Indian asylum seekers afraid of religious and political persecution in their home country are being treated like criminals in the United States, an advocacy group alleges.
Over 50 undocumented immigrants were chained after being detained, and according to activists, they were forced to eat with their handcuffs on.
According to Navneet Kaur, a community college professor and one of the volunteers trying to help the 52 immigrants, their situation is dire.
"It's heartbreaking when you go in there and you see the young kids like the ages are close to starting from 18 onwards, 22 to 24 in those jumpsuits...and you wonder how they ended up being treated as criminals. They've not committed a crime, they have crossed the border and they have asked for a refugee or asylum and that is a law of this land," she said.
For several weeks, Navneet has been working as a Punjabi translator for Innovation Law Lab, a non-profit legal firm.
The organization is suing to obtain access to the inmates so they can give the ones who haven’t hired their own attorneys legal assistance.
According to the professor, immigrants are being treated worse than thieves and murderers.
"When they were in handcuffed and chains for 24 hours they ate with their handcuffs on. Even the hardcore criminals are not treated like that. Then they were kept for 22 hours a day in a cell with the people who did not speak the language," she said. "It's inhuman.”
Calling their situation “miserable,” Navneet added that many of the immigrants are Sikhs. Once in jail, she said, officials removed their turbans, ignoring their faith and traditions.
"Their turbans have been taken away. In a country where everyone has right to practice their own religion these men there don't have turbans to cover [their heads]. Not even a piece of cloth to cover their heads," she said. "They [Indian inmates] are in a state of shock.”
The situation was so disheartening that the local community mobilized to give many of the detainees beanies to cover their heads.
Victoria Bejarano Muirhead, who serves as the development director of Innovation Law Lab, said that these Indian immigrants fear for their safety back home, but the way they have been treated in the U.S. may be forcing them to think twice about their choices.
"They are feeling very shocked. I don't know if that means that, that people are going to say I would rather go home because they're fleeing for their lives. I think that they're all feeling, they're probably all wondering like, is this worth it if I'm going to be treated this way," she said.
Muirhead said this latest incident shows her just how bad the situation is for immigrants arriving in the U.S., no matter who they are.
"I am horrified at how the U.S. is treating people who are seeking asylum. I'm horrified at how they're treating immigrants just in general," Muirhead explained.
To Muirhead, this fight has been going on for quite some time, and things are not getting better.
"Right now there's so much public attention on this issue, but in reality many of these issues that we have now are just getting worse, but they were already there even before [President Donald] Trump was elected as president," she added.
After Innovation Law Lab’s intervention, the situation improved for detainees. Still, they are being held as criminals despite their request for asylum.
To immigrants claiming to be afraid of going back home, the next step is to go through a credible fear interview. Once they speak to an asylum officer, officials will determine whether the persecution claims relate to a reason for granting them asylum.
"If they receive a positive outcome in that interview and it's determined that they do have a credible fear, then the next step for us would be to prepare them to advocate for their release from detention," Muirhead explained.
It takes courage to flee your home and travel to a country you barely know because you fear for your own life. The United States, a country that prides itself on being the world’s police, going to war for its so-called Democratic values, should not treat immigrants begging for help this way.