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The Long, Perilous Route Thousands Of Indians Have Risked For A Shot At Life In U.S.

Gurmeet Singh holds a photo of his granddaughter, Gurupreet Kaur, who died of heatstroke in Arizona in June 2019. The 6-year-old and her mother had just crossed into the U.S. from Mexico.
Lauren Frayer
Gurmeet Singh holds a photo of his granddaughter, Gurupreet Kaur, who died of heatstroke in Arizona in June 2019. The 6-year-old and her mother had just crossed into the U.S. from Mexico.

A poster-size photo of a little girl in a frilly pink tutu has pride of place on the wall of her grandparents' stately home on the fertile plains of northern India. An album of baby photos is propped on a side table, alongside a gigantic plush pink teddy bear.

They're all that Gurmeet Singh and his wife, Surinder Kaur, have left of their 6-year-old granddaughter. She died on June 12, 2019, of heatstroke in the desert near Lukeville, Ariz., some 8,000 miles from home.

It was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The girl, Gurupreet Kaur, and her mother had just crossed illegally into Arizona from Mexico, part of a group of Indian migrants. Gurupreet's father had gone ahead to the U.S. in 2013, a few months after his daughter was born, and was waiting for them. Mother and daughter left home in early 2019.

"I cry now when I look at her picture. I keep remembering how I used to hoist her up onto my shoulders," says Singh, a sinewy farmer in his 70s with a long white beard and wearing an orange turban.

"I tried to stop them from leaving. We have a big house. We could provide for them here," recalls Singh, speaking with NPR at his home in the village of Hasanpur, in northern India's Haryana state, in late January. "They didn't need to go abroad."

But Singh says his son didn't want to be a wheat and rice farmer like him. His son and daughter-in-law kept their emigration plans a secret, he says, and left without warning.

In a statement issued last year from New York City, where the couple now lives and has applied for asylum, they said they left India because they were "desperate" and wanted "a safer and better life" for their daughter. But they have never explained why they felt unsafe in India and made what they called an "extremely difficult decision" to embark on such a risky journey.

"No mother or father ever puts their child in harm's way unless they are desperate," the statement said. "We will carry the burden of the loss of our beloved Gurupreet for a lifetime, but we will also continue to hold onto the hope that America remains a compassionate nation grounded in the immigrant ideals that make diversity this nation's greatest strength."

Their lawyer tells NPR that they are preparing for trial in U.S. immigration court.

The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of migrants trying to cross from Mexico into the U.S. each year come from Latin America. But Gurupreet and her parents were among a growing number of Indians risking their lives to cross that border too.

A long and risky journey

The flow of migrants toward the U.S.-Mexico border has dwindled during the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. authorities have deported many who were in custody when the virus broke out, including 167 Indians in May. Of those still being detained for trying to cross that frontier illegally, the first to test positive for the coronavirus, in late April, was an Indian, U.S. authorities say.

For Indian migrants, the journey to Mexico's border with the U.S. begins on the plains of northern India and can zigzag to Russia, the Mideast, the Caribbean and Central America. U.S. Border Patrol figures show that the number of Indians detained on the U.S.-Mexico border spiked from just 76 in 2007 to more than 7,600 last year. U.S. and Indian officials have been trying to figure out why.

What they're finding is that — unlike many migrants fleeing violence, persecution or economic hardship — most Indian migrants trying to enter the U.S. via Mexico are not the poorest of the poor. Indian authorities say they're from Punjab, one of the country's wealthiest states. (Gurupreet Kaur and her parents were from the neighboring state of Haryana.) The migrants are heading to the U.S. amid a spike in Punjab's land prices that has simultaneously exacerbated economic inequality and been a boon to landowners, allowing them or their children to afford the cost of such journeys.

They're also getting help, Indian police and migrants say, from a burgeoning crop of unregulated travel agents — human smugglers. The agents may be local tea sellers, for example, with criminal contacts abroad. They charge migrants tens of thousands of dollars per person and route them through as many as a dozen countries to the U.S.-Mexico border. They often supply the migrants with fake backstories to help them try to win asylum.

According to NPR interviews with U.S. and Indian government officials, police, licensed immigration agents, lawyers and Indian deportees, most of the would-be migrants face no credible threats to their safety or livelihoods. They're simply leaving India for better job opportunities abroad and to reunite with relatives who've already emigrated. Rejected for visas by going through the proper channels, they've gone about trying to reach the U.S. in the riskiest possible ways.

"I had no other option"

Amandeep Singh, the 19-year-old son of farmers, and of no relation to any of the other Singhs in this story, grew up in the tiny village of Miani, Punjab, population 692. He dreams of working in a restaurant or grocery store in America. But he's a high school dropout with none of the qualifications he'd need to apply for a U.S. work or education visa and move there legally. So in the spring of 2019, when he was 18, he paid a smuggler $22,000, which he borrowed from friends and family, to send him to the U.S. illegally.

