Gurupreet’s mother was one of five Indians dropped off at a remote and infamous location near Tucson by human traffickers. Soon after the girl’s death, Sikh Coalition, an umbrella organisation for the community in the US, came to her mother’s rescue and she was released from an immigration detention centre in Arizona and allowed to travel to New York to be with her husband, who came to the US six years ago and submitted an asylum plea at an immigration court.
A New Trafficking Route It is not just Gurupreet and her family. Last month, two videos that went viral among Punjabi viewers showed an Indian family crossing the US Mexico border through a fence with men who appear to be coyotes, the local term for human traffickers.
Enter the Trap- Most Indians held in these sectors in 2018
In 2018, Indian citizens were 5th among all nationalities held on southwest border, after Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and El Salvadorans.
In the videos, the group appears to comprise of two Punjabi speaking turbaned men and children.
As many as 8,997 Indian citizens were apprehended while trying to cross the US’ south-west border in 2018, up from just 77 in 2008, according to data released by US Border Patrol.
However, India’s ministry of external affairs told Parliament in January that the US government does not regularly release a full list, by nationality, of foreigners entering through any border or staying without valid documents.
In cases where the Indian government received information about Indians being kept at detention centres in the US, the Indian embassy and consulates provided them with assistance in issuing travel documents to allow them to return home.
Deepak Ahluwalia, the attorney representing Gurupreet’s mother, says the uptick in the number of Indians trying to illegally cross the border into the US, could be because they felt threatened in India
“My experience with clients from Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, UP and Himachal Pradesh shows that political dissidents, minorities, LGBTQ community members and even young people in intercaste marriages are feeling threatened and undertaking the long and arduous journey to seek asylum in the US through Central and Latin American countries,” Ahluwalia, who also a part of the Sikh Coalition, told ET Magazine from New York.
He says that though he could not comment on individual cases, many of his clients were seeking asylum because they faced caste tensions and police harassment back home. “In Punjab, many youngsters are facing persecution by the state government because they support the Khalistan cause.”
It is not just the journey through Mexico that is fraught with risk. Once the undocumented Indians are apprehended by the Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), they end up in detention centres.
“Indian inmates are often not allowed to wear their turbans or forced to eat nonvegetarian food, including beef. Asylum seekers are not criminals and their petitions need to be processed properly. However, the US government has been cracking down on them,” says Ahluwalia.
As of 2018, more than 100 Indian asylum seekers, mostly Sikhs, were being held at two detention centres in Sheridan, Oregon and El Paso, Texas, as illegal immigrants after they crossed over from the Mexico border. Their plight came under the scanner after a group of Democratic Party Congress members from Oregon highlighted the issue in the media.
Satnam Singh Chahal, executive director of North American Punjabi Association, has interacted with families of some men from Punjab detained at El Paso. He says there has been an increase in the number of unscrupulous travel agents and sub agents who try to send people to the US through new routes via the UAE, Russia, Nicaragua and Mexico. “Many young people from Punjab are desperate to migrate to the US for a better life.
They sell their family land and spend all their savings paying unscrupulous agents anything between `25 lakh and Rs 50 lakh per person. It is alarming that there is are growing number of women and children too who are trying to come to the US through these routes,” says Chahal.
A Passage Through IELTS Education, especially in the US, continues to remain one of the most preferred routes for young men and women from Punjab to go overseas and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, required by many countries, has become a front for unscrupulous travel agents.
In some districts of Punjab, especially the Doaba region, which includes Jalandhar, Phagwara and Kapurthala, IELTS centres have mushroomed with many of them operating as unregistered travel agencies.
“Young people, especially from the Doaba region, have a craze of settling down in the US and many of the IELTS institutes are luring them with false promises and giving them advice on dangerous routes to take,” says Krishan Chand, a retired professor of the Centre of Research in Rural and Industrial Development in Chandigarh. He lamented that Punjab was losing talented youth, who go to the US yielding to peer pressure and find their dreams shattered.
Travel and immigration agents in Punjab are also aware of a spike in the number of people from the state trying to seek asylum in the US and follow non-traditional routes. “The state and central government should take steps to create awareness about the high risk of crossing into the US from Mexico,” says Satish Bhargava, director of Crown Immigration Consultancy Services, a Jalandhar-based agency. Why then are Indians choosing the Mexico route? Experts are not sure.
“Many claim there has been a rise in religious persecution and they are fleeing but I doubt that can explain this rise. The initial wave may have led to an increase in future flows through networks — immigrants told friends and family about job opportunities in the US,” says Gaurav Khanna, assistant professor at University of California, San Diego.
June 2018: Nearly 100 Indians, mostly Sikh and Christians, tracked at detention centres in New Mexico, Texas and Oregon.
July 2019: Hunger strike by Indian detainees in El Paso, Texas and Otero.
Meanwhile, police in Punjab are finding it difficult to curb human trafficking by unscrupulous agents because of under-reporting of such cases. “They do not want to be deported back to India despite facing a lot of hardship,” says Punjab’s Director General of Police Dinkar Gupta.
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18 Comments on this Story
tochii60520 days ago
Criminals gangs organize these people to risk all for profit. I have been to India many times have never noticed any political persecution,it is just as free as USA
Vijayaraghavan G520 days ago
I met a Sardarji in Auckland a few years back. He was a taxi owner/driver. He owned other taxis too. He came to New Zealand as a political asylum seeker after the anti-sikh riots in Delhi. The funny part is, he said he still owned a fleet of trucks and agricultural land in India and visits his home town every couple of years to collect the profits. But to the NZ government he is still a persecuted refugee!
Mahabharat Ka Ka520 days ago
The reason for leaving India for the West is same as ever. Aluwalia is trying to twist the matter to prove his professional lawyer''s acumen by creating the fantasy that discrimination is the cause. Caste is not recognised in Sikhism. How come they became victims. The plain fact is there are enough people in US and UK to buy the story for their own political end. If Govt of India takes action against Khalistani separatists to protect its sovereignty,such action is legitimate and cannot be termed "discriminatory".while lure of Phoren shores is natural and the same instinct has goaded humans to migrate all over the world,it is the means which is questionable and Mr Aluwalia is trying to conveniently evade and such attitude is questionable .