Two years ago, back in their hometowns in Bangladesh, they were ordinary young men whose political involvement didn’t go beyond local support for the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). But political violence drove AJ, 21, Jahed, 27 (names concealed to protect their identity) on an epic journey across three continents and straight onto the battleground of American immigration politics. Now they have become national campaigners for the rights of refugees and even advised a couple presidential hopefuls on asylum policy. But they’re headed for exile again—soon to be deported back home, and, they fear, driven to an early grave.
“When we came, I remember the moments when we were getting close to the border and the amount of joy [I felt] about finally reaching safety, finally reaching a place of refuge,” recalls Jahed, speaking through a translator five months after his release from an El Paso, Texas, detention center. “And then, soon after we crossed the border and we were detained, the nightmare started.”
Although their asylum claims were summarily rejected, the migrants continue to resist deportation. Steeled by their transborder journey—smuggling routes snaking across a dozen Latin American countries, followed by indefinite imprisonment—they launched a hunger strike last October, dubbed the #ElPaso54, then spreading across several other detention facilities in Louisiana and Alabama, feeding into a wave of civil disobedience that has rocked ICE’s detention network over the past year.
Jahed, who was detained starting in late 2014, remembers the collective frustration building up to their uprising: “We told them that ‘if you send us back we will die.’ And [the ICE staff] just laughed at us.” They then concluded that “we faced and almost tasted death on our journeys here, and if we’re going to be killed when we’re sent back, we might as well just stay here and die through a hunger strike.”
Supported by South Asian–American advocacy group Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), the protesters complained of being subjected at times to solitary confinement, degrading treatment, intrusive strip searches, and inadequate medical care.
Primarily, they denounced what they see as endemic bias driving the asylum process, arguing that their detention cut off access to legal counsel while they struggled to find affordable local lawyers well-versed on Bangladesh’s human-rights situation. Bail rates were reportedly as high as $35,000. Many said their initial petitions and hearings were incoherent, due to language barriers and inadequate translation services.