rocky road

An unprecedented number of Indians are trying to enter the US via Mexico

Over 16,290 Indians were caught at the Mexico border by the Customs and Border Patrol between October 2021 and August this year.
Taking more Indians into custody these days.
Taking more Indians into custody these days.
Photo: Mike Blake (Reuters)
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For decades, Indians migrating to the US have chased the American dream of socio-economic upliftment—a better job, a dollar salary, education for kids, and more—come as students or working professionals. But new data show a spike in brushes with the Customs and Border Patrol, suggesting new factors add urgency to Indians’ journeys.

A record number of Indian migrants have been trying to make their way into the US illegally from the nearly 2,000-mile long land border the country shares with Mexico. More than 16,290 people were taken into custody by the CBP between October 2021 and August this year. The previous high recorded in 2018 was a far lower 9,000.

Indians’ border transgressions, charted

Why are so many Indians coming to the US now?

These Indians are not simply migrating, but rather fleeing. There’s a number of reasons why:

🙅🏾‍♂️ Growing discrimination and persecution in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled India—often on the basis of religion, sexuality, or political allegiance—is forcing people to seek refuge in the US, Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration lawyer who has represented Indian nationals in Texas and California, tells the BBC

🗺️ In April this year, president Joe Biden lifted pandemic-era restrictions along the US-Mexico land border, making the route seemingly easier

🤗 In a contrast to the Trump era, the current US administration seems to be a lot more asylum seeker-friendly, giving people hope

✈️ Ramping-up of previously established smuggling networks

An expensive undertaking

Indians typically pay human traffickers between $20,000 and $75,000 for a door-to-door service that takes them from India to America.

Those attempting the journey risk robbery, rape, and even death to walk through dangerous terrain at excruciating temperatures. In 2019, a six-year-old Indian girl who had just crossed the border died in the Arizona desert when her mother went looking for water.

Once in the US, asylum seekers have to file a form and wait to appear before a judge. It can take multiple hearings and years for a decision. Typically, the share of Indians whose asylum applications are accepted rank in the low single-digits.

Taking “donkey flights”

With sought-after legal routes to enter the US in short supply, those fleeing their countries are easy prey for smugglers, who operate “donkey flights”—a term derived from a Punjabi proverb that means “to hop from one area to another”—to give migrants backdoor entry to a foreign country. It’s a way to exploit immigration loopholes by entering a foreign country via multiple stops in other countries.

For example, Indians can get a tourist visa for a Schengen-zone country in order to enter the United Kingdom. For the US, they can fly to South American countries.

A YouTube search for “USA Donkey” returns how-to videos in Hindi or Punjabi about illegal border crossing. One vlog even shows a group passing through a Panama jungle to reach the border. But others simply learn about the process through friends and family. Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute, told the BBC about the “ripple effect” amplifying these services.

Bollywood calling

Superstar Shahrukh Khan’s upcoming movie “Dunki,” directed by Rajkumar Hirani, is expected to tell the story of a Punjabi youth entering Canada via one such donkey flight.

Dunki | Title Announcement | Shah Rukh Khan | Taapsee Pannu | Rajkumar Hirani | 22 Dec 23

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