Visiting Sikh detainees in an American immigration detention facility

Photo of the entrance of the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in El Centro, CA.

The Imperial Regional Detention Facility near El Centro, CA, where almost half of the detainees are largely Sikhs from India.

In 2016, Buzzfeed News published a story about undocumented migration of Punjabi Sikhs to America in an article entitled “America’s Quiet Crackdown On Indian Immigrants”. Recounting the story of one migrant, the story traces the roots of the increasing migration and detention of Indian nationals in the US, looking at the affect political unrest and human rights violations in Punjab, India have had on those fleeing to the United States.

According to the article, over 10,000 Indians arrive as undocumented immigrants at American ports of entry each year, which represents an increasing trend. Many of these arrivals paid traffickers to deliver them to United States borders via a circuitous route through South America, and as the numbers of arrivals have increased each year, so has the proportion of these arrivals being detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

I was reminded of this article just prior to a visit to an immigration detention facility in southern California just over a month ago. I joined a group of Sikh volunteers from all over California who were visiting the Imperial Valley Detention Facility, located two hours east of San Diego, and a few miles north of the US-Mexican border in Calexico (more info about the facility is available here). We accompanied a local sevadar (volunteer) from the nearby Gurdwara in El Centro who has been visiting the facility on a weekly basis for some time to help the detainees. The facility is operated on behalf of ICE by a private firm called Management and Training Corporation, which operates several prisons and detention facilities across the country.

Our group — eight of us in addition to the local sevadar — were pre-screened with a background check prior to our visit. Our group was limited to those who were authorized by the facility and to no more than ten people (a few people sought to join at the last minute but were not permitted as they had not yet been screened). For several in our volunteer group, including myself, this was our first time visiting an immigration detention facility. I have visited a prison several times in the past, but never had I visited a facility holding immigrants. I had mentally prepared myself to visit this facility with this background, but I came to a realization that contextualizing my visit in this way was helpful but also misguided.

The visit was facilitated by the center’s chaplain who was interested in providing religious support for the large number of Punjabi Sikh inmates. It was the first visit of its kind for this facility and it was on a trial basis. We were given to understand that among the approximately 600 detainees, about half of them were of Indian descent and largely Sikh. Many were detained while crossing the US-Mexico border, often surrendering themselves to immigration authorities on arrival. The objective was to provide for the religious and cultural needs of the Sikhs and other detainees who have been in the facility by holding a diwan (religious service) and deliver pre-approved articles including turbans, prayer books (gutke), Punjabi language newspapers, and other items that were donated by community members. We were also permitted to bring in musical instruments and audio equipment for the purposes of our diwan, which was held in the outdoor grounds of the facility.

The turbans and other supplies were left with the Chaplain who would distribute them as needed. We were made aware afterwards that these items were be in high demand. We also left donated clothing and supplies at the El Centro Gurdwara, which is often a first destination for those who are released from the detention center.

We spent a total of six hours in the facility visiting with the approximately 300 Sikh and Indian detainees. The detainees were split into three groups and we held separate diwans for each. The first group was comprised of a few dozen women (who are segregated from the men in the facility). Alongside the Punjabi Sikh women that attended the diwan were also women from Gujarat, other Indian states and other countries. The next two groups were largely Sikh men. The diwan was open to all and we welcomed non-Sikh detainees to sit with us; we had a few  join and some others who stood around us to watch.We were not permitted to speak with any of the inmates personally about their cases or issues, nor were we allowed to embrace them — we were allowed to shake hands and speak to them as a group for the purposes of the religious service.

While we were aware that we would be spending time with the women, we because conscious of what their experience must have been in traveling from India as women (what circumstances must have pushed them to leave) and what their journey must have been like as they reached the US border. While the few women seemed to be of a broader age range, many of the men appeared to be in their twenties and thirties, and some were nursing injuries apparently sustained as they crossed the border (the facility has medical staff who treats their injuries).

Most enlightening for me was to sit in diwan with these inmates, reciting various paath (prayers) and singing shabad (hymns) together. The inmates participated enthusiastically, reciting out loud and very comfortably. I was struck by this, and it occurred to me that these people may as well have been those who I sit with in Gurdwara during a typical Sunday. The difference between us — I, from the outside as a legal citizen, and them, detained as an undocumented immigrant — seemed to dissolve in some aspects (one might consider this part of the beauty of the Sikh diwan) and it made me question my original perspective of visiting a prison populated by those who committed crimes. It was a revelation to me that this context was not a fair one to these detainees. They did not harm anyone.  And, despite our lack of personal interaction, I felt a connection with them emerge.

After the program, the chaplain gave us a tour of the facility, showing us the library, one of the dorms where the inmates reside (each dorm in the facility holds about 65 inmates in open sleeping quarters), the kitchen, and a view of the visitors area. The facility itself was clean and well organized, and during our tour, we observed inmates employed by the facility to help distribute the food trays for dinner (the facility will employ inmates for jobs, providing a salary of $1 per day), and cook the food in the kitchen. Interestingly, the Indian inmates had taught the chef how to make Indian food and this was being served. We had sampled the daal that was being prepared which was surprisingly flavorful.

It is worth noting that we were treated very well by the facility staff throughout. The staff and guards were helpful and courteous with us and this would not have been possible without the support and collaboration by the facility’s staff. We were told afterwards that the visit was considered a success and we are hopeful that another visit to help serve these detainees can be organized in the future.

There are obviously many ongoing conversations about undocumented immigration, ICE, human and civil rights and the impacts upon the Sikh community in India and America. However, regardless of what aspects one feels strongly about on these issues, it seemed clear that as a community, Sikhs in America have the opportunity to serve those who are in these facilities, particularly those in close proximity to Sikh communities. Hidden from our view, we are largely unaware or disengaged with these Sikhs, but if we are serious about considering ourselves as a nation of people, then it would behoove us to serve those who need assistance right at our front doors.

Future visits to other facilities are being planned. You can find out more, including ways to help, at


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