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Asylum Seekers To Hillary Clinton: Don't Let Us Be Deported To Our Deaths

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 30/03/2016 Christopher Mathias

NEW YORK -- Seven asylum seekers and their supporters gathered outside the Brooklyn campaign headquarters of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday with one message: If the United States deports us back to Bangladesh, we could be killed. Please help us. 

Saiful Islam, 26, is one of the asylum seekers. Over a year ago, he booked a one-way ticket from Bangladesh to Bolivia. From Bolivia, he says he embarked on an arduous, four-month journey on foot through a dozen or so countries until finally crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. At last, Islam thought, he was safe. 

Instead, Islam, who says he fled political persecution in Bangladesh and wanted to seek official asylum in U.S., was arrested by immigration officials and sent to a detention center in Orange County, California. There, he says he languished behind bars for seven months and 19 days. 

Because the political situation in Bangladesh is extremely bad, it is guaranteed when I go back home that someone will kill me." Saiful Islam

Islam and about 1,000 other detainees at Immigration Customs Enforcement facilities across the country, many of whom were Bangladeshi, participated in a massive hunger strike near the end of last year. The protest was meant to draw attention to their prolonged detention and to what they said was discriminatory treatment in their bids for asylum. Islam says he didn't eat for four days.

Many of those hunger strikers are scheduled deported back to Bangladesh soon. They could face violent political reprisals upon their return, according to South Asian-American advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving. The group said the U.S. provided Bangladesh's government with not just the identities of the people set for deportation, as is standard practice, but also information on who had sought asylum, which could put those people in even more danger.

Advocates with DRUM said guards are now telling detainees that a mass deportation of over 100 Bangladeshis is scheduled for Monday. Dozens of other deportations to Bangladesh could happen in the near future, DRUM said.

While Islam is no longer detained by ICE and has a pending asylum application, he understands the fears of those facing imminent deportation. 

"Because the political situation in Bangladesh is extremely bad, it is guaranteed when I go back home that someone will kill me," Islam told The Huffington Post through a translator at Tuesday's rally.

Like many of his fellow asylum seekers, Islam is a member of the Bangladesh National Party, the country's second largest political party. The U.S. government has designated it as a Tier III terrorist organization, which some advocates and immigration lawyers have strongly contested.  

Members of the BNP often face arrest, "incidents of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killings, shooting in the legs and torture" by the ruling Awami League party, according to a report from the human rights group Odhikar. During one six-month span last year, 19 of the 104 people killed "extrajudicially" in the country were "leader-activists" of the BNP. 

"If returned, [Awami League opponents] face serious and severe harm to themselves," human rights lawyer Chaumtoli Huq told VICE News in November.

And according to a report in The Nation, Bangladesh has "among the highest numbers of asylum claims outside the Western Hemisphere — more than doubling from 2013 to 2014 to about 580. Granted claims have dipped slightly from 63 to 52."

Demonstrators on Tuesday, most affiliated with DRUM, held cut-outs of tombstones with the names of Bangladeshi detainees scheduled for deportation. Other signs read "#Deported2Death" and "Democratic Party = Deportation Party = Death party." 

Three of the seven asylum seekers at the rally have pending asylum applications, and four face imminent deportation. 

DRUM claims the U.S. asylum process has doomed many Bangladeshi asylum seekers to be deported. Adequate translation services weren't provided to Bangladeshis in court, DRUM says. Furthermore, the group says it's a tough task when you're in jail to track down lawyers who are both affordable and who understand the complicated political situation in Bangladesh. 

DRUM also claims the asylum seekers face horrible conditions during their detainment, often being subjected to solitary confinement, intrusive strip searches and poor medical care.

ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“We have seen the Central American refugees, including women and children, be deported back and killed," Islam said to the press at Tuesday's rally. "The same thing will happen to us if these deportations are not stopped.”

Roksana Mun, the director of strategies at DRUM, talked about the 2 million immigrants deported under President Barack Obama's administration.

"While media attention has focused on [Donald] Trump's virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, mass deportation of Muslims is already a reality sanctioned by Democratic Party-backed policies for many refugees and migrants," Mun said.

Demonstrators called for Clinton to say whether she'd continue a policy of mass deportations, and asked her to use her power as former secretary of state to pressure the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to halt the scheduled deportations of Bangladeshi asylum seekers. 

Clinton campaign staff members Xochitl Hinojosa and Mini Timmaraju met with the protesters for about 15 minutes. "The campaign listened to their stories and their concerns," Hinojosa said in a statement after the meeting. 

"Hillary Clinton supports a system that is humane and ensures the dignity of every human being," Hinojosa continued. “While Republicans continue to promote policies that tear families apart, Hillary Clinton remains consistent in her positions to defend President Obama’s executive actions and to push for a comprehensive solution that includes a pathway to full and equal citizenship at the heart of any immigration reform plan."

The statement did not say whether Clinton would pressure the State Department or Department of Homeland Security to stop the scheduled deportation of Bangladeshis next week. 

During the hunger strike last year, Clinton and her main opponent in this year's Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), both said that as president they would limit immigrant detention and end contracts for private prison companies to run immigrant detention centers.

But while Clinton's campaign hedged over whether it supported the hunger strikers, Sanders' campaign expressed explicit support. 

“These aspiring Americans should not be criminalized, subjected to dehumanizing solitary confinement or indefinitely detained,” Sanders’ Latino outreach director, Arturo Carmona, said at the time. “The United States must meet our international responsibilities to families seeking refuge.”

Erika Andiola, a press secretary for Sanders' campaign, said Tuesday in an email that Sanders "has always called for the United States to be a welcoming country to those who are the most vulnerable."  

Andiola said Sanders has called on the president reassess his immigration enforcement policies, and to extend Temporary Protected Status to families fleeing violence in Central America. 

Sanders has also introduced legislation that would eliminate quotas for the number of immigrants held in detention and co-sponsored legislation to guarantee due process for border refugees, Andiola said. And just this week, Sanders joined a letter calling for transgender detainees to be "protected from abuse, unreasonable strip searches, and sexual assault while in U.S. custody."

Elise Foley contributed to this report.

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