Record numbers of undocumented Indian immigrants are crossing U.S. borders on foot, according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What has been a years-long surge in migration has now become a dramatic spike.
From October 2022 to September of this fiscal year 2023, 96,917 Indians were found (detained, expelled or denied entry) to have entered the United States without documents. This represents a five-fold increase compared to the same period from 2019 to 2020, when there were only 19,883.
Immigration experts say several factors are at play, including an overall growth in global migration since the pandemic, the oppression of minority communities in India, smugglers’ use of increasingly sophisticated and in-demand methods to bringing people to the United States and an extreme backlog of visas.
The number of undocumented Indians in the United States has been increasing since the borders opened after Covid: 30,662 were found in fiscal year 2021 and 63,927 in fiscal year 2022.
Of the nearly 97,000 encounters this year, 30,010 were at the Canadian border and 41,770 were at the southern border.
«The southern border has just become a transit point for immigrants from all over the world to reach the United States more quickly,» said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and director of the New York office of the independent research group Migration Policy Institute. “Why would you wait for a visitor visa in Delhi if you can get to the southern border faster?”
The Canadian border, on the other hand, has large stretches that are sometimes virtually unguarded, said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, whose research focuses on immigration.
While not all routes are created equal, a trip from India to the United States can take migrants on several legs, all while passing between various facilitators.
“People will take you to, say, the Middle East, or they will take you to Europe,” Chishti said. “The next trip from there would be to Africa. If not to Africa, perhaps to South America. Then the next person will take you from South America to southern Mexico. Then from southern Mexico to the cities in northern Mexico, and then the next person will take you to the United States.”
Long and dangerous journeys often leave migrants in limbo, facing overwhelmed immigration systems, he said. CBP told NBC News that families who arrive in the United States illegally will face removal.
“No one should believe the lies of smugglers through these travel agencies. The fact is that individuals and families without legal basis to remain in the United States will be expelled,” a CBP spokesperson said.
But when those immigrants come from across the ocean, experts say, the reality is much more complicated.
“It is easy to get people to return to Mexico; that’s your country, ‘do a 180 degree turn,’” Chishti said. “But you can’t deport people to faraway places so easily. Mexico will not accept them. Why would Mexico accept an Indian?
Who is migrating and immigrating and why
Although still relatively low compared to migration from Mexico and Central America, the number of undocumented Indians crossing U.S. borders has been growing for several years, said Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College. But last fiscal year’s growth was unprecedented.
He and other South Asian American scholars worry that the recent surge may have something to do with the worsening conditions of minorities such as Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been widely criticized for human rights violations.
«Many of them are Sikhs and they are seeking asylum because they feel they have been mistreated and attacked in Punjab under the Modi government,» he said. “Now the United States has a big problem on its hands. “He is reaching out to Modi in every possible way, in terms of state visits and rhetoric, but he has a larger number of asylum seekers from this country.”
A series of laws that deregulated India’s agricultural sector in 2020 threatened to disrupt the lives of many farmers, especially in the northern Indian state of Punjab. The Modi government, among other things, removed minimum prices for key crops, sparking massive protests across the country that were sometimes met with violence by the state.
In September 2021, More than 500,000 farmers gathered in the state of Uttar Pradesh to protest against the laws.
The invoices were formally repealed in December 2021.
But experts say the destabilization and scale of the protests were enough to constitute an asylum claim.
«They have the perception that they have no future in that country,» Chishti said.
Compared to an India that immigrants might feel is pushing them out, a promised new life in America seems ideal. The general success of American Indians in the United States or of previous immigrants who have undertaken the same journey are some of the factors that attract people.
«People in Punjab can meet people who came from their village, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc.,» Khanna said. «That creates more waves of movement.»
Decades-long visa delays have made it difficult for would-be immigrants to reunite with their families in the United States, leaving many with few resources. Apart from that, the devastation of Covid has also created a crop of desperate migrants in India and around the world, experts said.
With social media-savvy groups posing as travel agencies, hopeful migrants often pay their life savings to make the trip, Khanna and Chishti said.
“The poorest people in the country do not migrate; They can’t afford it,” Dhingra said. «But those who will face such challenges to migrate are still desperate for some kind of economic or political change.»
With lofty claims and misinformation often circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp and even in small towns in India, migrants may not know exactly what they are getting into, they said.
«It’s extremely treacherous, but people may not really know how treacherous it is,» Khanna said.
Last year, a low-income family of four with two young children was found dead near the U.S. border with Canada. Having made the journey from a village in Gujarat along a similar illegal route, they were separated from the rest of the group during a snowstorm. Their bodies were found just 13 meters from the border.
“You really have to mortgage your life savings or mortgage your life to take this difficult journey,” Chishti said.
What happens at the border?
Those Those who arrive in the United States, sometimes after having crossed several continents, often encounter an extremely disorganized immigration system that lacks the capacity to give them real answers, Chishti said.
Processes at the southern border, for decades, have been designed with the idea of single Mexican men coming to work, Chishti said. But that is no longer the case and systems have not adapted to meet the new volume and new challenges, he said.
Now there are more families, in addition to those who are neither Mexican nor Central American, and the biggest reason is asylum.
“There are not enough beds and not enough Border Patrol agents to examine you,” Chishti said. «So what we do now, mainly, is let people in various cubes.»
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told NBC News that each case is carefully and individually evaluated before a decision is made.
“Regardless of nationality, ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with US law and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policy, considering the circumstances of each case,” they said.
Although returning asylum seekers is also not as easy as it seems, Chishti said.
«It’s a diplomatic hassle to send people back,» he said, noting that it requires an agreement between two countries that does not exist between the United States and India.
What typically happens, instead, is that Indian immigrants are issued notices to appear before judges on specific dates, he said, and those immigration courts have their own delays. If immigrants do not have lawyers, their hearing dates can be delayed by months or years.
«It is a system that breaks under its own weight,» said Chishti. “So the smugglers know it; They advertise it.”
The United States as a promised land for the South Asian diaspora
While it might be logistically easier for migrants to go to Europe or the United Kingdom, the United States offers a unique promise specifically for Indian citizens, experts said.
«I don’t think it takes a lot of propaganda or marketing for people to see the United States as a highly developed country that has opportunities,» Dhingra said. «So the question is, ‘What are my chances of making it there or making it somewhere else?'»
For a burgeoning diaspora with an upper median household income, English proficiency level, and college education level, it remains to be seen how Indian-Americans will welcome this growing group of low-income undocumented immigrants.
“Will we be a community that preaches acceptance of these migrants and others, or will we be a community that will focus on quote-unquote ‘law and order’ and have very little sympathy for those who cross without full documents?» he asked. » «That’s hard to predict.»