Persecution or Unemployment? Why Are Indians Immigrating to the US Illegally?

Data analysis reveals that many Indians are risking their lives to cross the borders into the US.

South Asians
5 min read
Hindi Female

(This article was originally published on 24 January, and is being reposted after the High Commission of India, Ottawa, on 27/28 January, confirmed the identity of the family that died on the US-Canada border.)

The tragic incident involving four members of an Indian family freezing to death at the US-Canada border has reignited the conversation around the dangerous journeys that refugees take in order to pursue a better life.

Hailing from a village in Gujarat, the family, that included a child and a teenager, was en route to enter the US when freezing temperatures killed them.

They were also apparently victims of a human smuggling operation, the suspected culprits of which have been detained.

One of them has been arrested for the same.

In fact, the local agent who initiated the Patel family's migration to the US that led to the tragedy had organised similar trips for about 10 other families, Times of India reported.

Three families of those families are untraceable, and now the worst is being feared.

Data analysis shows that this family of four is far from the only Indian family to take drastic measures while journeying halfway around the world, risking their lives on the borders to cross into the United States.


US Border Control Data on Illegal Indian Migrants

An article published in the Economic Times says that "after migrants from Latin America, more Indians are detained at the US southern border than citizens of any other country."

The year 2018 saw the highest number of detentions ever recorded in the southern border of the US that is adjacent to Mexico.

Of the total 4,67,000 detainees (according to available data from US Customs and Border Protection), nearly 9,000 were Indians.

Ten years ago, however, that number was only 77.

Additional USCBP data says that Indian migrants constitute the fifth-largest source of illegal migrants entering the US from the southwest border.

The only four countries that are ahead of India in this situation are Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

India has not dropped below the fifth spot in this category since 2016.

As many as 3,668 illegal migrants from India entered the US in 2016, 3,135 in 2017, and 9,234 in 2018.

Asylum Data

Then there's the question of asylum.

According to official USCBP figures, more than 22,000 Indians have applied for asylum in the United States since 2014.

The increase in successful asylum applications has also involved many Indian immigrants.

Data from the Annual Flow Report published by the Department of Homeland Security says that "Turkey and India experienced the greatest numerical and proportional increases, with 3.6 and 1.7 times the number of asylum grants as in 2018, respectively."

The 2017-report says that 700 Indians were granted asylum during that year from among the 3,000 who had entered the country illegally.

Data analysis reveals that many Indians are risking their lives to cross the borders into the US.
Data analysis reveals that many Indians are risking their lives to cross the borders into the US.

Additionally, the report for 2019 also says that "the leading countries of nationality for persons granted defensive asylum were China (18 percent), El Salvador (12 percent), India (10 percent)."

'Defensive Asylum' in the United States is when an individual is in the process of being removed from the country, and they file an application to stay.

It is basically a form of protection that prevents the individual from being removed from the country in which they are seeking asylum, and then deported to the country where they fear persecution.

This means that in 2019, 10 percent of all those who were already in the US and did not want to be deported back to their home country were Indians.

Data analysis reveals that many Indians are risking their lives to cross the borders into the US.

This is in contrast to 'Affirmative Asylum', wherein the individual has not been asked to appear before an immigration judge for removal proceedings.

As the data below shows, asylum grants for Indian nationals have increasingly come from the defensive asylum, and not affirmative asylum.

Data analysis reveals that many Indians are risking their lives to cross the borders into the US.

Persecution or Better Opportunities? 

When it comes to answering why such large numbers of Indian people are illegally migrating to the US, analysts and advocates are torn between two main reasons.

Fear of Persecution

On one hand, attorneys like Deepak Ahluwalia say that the rise in illegal migration from India is due to people fleeing out of fear of persecution.

While speaking to the Economic Times, the US-based lawyer said that "his experience with clients from Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, UP and Himachal Pradesh shows that political dissidents, minorities, LGBTQ community members, and even young people in inter-caste marriages are feeling threatened and undertaking the long and arduous journey to seek asylum in the US through Central and Latin American countries."

Ahluwalia argues that this is linked to the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the communal divides and violence that the party has promoted in Indian society.

"If you look at when this uptick began, it really stems from when the BJP came into power," he added.

Economic Opportunities

Others argue that illegal Indian emigration is catalysed by economic factors, that is, the desire to find better economic opportunities.

According to The Guardian, Tayyab Mahmud, who is a law professor at Seattle University School of Law, argues that "in the big scheme of things, it is not persecution which is driving global migration. It is the economy."

John Lawit, an immigration attorney, has a similar perspective as Mahmud, and says that most of his Indian clients who wanted to enter into the US were Sikh tenant farmers who lost their businesses after being crushed by corporate farms.

On that note, Harjinder Singh, a Punjabi Sikh asylum-seeker disagrees.

He asserted that the journey from India to the US is too expensive for migrants to leave the country for economic reasons.

Harjinder Singh further went on to claim that he left Punjab because he was assaulted and threatened by the ruling Congress party's cadre for belonging to and supporting the Sikh Shiromani Akali Dal party.

Regardless of the cause of migration, the process continues to be extremely risky, and in many cases, fatal.

Human smugglers who seek to profit out of the desperation of these fleeing families further exacerbate the problem.

After all, the Gujarati family that froze to death kept walking with the assurance that someone was going to pick them up and take them to the destination of their choice.

A coordinated response from the US, Canadian, and Mexican administrations is essential if similar tragedies are to be avoided in the future.

(With inputs from The Economic Times, Vibes of India, and The Guardian.)

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