Amandeep Singh, 19, at his family's farm in rural Punjab, India. Singh paid a smuggler about $22,000 to help him cross the U.S.-Mexico border, but he was deported from Mexico in October.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
Amandeep Singh, 19, at his family's farm in rural Punjab, India. Singh paid a smuggler about $22,000 to help him cross the U.S.-Mexico border, but he was deported from Mexico in October.

First, he traveled by bus to New Delhi — his first time visiting the Indian capital. Then he flew to Russia, Cuba, Ecuador, Colombia. Then he moved northward through Central America on foot — Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico. It took four months.

"I had no other option. I don't want to be a farmer, and in rural Punjab, there's nothing else," he explains. "I left home on this big adventure, but what I didn't know was that I would end up right back here again."

Singh never even reached the U.S. border. Mexican authorities deported him in October 2019, along with more than 300 other Indians — most of them fellow Punjabis.

A "billion-dollar industry"

Punjab is a rich agricultural area, long known as the breadbasket of India. It has about 3% of India's arable land but grows nearly 20% of the country's wheat and 12% of its rice. In the 1960s and 1970s, Punjab was home to India's Green Revolution, a massive campaign to boost agricultural yields and end famine nationwide.

But the region also has a long history of strife. Millions were killed in Punjab during the 1947 Partition of British colonial India. The area was split between newly independent Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Since then, Indian Punjab's agricultural economy has fueled income disparity and environmental degradation.

In large families, farmland is often inherited by the eldest son, leaving multiple siblings idle. Even if they split the land among descendants, mechanization increasingly means fewer hands are needed.

Meanwhile, in recent years, Punjab has become an entry point for illicit drugs from Afghanistan and home to India's worst drug abuse epidemic, further fueling the desire of many to get out.

The streets of Punjab's cities — Ludhiana, Amritsar, Patiala, Jalandhar — are plastered with billboards for immigration agents. For a fee, they help Indians apply for education or work visas abroad. Only about 1,400 such agents are registered with the Indian government to process employment visas abroad. Many more are education consultants, accredited by foreign universities and governments. The most popular destinations for Punjabis seeking to migrate traditionally have been the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Satish Bhargava, director of Crown Immigration Consultancy Services, a licensed immigration agency with branches across India, says he believes the real number of immigration agents operating in India is close to 100,000. Most are unregulated.

No matter the destination, "immigration is a billion-dollar industry. It's an international global business — especially in Punjab," Bhargava told NPR in a late January interview in his company's Jalandhar office, where clients waited in the lobby for appointments with immigration agents at kiosks. Many Punjabis are already settled in foreign countries, he says. Most have gone legally over the years. "Their relatives and friends are all looking to go there, join them and make good money," he says.

"There are a lot of frauds out there"

The U.S. was once Indian Punjabis' first choice for a new life, agents say. But as the Trump administration tightened restrictions, their clients turned toward Canada, Australia and European countries like France and Germany instead.

Bhargava's once-bustling office has temporarily shut because of the pandemic. According to government data, Punjab has had more than 5,600 COVID-19 cases and 149 deaths. But Bhargava says his phone is still ringing constantly with calls from clients who still want to get to the U.S., the U.K., Italy — places devastated by the virus.

"Even in spite of the coronavirus, still they are sending me emails and WhatsApp messages. They're still searching for options," he told NPR by phone in May.

He says he tries to dissuade them. The Trump administration has halted most immigration anyway, because of the pandemic.

"But they are desperate to go to foreign countries due to [their perception of] good lifestyles," he says. "They just keep thinking like that."

Bhargava's brother and co-director, D.S. Saini, says that even before the pandemic, their agency had to turn away many clients whose hearts were set on living in America but who didn't meet the requirements for U.S. visas. Many would then turn to a growing crop of unlicensed agents willing to forge documents — fake passports and visas — to fulfill those dreams for a price.

"Someone comes to us and we decline, saying, 'You're not eligible.' So he finds someone else. There are a lot of frauds out there," Saini says. "It has a bad effect on the whole immigration industry. Once some people start committing fraud, suddenly everyone is seen as having bad intentions."

Last year, more than 900 immigration agents were arrested on fraud charges in Punjab alone, a senior police intelligence official, Hardial Singh Mann, based in Chandigarh, Punjab, tells NPR.

"Families are duped"

Sevak Singh, 26, in front of his family's home in rural Punjab. Singh planned to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally but was deported from Mexico in October. He admits that he and other Punjabi Sikh migrants rehearsed fake backstories about being persecuted in India to try to win asylum in the United States.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
Sevak Singh, 26, in front of his family's home in rural Punjab. Singh planned to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally but was deported from Mexico in October. He admits that he and other Punjabi Sikh migrants rehearsed fake backstories about being persecuted in India to try to win asylum in the United States.

Most of the agents arrested last year were small-time criminals who lured clients on social media and operated informally — out of tea stalls in the local market, for example — says V.K. Bhawra, a senior police official in Chandigarh. They play up their foreign contacts, he says.

"Knowing someone abroad — that gives them some credibility, and they exploit it," he explains. "People who are not very educated and want to send their children abroad, they generally fall prey to these people. Families are duped, and sometimes people sell their land."

