Rio Ganges to Rio Grande Harlingen . Rajesh Sharma’s long journey from the Indian state of Punjab to the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Bayview Detention Center began in March of 1991 when members of the national police force came to his village and arrested an old man. The man, who Sharma said was known to be innocent, was beaten and died in police custody. Sharma, a 30-year-old university student, went to the local police station with a small group of protestors. “I made a speech to the group and a senior police official came out and said no more speech. He said this is a warning, ‘Stop or you’ll be a lesson.’ Then the crowd was dispersed. At a July 1991 demonstration in the city of Chandigar, Sharma had a second encounter with the police. “One half way through my lecture the police came and began to beat people and used eye-killing gas [tear gas] to break up the rally.” Shainia suspected that he was closely watched by police after July. Later that month, in an incident he does not relate to his run-ins with the police, he was kidnapped by a separatist terrorist group, beaten and threatened with death. The group som from his father, who Sharma describes as a “wealthy real estate owner.” Once released from the terrorists, he said he feared he would be arrested and on August 17 he was. Police came to his house and picked him up. “They used their own tricks,” Sharma said. “They hung me upside down, beat me with leather belts, and locked me in a room with no windows.” On the morning after he was detained, Sharma said, he was visited by the officer who a month earlier said he was going to teach him a lesson. “And he did,” Sharma said. When his father paid a 20,000-rupee bribe to the police, a transaction Sharma said he was able to document for his asylum hearing, Sharma was released and spent four days in the hospital. On September 7, police again came to his house and he was beaten, while his father, mother, grandmother, mother, and younger sister were present. He was then arrested and left his house, for the last time, in the custody of five officers. When four of them got out of the jeep to make way for the vehicle to pass through a bazaar, Sharma said bribed a fifth officer with a modest amount of money he was carrying in his money belt. “I was going to my father’s accountant when the police came,” he said. “The policeman said I could go and he would shoot two bullets over me.” Sharma escaped and called his father who directed him to Dehli, where he spent four days in hiding, until an agent who his father had paid 300,000 rupees secreted him out of the country to Bangkok, Thailand. From there, with a false passport secured by his father’s agent, Sharma flew to Tokyo and then to Los Angeles where on September 25 he was apprehended and detained in a federal facility in San Pedro. Seven days later he was transferred to Harlingen. Sharma said he traveled from Los Angeles to Texas on an INS bus filled with 52 detainees, from Indian, Pakistan and China. There were two officers accompanying the group and, according to Sharma, there was one overnight stop, at Los Fresnos, Texas. “We were supposed to have a dinner but it was late at night and it was not prepared. We had instead some bread.” “On the trip, we prayed and sang,” Sharma said. “We had some wonderful Indian singers.” nn October 5, from the Bayview deten tion center, he contacted Proyecto Libertad, the Harlingen-based non profit immigration law firm, and the only law office with a toll-free 800 number -posted at the immigration center \(from which all phone paralegals referred Sharma to Probar, an organization funded by the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Probar paralegal Maria Baldini helped get the affidavits and reports he needed to support his claims. “Affidavits and affidavits, reports and reports,” Sharma said. “I got an affidavit from my college principal, a report from the doctor [who treated him after he was released by police] and statements from my [student] organization director.” Sharma’s case is typical of those described by immigration attorney Thelma Garcia, in which Punjabi farmers or landowners are caught between separatist guerillas and the government in a civil war. Guerillas are fighting for a separate Punjabi state, Khalistan. Sharma’s attorney, Jill Tarbert, was contacted by Probar and traveled from San Antonio to Harlingen to represent him. “She prepared me very well,” Sharma said. “Four days before my hearing, three or four hours every day. In court, I was ready but nobody asked me questions, the government attorney asked only three questions, he asked ‘If you are Sikh, why do you cut down your hair and beard.’ I said I couldn’t look like a Sikh, I was hiding.” “Then, the judge said ‘I am going to grant you asylum.’ ” Sharma was the first asylum applicant Tarbert, who was working pro bono -or without fee -had ever represented. “I’m leaving here,” Sharma said, after a vegetarian lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Harlingen. “I know that America is a nice place to see.” L.D. The geographic isolation of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, according to applicants for political asylum and their lawyers, is a considerable handicap in preparing even the most welldocumented asylum applications. The few immigration law offices here, like Proyecto Libertad, the non-profit lawyer and paralegal combine founded in 1981 by Ms. Garcia and Lisa Brodyaga, are bilingual; most workers speak English and Spanish. But there is almost no one in . the lower Valley to translate any of the lantrtiaaes.of Asia and the Indian sub-continent. ,.lt’s impossible here,” said Ms. Garcia in anTinterView in the old two-story residence that houses her law practice. “I’ve even gone to Chinese restaurants looking for someone to translate.” ;;’Peter Haney, a Proyecto Libertad paralegal, faces the same problem. In mid-April his docket included two Ghanans, two Nigerians, two Somalians, one Bangladeshi, and one Guyanan. If English weren’t a former colo tongue, Mr. Haney would be in the same SItuation as Ms. Garcia, who is representing Most of the Chinese and Indians in the Valley. His caseload is difficult enough, he says: “There is a big time variable. How much time does an attorney or paralegal have?” Like the other paralegals at Proyecto Libertad, .which was established to assist Salvadorans, Haney is bilingual. But he doesn’t speak or understand any Asian language. He said that a paralegal can sometimes interview 20 Central American detainees in one day, but to extract even very limited information from one Mandarin-, Urduor Tamil-speaking client involves hours. And INS information forms, like the political asylum application, require precise information documenting the applicant’s experience in the country he fled. “In Los Angeles, there are even Tamil and Punjabi translators, they’re easy to find. Here, we’re using other detainees as free translators if they are available,” Mr. Haney said. Translators are provided by the INS, but only at merits hearings, late in the asylum application process. When it’s not possible to get a translator in the courtroom, a telephonic translation is arranged. Telephonic translations often “make bad records,” Mr. Haney said. “Everyone is talking into a box, its hard to understand and people talk over one another.” According to Mr. Haney, the telephone boxes can intimidate or bewilder asylum applicants. The INS has contracted Berlitz to provide “live” translators, but at times translators fail to show up for scheduled hearings. One immigration judge admitted there have been problems caused when translators failed to show up, and an INS attorney observed that Fou chou translators are particularly hard to find even through the Berlitz service. \(On one of the three days we spent in Harlingen, a merits hearing was cancelled when a Chinese-language translator did not show up. When judges and attorneys are required to renegotiate calendars, such cancellations can add months to the time What is particularly frustrating, Ms. Garcia said, is that so many of the airport detainees have such strong cases. But without adequate 8 APRIL 24, 1992
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