay.
But the majority are Sikh -- and that's for a reason.
"They don't feel safe over there," Jnagal said, referring to India.
Kanwalroop Kaur Singh's family is Punjabi Sikh. She's a UCLA law student who has studied the history of Sikh immigration. She said many of the reasons Sikhs are coming to the U.S. are economic or political. Farming, the traditional Sikh occupation, is becoming increasingly more difficult in Punjab due to decades of controversial agricultural policy exacerbated by climate change. And many Sikhs have ties to a separatist movement set on creating an independent nation called Khalistan, a nationalist position that has always drawn ire from the Indian government.
But all of these factors ultimately tie back to religion, Singh said. Sikhs are a persecuted minority throughout most of India, where they have been targeted by government crackdowns and inter-religious violence -- including a 1984 massacre that killed thousands. What starts as religious animosity can translate into economic neglect and political violence -- factors that Singh said are driving Sikhs to seek protection in the U.S.
"People want to focus on Modi and Hindu nationalism, but these problems have existed since before 1947," Singh said. "Today we're seeing the continual growth of that. Those seeds have sprouted."
A LONG PROCESS
Once in the U.S., asylum seekers are not guaranteed legal representation and can be detained indefinitely, They face an application process that often takes years to complete.
Their first step is getting to the country, a requirement to apply for protections in the first place.
Some, like Munisha, come to the U.S. legally -- flying to the country on tourist visas or entering as students -- and apply for asylum once they arrive on U.S. soil.
Others who can't obtain tourist visas make a "dangerous and complicated" journey to the United States, Ahluwalia said, presenting themselves to U.S. immigration agents at a port of entry or attempting to cross into the country illegally. Many fly to Ecuador or Brazil and cross through Mexico to the U.S. border, where Border Patrol agents arrested 4,197 Indian nationals as of August 2018, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Asylum seekers who take this path often pay tens of thousands of dollars to smugglers, who are supposed to guide them on their journey. But not all make it that far. Some of Ahluwalia's clients have told him that their companions were kidnapped by cartels or died in the desert.
Those who do manage to make it to the border face an uphill battle. They first have to pass a "credible fear" interview, demonstrating that they're afraid to return to their home countries, then are detained in ICE facilities throughout California and the southern United States while they wait for their asylum claims to be heard.
In theory, paying a several thousand dollar bond should secure their temporary release from detention. But according to Ahluwalia, a growing number of judges are setting bond amounts for Indian nationals that are impossible to pay -- as much as $50,000. He added that under the Trump administration, the bond denial rate is higher than ever before.
"Judges are thinking that if someone paid $25,000 to a smuggler, they're going to assume that person has money," Ahluwalia said.
HIGH REJECTION RATES
Indian asylum seekers also face difficulty persuading judges to accept their claims at all. From 2012 to 2017, about 42% of asylum cases from India were rejected, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Ahluwalia has seen asylum become even more difficult to achieve in the past year after a new policy introduced by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions required judges to clear at least 700 cases a year, adding a sense of urgency to an already backlogged immigration system. He believes that as they are pressed to resolve cases quickly, judges become "desensitized" to the individual circumstances of each asylum seeker.
"It begs the question of actually being attentive and actually listening to the pleas of these individuals, many of whom sold everything but the clothes on their backs to come here," Ahluwalia said.
The policy has made the asylum process harder for Indian immigrants in other ways. Whereas cases used to take years to come to court, Ahluwalia said he's had to prepare for some in as little as two weeks -- not nearly enough time to put together a cohesive argument. As a result, it's even more difficult to win an asylum claim.
"It's like traffic court -- but these are people's lives," Ahluwalia said. "With such a high volume of cases, it's inevitable that errors are being made."
While there are few signs to indicate that the flow of asylum seekers from India is going to slow down, U.S. immigration officials have continued to take a harsh stance in the hope of discouraging people from arriving at the border. In November -- largely in response to a group of Central American migrants approaching the U.S. through Mexico -- Trump issued an executive order banning the granting of asylum outside of official border crossings.
Meeth Soni, co-legal director at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said policies like these, while harmful to all refugees and asylum seekers, disproportionately affect Indians who already face other forms of discrimination.
"There's a suspiciousness toward South Asian asylum seekers," Soni said at a March discussion forum. "People assume that an individual is lying, and overcoming this is impossible."
EFFORTS TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM
But while some activists lobby for stronger immigration protections at the federal level, others are working to change the system from within -- improving conditions within detention centers and connecting as many asylum seekers as possible with attorneys who can help them.
Detention facilities in Southern California have faced harsh criticism in recent years for their treatment of detainees, particularly those who are not from Western countries. In 2018, Sikh detainees at the ICE facility in Victorville sued after being denied access to religious materials, including turbans that are part of their religious tradition.
Other detainees have reported being denied access to medical treatment, prevented from talking to lawyers and isolated from other Punjabi speakers when they could not speak English.
Soni's organization helped represent the Victorville detainees and continues to work try to provide others with legal counsel, particularly in their native languages. But with 80 percent of detainees pleading their own cases, she says more needs to be done to give asylum seekers a fighting chance.
"People think South Asians have a lot of money and are just coming here to work," Soni said in an interview. "Our communities have turned their backs on us."
For Munisha, whose asylum claim is making its way through the courts, having access to a lawyer like Ahluwalia made all the difference. She's not concerned about her case and spends her time buried in work, managing a convenience store six days a week while finding time to attend meetings with a small LGBT community group.
Munisha looks forward to the day she can finally hug her son again. During Skype calls with him, she sticks to generalities about her life in America. She doesn't tell him that even here, she's not yet comfortable identifying herself as a lesbian to other Indian immigrants.
She knows she's left the overt threats of violence behind, but old fears are difficult to shake.
"I can't be open with anyone here," Munisha said. "I don't want to face the things that I faced in India."
Diana Kruzman reported this story as part of a grant from the Luce Foundation to cover religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora.