Braving hardships, prospect of death, record number of Indians travel the hellish road to American paradise

There were bodies, he remembers, rotting along the path through the forest; pilgrims who had fallen before they reached the promised land. The journey had been murderous: fifteen thousand kilometres by air, then 1,800 more by road; 1,500 kilometres in a leaky fishing boat; 2,900 kilometres stuck in the back of trucks, more than a hundred kilometres tramping through savage jungles. There had been beatings, starvation, and prison camps.

Finally, as he stood in the shadow of a two-metre high steel and concrete wall running across the desert, Sukhjit Singh realised he’d arrived at the gates of paradise.

The death of a seven-year-old girl last month, who hailed from Punjab, travelling with her mother as part of a group of five illegal migrants who entered the United States of America from Mexico, brought attention to the enormous risks taken by the hundreds of thousands from across the world who travel to other countries seeking prosperity.

Gurpreet Kaur’s tragic death, though, is part of a far larger story. In recent years, the numbers of Indians paying to be trafficked through central America into the United States has exploded.

For migrants, paying from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 25 lakh for a shot at a new life is a calculated gamble—but it’s a gamble carefully set up so that traffickers, drug cartels, unscrupulous immigration lawyers and apathetic state police forces always win.

 Braving hardships, prospect of death, record number of Indians travel the hellish road to American paradise

Every year, tens of thousands of tourists arrive in Ecuador, heading out to the Galápagos islands, the glacier-studded Cotopaxi volcano, the upper reaches of the Amazon. Late on the night of 17 May, 2015, when Harinder Singh boarded his flight from Bangalore to Quito, via Frankfurt, he had only good reason to make the journey: the south American country doesn’t ask Indian nationals for visas—not even those a few months short of 18.

There was, as the travel agent in Hoshiarpur had promised the teenager’s parents, a man waiting for him at Mariscal Sucre International Airport. Mahinder Singh, Harinder's father, had sold off land to make the passage possible; the family had been assured the Rs 25 lakh fee included border-to-border transit.

Following a night in a Quito hotel room, where he flushed his passport and identification papers down the toilet, Harinder found himself being bussed down to Guayaquil, gateway to the Galapagos. Then, he was put on a boat headed north across the Pacific, packed into the hold with some 25 other migrants.

“In case you fall overboard”, Harinder recalls the boat’s captain telling them, “I’m not going to fish you out”. “They handed out some beer, to keep us going through the journey. I drank a lot of it”.

Mexican police stand in front of the border wall between the US and Mexico. Representational image. Reuters

Mexican police stand in front of the border wall between the US and Mexico. Representational image. Reuters

The boat landed on an abandoned beach south of the small town of La Palma in Panama—the spearhead of a wave, though Harinder Singh did not know it then, of more than 60,000 migrants from across the world, who would cross through the roadless, and lawless, equatorial forest of the infamous Darien Gap.

“We camped out on the beach that night”, Harinder Singh recalls, “bitten by insects, not knowing what to do or where to go”. Then, three guides arrived who would lead them on a brutal, four-day march across the mountains and rivers of the Darien.

Gangs of armed Colombians and Panamanians—drug traffickers using the same routes as the migrants—often attacked the migrants, Harinder Singh recalls. “A group of Indians travelling ahead of us”, Singh says, “had all their money taken away. There was a woman with them, but the attackers didn’t want her money”. He doesn’t explain further.

“Every day, we’d see the bodies of those who had not been able to keep up”, he says, “Every day, I’d think: why I am doing this”?

The group’s guide left them at the end of the trek through the Darien gap, saying he needed to scout the way ahead. He returned an hour later—leading Panamanian border guards.

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Terminal dehydration, so experts say, is among the more gentle ways to die. Kaur would have stopped sweating, and as her blood pressure dropped, she would have lost consciousness. The child, more likely than not, would have experienced little pain as blood stopped flowing to nonvital organs, such as the kidneys; known nothing of the dramatic build-up of toxins in her body, leading on to multiple organ failure.

Left by his guide, a small-time drug runner, in front of the concrete-and-steel mesh wall separating the city of El Paso from Mexico, Sukhjit Singh had no intention of risking death by crossing the desert. Instead, he walked to the nearest United States border guard outpost—and surrendered.

Ensuring his first steps in the United States would involve handcuffs was, in fact, key to the plans crafted by Sukhjit's trafficker in Kapurthala. To immigration officers in Harlingen, in the Rio Grande valley, Sukhjit said he was at threat because of his connections to the Khalistan movement. That, in turn, allowed him to file for political asylum, using a lawyer arranged by the trafficker.

There are no police records or newspaper records in Kapurthala, a Punjab Police spokesperson told Firspost, indicating the New Jersey resident, then just 20 years, had ever been linked to political violence—but then, the asylum system doesn’t involve transnational investigation.

In immigration court late in 2011, some three months after he was arrested, Sukhjit was released on a bail-bond set at $40,000. The guarantee was posted by United States citizens claiming to be a relative, also arranged by the Kapurthala trafficker. Let free on condition he wear a satellite-tracking device—eventually removed after he appeared for scheduled hearings — Sukhjit succeeded in obtaining permission to work.

Harlingen, local news reports suggest, continues to see a steady flow of Indians, some of whom begin their new life working at local Indian-owned motels. There are others who head to live with friends or relatives elsewhere in the United States, just as Sukhjit did. He now works at a trucking business in New Jersey, and is confident he will gain permanent resident status.

“I knew it had cost my family a lot of money to get me here”, Sukhjit says, “so I lived frugally, sharing a flat with six other boys from Punjab and spending almost nothing on myself. I worked hard on construction sites, and managed to pay back the Rs 22 lakh my family paid inside five years”.

“Look”, he says, “I don’t have an education, or a business. I could have worked twice as hard in Kapurthala, but I’d never be making the money I do today”.

This is, clearly, logic that appeals to more than a few. The United States arrested 8,997 Indians on the south-west border in 2018, up from 2,493 in 2017, and just 76 in 2007. Indians made up a tiny fraction of the 396,579 illegal migrants of all nationalities arrested on the south-west border last year—but given the costs and distances involved, the surge is startling.

Kaur’s father—one-time Punjab resident Amardeep Singh—perhaps had much the same idea. He arrived in the United States in 2013, and like Sukhjit , is awaiting the outcome of a political asylum application claiming he faces persecution in India. Kaur’s mother, Surinder Kaur, Indian diplomatic sources say, paid traffickers to help the family reunite. Family land, again, seem to have paid the traffickers’ fees.

From the data, it’s clear the chances of an Indian migrant gaining asylum aren’t bad. Forty-two percent of Indian asylum seekers’ applications heard in court between 2012 and 2017 were rejected—better than even odds, and no small achievement given that eight in ten applications from conflict-torn countries like Haiti and Mexico failed.

Part of the reason is that the United States’ asylum process—arguably perversely, for a system intended to defend the most vulnerable—benefits those who can access, or afford, lawyers. Nearly half of all asylum applications by individuals with legal representation succeed; nine out of ten applicants with legal aid succeed.

Indian asylum applications are, to those familiar with the region, often bizarre. In one 2011 case, reviewed by Firstpost, Bharat Panchal claimed he’d fled India because of political violence directed at Hindus in Gujarat. In another, a 27-year-old woman from Punjab claimed she’d been gang-raped because her husband worked for the Indian National Congress.

There are cases filed claiming to be at risk for supporting Khalistan, for supporting the Bharatiya Janata Party, even for caste-related issues.

“I won't take their cases anymore”, Texas immigration attorney Cathy Potter told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “It undermines my credibility. I don't want anything to do with this”.

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Acqua Fresca della noce di cocco”, shouts out Harvinder Pal, in Punjabi-accented Italian, “acqua fresca, Coca, birra”. No one at the shopping mall in New Delhi's Pitampura area even pauses to look, assuming, not unreasonably, that he’s either drunk or high. “I spent three months selling beer and soft drinks at a nude beach”, he says.” I harvested fruits, I worked on construction sites and I even made 300 chapatis a day for other illegal workers from India”.

“Every night, I would dream that the next day, some beautiful, rich woman at that beach would say, 'Harry, please marry me’. And then, I’d have a visa. Madness, no?”

For much of the 20th century, Indians have gone west in search of wealth. Indus river boatmen who lost out when the Lahore-Karachi railroad was built in the 19th century, for example, found work as coal-stokers on Britain's merchant fleet. An ethnic colony of some size had begun to evolve in the port of Sydney early in the 1800s, and enclaves of Mirpuris also emerged in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

Sikhs in the US set up farms and homes in California, until race laws stopped their migration in 1907. Punjabis from the Doaba, similarly, helped meet the needs of Great Britain's factories in the years of industrial expansion that followed 1945.

Remittances from these social groups even played an important role in facilitating the Green Revolution—and continue to be the source of prosperity and prestige today.

Fragmenting landholdings, the lack of entrepreneurial skills, even drug and alcohol issues — all these have ensured that a large cohort of small-town young people in regions like Punjab, Haryana and even Gujarat simply cannot replicate the successes of their parents’ generation. That, in turn, has led some to take extraordinary risks.

In spite of the deaths of hundreds of young Punjabis, would-be illegal immigrants when their ship went under in the Ionian Sea in 1996, and the occasional disappearance of travellers in Mexico, the flow continues.

Sukhjit Singh spent four weeks in what he calls Camp I, and another in Camp IV, after his arrest in Panama—facing beatings from local border guards, before finally being thrown out across the border into Mexico, along with a great tide of tens of thousands of other migrants who simply overwhelmed the country’s capacity to cope back in 2015.

Let out of the camp with thousands of others, he made it to Mexico, and is now working in New York, awaiting the outcome of his asylum application.

Little has changed since. Tapachula, the first stopping point in Mexico for tens of thousands who have crossed the Darien Gap, even has restaurants serving South Asian food. Siglo XXI, Tapachula’s migrant detention centre, is holding ever-greater numbers of migrants, under pressure from the United States—but riots that have broken out repeatedly through the summer show overcrowding has now reached impossible levels.

There’s no clear picture of exactly how many Indians are stranded in these camps. Few in them disclose their real names or nationalities to authorities, for fear of deportation home. Even if they did, India has no interest in paying for the return of migrants, who in any case have no wish to come home. Inside the country, police forces mostly ignore human traffickers: the only victims of these criminals are, after all, enthusiastic volunteers.

Little Gurpreet Kaur’s death ought have some meaning, but it won’t: the dollar is a hungry god, and all those who seek it set out knowing the price they might have to pay.

Editor's note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of persons in this story

Updated Date: Jul 10, 2019 11:15:20 IST