More Migrants From India Try To Get Into U.S. From Mexico Before the pandemic, 100 times more Indians were being detained annually on the U.S.-Mexico border, compared to 10 years ago. Officials say the economic migrants believe smugglers promising asylum.

More Migrants From India Try To Get Into U.S. From Mexico

More Migrants From India Try To Get Into U.S. From Mexico

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Before the pandemic, 100 times more Indians were being detained annually on the U.S.-Mexico border, compared to 10 years ago. Officials say the economic migrants believe smugglers promising asylum.


Before the pandemic, before so many borders closed, one of the biggest questions facing this country was, what to do about immigration? Hundreds of thousands of people every year try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Many of them are from Central America, which you'd expect. But something mysterious was also happening. More and more people from India were trying to cross that border, too. Last summer, a 6-year-old Indian girl died in the Arizona desert. NPR's Lauren Frayer met her family. And they helped explain what's happening.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Oh, this is her baby book. This is her.

Back in January, I visited Gurupreet Kaur's grandparents at their stately home in northern India. On the wall was a giant, framed photo of the 6-year-old in a pink ballet tutu.

This is where she would sleep? This is her room?

GURMEET SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: The girl lived here until about a year ago, when her mother took her across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Her father had gone ahead in 2013 and was waiting for them in the U.S. It was 108 degrees that day. And little Gurupreet died of heatstroke. Gurmeet Singh is her grandfather.

G SINGH: (Through interpreter) I told them there was no need to leave. We have a big house. We could provide for them. The little girl loved school and dance class. I cry now when I look at her picture.

FRAYER: His granddaughter was one of a surprising number of Indians risking their lives to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. U.S. Border Patrol figures show the number of Indians detained on that border went from 76 in 2007 to more than 7,600 last year. And authorities are trying to figure out why. Indian officials believe they're coming from one place in particular.

The flat, fertile plains of rural Punjab. And as far as the eye can see, it's - what? - potatoes and...

AMANDEEP SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Amandeep Singh (ph) is 18, a high school dropout with none of the qualifications he'd need to get a work visa and move to the U.S. legally. So last year, he paid a smuggler to send him to the U.S. illegally - first, by bus from his village in the Punjab to the capital, New Delhi, then by plane to Russia, Ecuador, Colombia.

A SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Panama.

A SINGH: Panama.

FRAYER: And then where?

A SINGH: Honduras.

FRAYER: Honduras.

A SINGH: Guatemala.

FRAYER: Guatemala.

A SINGH: Mexico.

FRAYER: On foot? "Yeah. On foot," he says. It took four months. The smuggler charged him more than $22,000, which Amandeep borrowed from friends and family.

A SINGH: (Through interpreter) I had no other option. I don't want to be a farmer. I dreamed of going to America to work in a restaurant or a shop. I left home on this big adventure. But what I didn't know was that I would end up right back here again.

FRAYER: Amandeep never even reached the U.S. border. Mexico deported him in October, along with more than 300 other Indians - most of them Punjabis, like him.


FRAYER: Punjab is a prosperous farming area where people like Amandeep can scrounge up cash. But it has problems - a drug epidemic, inequality, environmental degradation. It also has a long history of immigration. It feels like every Punjabi has an uncle in the U.K., Canada or the U.S. And practically every street has a billboard advertising visas, flights and immigration agents.

SATISH BHARGAVA: It is very big business in India, especially in Punjab.

FRAYER: Satish Bhargava is a licensed immigration agent who helps people apply for student or work visas to the U.S. and other countries. His once bustling office has temporarily shut because of the coronavirus.

BHARGAVA: Still we are receiving a lot of queries.

FRAYER: His clients still want to get to the U.S., the U.K., even Italy, places all devastated by the coronavirus. Bhargava tries to dissuade them. The U.S. has temporarily halted most immigration. And there may actually be more opportunities for them in India right now, he says.

BHARGAVA: But they are desperate to go in foreign countries due to the good lifestyles like that. They are thinking like that.

FRAYER: Even before the pandemic, Bhargava had to turn away clients, people he knows just won't qualify for U.S. work visas. Many, instead, turn to agents willing to forge documents, fake passports or visas. More than 900 immigration agents were arrested last year in Punjab alone. These are small-time criminals who may work out of tea stalls in the local market and happen to have foreign contacts, says V.K. Bhawra, a senior police official.

V K BHAWRA: Knowing someone abroad, that gives them some credibility. And they exploit it. People who are not much educated and want to send children abroad, they generally fall prey to these people.

FRAYER: So these families are duped.

BHAWRA: Yeah. Families are duped. And sometimes, people sell their land.

FRAYER: But money from selling land and contacts abroad are still not enough. The Trump administration has stepped up border patrols, making it harder than ever to cross from Mexico into the US undetected. The only hope was to ask for asylum by proving persecution. And even that option is on pause now during the pandemic.


SEVAK SINGH: How are you?

FRAYER: I'm Lauren. Nice to meet you.

S SINGH: I'll take that. Come in.

FRAYER: Sevak Singh (ph) - no relation to any of the other Singhs in this story, it's a common Punjabi surname - also paid a smuggler to take him to the U.S. And he was also deported from Mexico. And like most Punjabis, he's a follower of Sikhism, a minority faith in India. Sikh separatists have been jailed and tortured. Singh recalls how, along the migration trail, his fellow migrants rehearsed fake backstories.

S SINGH: (Through interpreter) They would practice how to lie to U.S. border officials if asked, where are you from? How many times have you been attacked? What's your political ideology?

FRAYER: I called up Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration lawyer in California. He says some Sikhs do have valid claims. As for those fake backstories...

DEEPAK AHLUWALIA: It most definitely obscures and endangers the authentic asylum-seekers that are able to, by some miracle, make it to the U.S. and file their applications for relief.

FRAYER: He's represented Indians who say they've been persecuted for being gay or lower caste or Muslim. NPR spoke with four Indians deported from Mexico. All of them say they wanted to reach the U.S. for economic reasons, not because they were in any danger. U.S. and Indian officials confirmed that's typical.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

A SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Back in his mother's kitchen, the 18-year-old deportee Amandeep Singh was constantly texting with his smuggler when I visited. He's trying to get his $22,000 back. And even under lockdown now, he's still holding out hope.

A SINGH: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I realize America's hard hit by the coronavirus. But I'm determined to get there," he says. To pass time, he's working in the fields and searching for another smuggler who promises to really get him to the U.S. next time.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.


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