The spike in the number of Punjabis risking the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border has coincided with a spike in land prices at home. According to a 2013 study by Sanjoy Chakravorty, a geography and urban studies professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, the average price of farmland in Punjab (about $7,000 per acre) exceeded the price at the time in all but one U.S. state and every European country except the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.

If Punjabi farmers sell a small parcel of land, they can afford to pay smugglers to send them — or their sons and daughters — abroad.

"So many people go there. Why can't I go?"

But the Trump administration is determined to stop illegal immigration. It has pressured Mexico to block migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. It has also beefed up patrols to apprehend undocumented migrants. It's harder than ever to cross the U.S.-Mexico border undetected. To get into the U.S., migrants have to ask for asylum by expressing "credible fear" of torture or persecution if they were to return to their home country — but even that option is now on pause during the pandemic.

Sevak Singh, 26, and of no relation to any of the other Singhs in this story, also paid a smuggler to take him from India to the United States.

In October, he too was deported from Mexico. Like most Punjabis, he is Sikh, a member of a minority faith.

Although he never had the chance, Singh says he'd decided that if U.S. border officials weren't satisfied with his answers about why he wanted to be in the U.S., he would lie and claim he'd been persecuted as a Sikh.

Human rights groups say hate crimes against minorities are on the rise in India, especially in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Last October, an Amnesty International report found that the most common victims of persecution in India are Muslims, lower-caste Hindus, tribal people, Christians and LGBTQ Indians. Of 902 alleged hate crimes documented by the group between September 2015 and June 2019, not one incident was against a Sikh. Still, Singh recalls how along the migration trail, fellow Sikhs would rehearse fake backstories about Sikh separatism and persecution.

A section of border fence between Mexico and the U.S. in Calexico, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2017.
Mike Blake / Reuters
A section of border fence between Mexico and the U.S. in Calexico, Calif., on Feb. 8, 2017.

The stories were untrue but were rooted in decades-old strife. The 1970s and 1980s saw a backlash against Sikhs in India, as a violent separatist movement asserted itself. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. Thousands of Sikhs were killed in subsequent riots.

Singh tells NPR that he has not been persecuted in India. He has just had a really tough life of poverty, he says. He felt confident that if only he could convince U.S. authorities of how tough he has had it, they would let him in.

"I am from a poor family. You can see the condition we're living in," he told NPR in late January, in an interview at his family's simple mud-brick house in rural Punjab. He perched on the edge of a bed with his mother beside him. "I dreamed about going to a foreign land and improving my family's finances. I thought, 'So many people go there. Why can't I go?' "

Evaluating persecution claims

Some Indians in U.S. detention have gone on hunger strikes. They accuse U.S. officials of not taking their claims seriously.

But U.S. and Indian officials say most Indians who are detained on the U.S.-Mexico border and subsequently claim persecution are economic migrants like Singh and do not have strong cases for asylum. NPR spoke to four Indians recently deported from Mexico, including the two quoted in this story. All four called themselves economic migrants — not asylum-seekers.

With the uptick in the number of Indians detained on the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that evaluates "credible fear" claims of asylum-seekers, implemented new India-specific, anti-fraud training for its officers starting in April 2019.

In the six months prior to that training, "credible fear" had been found in 89% of Indian nationals evaluated by USCIS officers. After the training, the rate dropped to 17% in the five months leading up to February 2020.

The U.S. government concluded that a majority of the Indian migrants who had been claiming persecution prior to April 2019 were doing so fraudulently.

Lying about persecution "definitely obscures and endangers the authentic asylum-seekers that are able to — by some miracle — make it to the U.S. and file applications for relief," says Deepak Ahluwalia, a California-based immigration lawyer who has represented Indian asylum-seekers in U.S. immigration courts.

Ahluwalia worries that amid the humanitarian crisis over migrants from many countries on the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. authorities are incorrectly or unfairly overlooking some with credible persecution claims, including Indian Sikhs. He has represented other asylum-seekers who say they've been persecuted in India for being gay, lower caste or Muslim.

"I will try to go again"

Back home in his mother's kitchen in Punjab, Amandeep Singh, the 19-year-old deportee, spins tales for his little brother about his time walking through the jungles of Central America. It was the adventure of his life, he says.

Singh is constantly texting with the smuggler he hired, trying to get his $22,000 back. But he hasn't called the police for help and has no plans to do so.

More than 900 alleged smugglers were arrested in Punjab last year, but very few have been prosecuted and the conviction rate is low, says Mann, the senior police intelligence official.

"Because the clients and agents often make a deal: The person who has been cheated gets his money back, and in return, they request to police that the agent be let go," Mann explains. "They compromise with each other."

It's difficult to prove a crime when there's no victim, he says.

That's the case for Singh. He refuses to tell NPR the name of his smuggler. He's trying to cut a deal with the man so he can get a refund. And even while under lockdown because of the coronavirus, he's holding out hope.

"I realize America's hard hit by the coronavirus. But I'm determined to get there," he says. "I will try to go again."

To pass time, he's working in the fields and searching for a better smuggler, he says — one who will really get him to the U.S. next time.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.