What is the cause of the increase in Indian migrants without proper documentation entering the United States by foot?

Featured & Cover A family from India rests at the U SMexico border in Yuma Ariz on May 20 2022

In recent data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an unprecedented surge in the number of undocumented Indian immigrants crossing U.S. borders on foot has been reported. The migration trend, which has been on the rise for several years, has witnessed a dramatic spike, with 96,917 Indians encountered – whether apprehended, expelled, or denied entry – from October 2022 to September 2023, marking a fivefold increase compared to the period from 2019 to 2020, when the figure stood at 19,883.

Experts in immigration attribute this surge to various factors, including the overall increase in global migration post-pandemic, the oppression of minority communities in India, the utilization of more sophisticated smuggling methods, and extreme visa backlogs. The number of undocumented Indians in the U.S. has steadily risen since the borders reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic, with 30,662 encounters in the 2021 fiscal year and 63,927 in the 2022 fiscal year.

Out of the nearly 97,000 encounters in the current year, 30,010 occurred at the Canadian border, and 41,770 took place at the Southern border. Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s New York office, noted that the Southern border has become a preferred staging ground for migrants worldwide, as it allows for a quicker entry into the U.S. compared to waiting for a visitor visa in Delhi.Gaurav Khanna, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, highlighted the relatively unguarded stretches at the Canadian border, making it an attractive entry point. The migration route from India to the U.S. typically involves multiple legs, with migrants passing through various facilitators and regions like the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South America before reaching the U.S.

Despite the challenges faced by migrants on these long and treacherous journeys, the overwhelmed immigration systems often leave them in limbo. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) emphasized that families entering the U.S. illegally would face removal, but experts argue that deporting individuals to faraway places is not as straightforward, as countries like Mexico may not readily accept them.

Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College, noted that the number of undocumented Indians crossing U.S. borders has been growing for years, reaching an unprecedented level in the current fiscal year. Concerns arise that the spike may be linked to worsening conditions for minorities, such as Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which has faced criticism for human rights violations.

Dhingra pointed to the agricultural sector deregulation in India in 2020 as a potential trigger, leading to massive protests and unrest, especially in the state of Punjab. While the bills were repealed in December 2021, the destabilization and protests may still constitute grounds for asylum claims.

The promised new life in the U.S. appears ideal to migrants compared to perceived challenges in India, with success stories of Indian Americans and previous migrants serving as attractive factors. Decades-long visa backlogs and the aftermath of COVID-19 have created desperate migrants in India, who, with the help of social media-savvy groups posing as travel agencies, often pay their life savings for the perilous journey.

Gaurav Khanna and Muzaffar Chishti emphasized that misinformation, circulated on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, further complicates the situation. The treacherous nature of the journey is not always fully understood by migrants, contributing to the dangers they face. Last year, a tragic incident involved a lower-income family of four found dead near the U.S.-Canada border, underscoring the risks associated with these journeys.

Chishti concluded that the journey is extremely difficult, requiring individuals to either mortgage their life savings or take on significant risks, emphasizing the desperation for economic or political change among those willing to undergo such challenges.

Upon reaching the U.S. border, individuals who have embarked on journeys spanning multiple continents often encounter a disorganized immigration system that lacks the capacity to provide clear answers, according to Chishti. The Southern border processes have historically been designed with the assumption that single Mexican men are entering the country for work. However, the evolving dynamics, including the presence of more families and non-Mexican or Central American migrants, have outpaced the system’s ability to adapt to the new volume and challenges.

The current immigration system struggles to cope with the increased diversity of arrivals, primarily driven by asylum claims. Chishti highlighted the insufficient number of beds and Border Patrol officers to screen individuals, leading to a practice of allowing people in various categories. A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement emphasized that each case is individually assessed, considering the circumstances in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy.

However, Chishti pointed out that returning asylum-seekers is diplomatically complex and necessitates agreements between countries. The absence of such agreements between the U.S. and India often results in Indian migrants being issued notices to appear before judges, contributing to the existing backlog in immigration courts. Without legal representation, migrants may face significant delays in their hearing dates, exacerbating the strain on the immigration system.

Chishti described the system as buckling under its own weight, and he noted that smugglers exploit this information, using it as part of their marketing strategy.

While other destinations like Europe or the U.K. may be logistically easier for migrants, the U.S. holds a distinct allure for Indian nationals, according to experts. Dhingra emphasized that the perception of the U.S. as a highly developed country with abundant opportunities makes it an attractive destination. Despite the logistical challenges and the strained immigration system, the U.S. remains a promised land for many in the South Asian diaspora.

As the number of undocumented Indian immigrants continues to rise, questions arise about how the Indian American community will respond to this growing group of lower-income immigrants. Dhingra pondered whether the community would advocate for acceptance and support for these migrants or adopt a stance focused on “law and order” with little sympathy for those crossing without full documents. The outcome, he noted, is challenging to predict.

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