In February the Sikh Coalition joined other civil rights organizations, immigration attorneys and activists for a day of action in response to Sikh and Cuban detainees protesting their detention conditions and unfair asylum bond denials at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) El Paso Processing Center. Read more about this important development here.
On Sept. 27, 2018, I was invited to give a presentation about the petition at the Khalsa Council conference in Espanola, NM. The Khalsa Council meets twice a year as an international body of ministers established to provide leadership and inspiration for Sikh Dharma and for the global communities.
The theme of this particular conference was Global Reach and Inclusion covering many topics. The segment pertaining to Akal and ICE was scheduled to last an hour but stretched to 2.5 hours. There were five executive officers of Akal Security in attendance who were given 10 minutes to describe the company's role. Then I was allotted 10 minutes to educate those in attendance about the petition and its purpose. Satwant Singh, the executive director of the SSSCorp board, then spoke for 5 minutes about how the board has been handling the issue thus far. After that, the floor was opened up for comments from the audience. If we wished, after a comment both Akal and I each had one minute to clarify.
There were many people attending who expressed support for the work of Akal Security and dismissed any need for change. Most of these speakers had been present when Yogi Bhajan founded Akal and/or had worked in the company.
There were many people who expressed a wish for more clarity, believed Akal's poor public relations had become a PR disaster, felt a change in business practices may be necessary, and hoped that the Council would be persuaded by the concern among community members outside the U.S. There were some representatives of communities in Central and South America, all of whom expressed confusion regarding how to reply to questions they have received from concerned students there. Prior to this meeting they had reached out for, but not received, guidance from the leadership on what to tell students.
There were a few people present who believed without reservation that Akal should end any and all work with ICE.
One of the Akal representatives made it clear that while he has every confidence in the upstanding nature of Akal's work thus far, the company exists only to serve; if the community decides that the company is no longer serving in the best capacity, then they are available to take guidance from the SSSCorp board regarding any desired changes.
The most commonly agreed upon point was the need for transparency regarding the businesses and the money. Time constraints prohibited discussion of what that would actually mean.
Based on the tone of the discussion, it appears the exponential growth of our international community has outpaced some of the traditions in Espanola. There is a clash between those who passionately insist that Yogi Bhajan would not want things done any differently than how he set them up 40 years ago and those who believe that the growth and shift in our community population warrants the adjustment of some of our attitudes and practices.
I presented four recommendations for how individuals and the community as a whole could proceed to address this issue: one, educate yourself on the changes in ICE and the questions people have about Akal; two, proactively open this discussion to the public, stop hiding; three, publicly engage with people of color in the sangat, listen to their various perspectives without defensiveness, and discourage attempts by others to silence their voices; four, create full transparency of the funding streams for the non-profit entities.
As of this update, I have no further information about action or intended action on the part of the Khalsa Council, Akal Security, or the SSSCorp board. When I have news I will share it here.
Today I emailed the petition with 202 signatures to the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation board president. Thanks to your participation, there is a great deal of discussion underway in our community regarding this issue. Let us continue to spread the word, raise consciousness, and gather signatures.
I apologize for the length of time between communication about this important issue. I was away from social media for about a month due to a personal matter. Since the last update, there have been two significant reports published.
The first is an extensive report from freelance reporter Phillip Tanzer. His article, which “aims to be respectful of the stated objectives of Sikh Dharma while being severely critical of ICE, and seeks answers to questions about the relationship Akal Security maintains with both,” has a definite point of view, with which you may or may not agree. However, the report is thoroughly sourced and attributed which makes it an important read for anyone interested in this issue. One of the key components of his writing is the careful explanation of how complex the ICE contracts and relationships are and, therefore, how murky the role of Akal (and other companies) is in operating/guarding the detention centers and the practices of separation and deportation. For example, through it's role in deportation transport, Akal guards can be involved indirectly in the most heinous of ICE practices. As the article states, “...it’s possible to have nothing to do with separating families (that would be Customs and Border Patrol at the border, or ICE when someone already in the U.S is targeted for removal), yet have everything to do with the detention management and transport of separated family members.”
Another important report is from the Atlantic Monthly about the changes in culture, practice and policy at ICE since the takeover of the Trump administration and why the differences are genuine cause for alarm. This reading is especially essential if you have maintained skepticism regarding the severity of these issues or engaged in false equivalency between the current immigration policies and those of previous administrations.
We now have 198 signatures on the petition. I intend to deliver the petition some time in September, depending upon various factors including the number of signatures. Please continue to publicize it on social media and among your colleagues and friends in your community.
A signer on the petition asked the following very good questions. I am the author of the petition and these are my replies:
1. Is there actual proof that Akal Security is separating families? 2. Why did the number get lowered from 1000 to 500 signatures? 3. Has anyone actually reached out to Akal Security, Sikh Dharma, or the Siri Singh Sahib Corp and started a dialogue with them?
1. I do not have proof that Akal is or has been involved in separating families.I also do not have proof that they have absolutely zero association with this activity. That is because there is almost no transparency or communication from the company to the community about their specific practices. There are individuals who claim to have proof of improper activity but as yet they have not produced this evidence publicly, which creates doubt as to the credibility of the allegations. However, the lack of clarity from officials at Akal/SSSCorp makes it impossible to verify or refute any claims.The social media campaign is carefully worded to reflect this.
2. When I created the petition I did not realize I had an option to adjust the number of signers. I changed it to 500 so that when we reach 500 I can then send it to the "target." More people can sign than the allotted number. However, after I made that change I discovered that I don't even have to wait until the petition is full to forward signatures. So it doesn't even matter anyway. I've never done this before so it's a learning curve.
3. I did reach out to Akal, et. al, privately before creating this petition. I got responses, all of which expressed concern. I believe that concern to be genuine and that there are some complex factors to be considered. However, I felt transparency and public pressure were warranted to bring this matter immediately into view across the community. One person will not make this change. It will take many voices to create the best resolution for all parties involved. I am not interested in tearing down this community. I am interested in supporting our living up to our values. I personally know some of the people involved in these decisions and I love and respect them. This is a personal anguish for me that we are mixed up directly or indirectly with such an ugly, inhumane situation.
Please share this post to anyone who has questions about the process. It is my aim to be transparent in my own motives and actions, as I ask Akal and SSSCorp to be.