A fence runs along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A fence runs along the U.S.-Mexico border.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - Immigrants from India are becoming increasingly common at the U.S.-Mexico border. They are now the fifth-largest group after immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

While Indians still lag far behind Latin Americans, the number is rising. In fiscal year 2017, 2,227 Indians were apprehended trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. In the first seven months of FY 2018, there were 4,197 apprehensions, according to Syracuse University's TRAC.

"Their number shot up," said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

Uniformed agents are seen at the U.S.-Mexico borde
Uniformed agents are seen at the U.S.-Mexico border in this undated photo.

Many of the immigrants are Sikhs who are fleeing "political persecution" with a religious component, say lawyers who represent them in U.S. asylum cases.

Sikh asylum-seekers held at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution in Oregon have cited political persecution by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Many of the Indian immigrants endure harrowing journeys.

"For almost a month, we walked in knee-deep swamp through the dreaded Panama jungles. My feet were wounded," Sarabjit Singh, 30, recalled in an interview. Singh has requested asylum and is currently working at an eatery in Hayward, California, waiting his turn to appear before an immigration judge.

"The 14 of us were stripped, robbed of our money and beaten by armed bandits. From Panama to Costa Rica, the only piece of cloth we had on us was an undergarment. All we ate during this horrific trek was uncooked rice and chickpeas."

Map: Top Four Nationalities Apprehended at the US-

Singh began his journey in Allowal village near Nakodar in Punjab's Jalandhar district in September 2016. Four months later, coyotes (smugglers) made him jump over the steel fence in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was caught by border patrol officers and put into detention for three months.

Sharandeep Singh, 28, of Adampur village in Jalandhar flew to Mexico. Sharandeep was detained by Mexican authorities before being sent to a refugee camp.

He says there appears to be a nexus between the human traffickers, the police and border personnel in Mexico. "It's big business. After keeping us detained … the Mexican police dropped us at a train station where a trafficker approached us and put us on a flight to Tijuana. We took a bus to Mexicali and scaled the 15 feet high metal fence to enter the U.S."

Sharandeep now earns a living driving an Uber cab as he waits for his asylum case to be decided.

Religious accommodation

The influx of Sikhs is causing problems for federal officials, who have been forced to detain them under the Trump administration's "zero-tolerence" policy.

A woman walks toward the sign pointing to the Unit
A woman walks toward the sign pointing to the United States in this undated photo.

A U.S. federal court judge last week ordered officials at the Sheridan prison, an hour outside the city of Portland, Oregon, to work with the public defender's office to ensure that incarcerated Sikhs can practice their religion.

They petitioned the court, asking for religious headwear (turbans) and personal religious items that were seized when they were taken into custody. They also asked to be allowed pastoral visits and religious services with representatives of their faith, and opportunities to observe religious dietary practices.

The turbans were a significant loss.

"For centuries, forcibly removing a Sikh's turban, or cutting a Sikh's hair has symbolized denying that person the right to belong to the Sikh faith, and has been considered a humiliating and hurtful physical injury,'' Simran Jeet Singh, a post-doctoral fellow for religion in international affairs at New York University, said in a declaration in support of the petition, which claimed that both the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were in violation of the law.

"The judge set a hearing date for Aug. 9, 2018," Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay wrote in an email. "The week before the hearing, the Bureau of Prisons provided 50 turbans to detainees at Sheridan! Our clients have expressed happiness, appreciation, and relief that their conditions are improving."

ICE and BOP did not respond to VOA's requests for comment.

Prison, not detention

ICE is using federal prisons to house some undocumented immigrants arriving at the southwest border.

About 121 undocumented immigrants, including Indians, are detained at Sheridan along with criminal inmates, some with a history of violence.

"The ICE detention centers are also horrible, but detaining asylum-seekers at federal prisons is worse,'' said Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, development director at Innovation Law Lab, which is spearheading an initiative to provide legal help to the Indian detainees.

"The problem is that a federal detention facility like Sheridan follows the same protocol for asylum-seekers as they do for the criminals,'' lawyer JaskarnSingh Sandhu said.

Treatment at Sheridan is the subject of another lawsuit brought on behalf of five Indian inmates. The lawsuit is pending.