Over 3,200 kilometres, across four states, ocean to ocean. Impervious desert, knife-edged mountains, shifting sand dunes. The Southern border that separates the US from Mexico is tranquil, yet forbidding, harsh, and relentless.
The gritty landscape represents a challenge for one of the world's largest law enforcement organisations – US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the most frequently crossed international boundary in the world.
The US CBP has positioned 85% of its agents in this terrain.
The United States has long guaranteed the right to seek asylum to individuals who reach its southern border and ask for protection.
And so they arrive, in large numbers, fleeing gang wars, poverty, and corruption, most from Central and South American countries of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
But the border also attracts people from across the seas – Russians, Chinese, Middle-Easterners, Iranians, and Indians – some fleeing persecution, most others seeking economic opportunities.
The US-Mexico border sees a swell of refugees in spring months, when it is safer to cross over before the blistering summer sets in. Spring was no different this year either, with 178,622 refugees apprehended by CBP in April alone.
Indian Refugees in The US
Indians have been crossing the border into US via Mexico for many decades.
Even though the number of Indians has never been as high as those from countries in South America, more Indians have been arriving in recent years – their numbers rising steadily. Nearly 7,675 Indians were apprehended by the CBP during the surge in 2019.
But since the onset of the pandemic, the number of Indian refugees arriving and being apprehended at the US Southern border suddenly took a massive dip.
After sharply declining in 2020, the count of Indian refugees being apprehended at the Southern border hasn’t started rising significantly yet, as observed by attorneys and volunteers who work directly with Indian asylum seekers.
Why Have The Numbers Dropped?
Amidst the shape-shifting sand dunes of California’s Imperial Valley, the city of Calexico sits right at the national boundary, adjacent to its twin Mexican town of Mexicali.
Immigration Attorney Gurpreet Kaur whose work is primarily focused on the US Southern border, visits the ICE Detention Center in Calexico regularly to meet her detainee clients – from India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and Central America.
She says the number of Indians arriving at detention centres in California and Arizona have dropped significantly, compared to 2019.
”Last year, Trump cut the cord on asylum with a lot of policies, denying them asylum at the initial stage. It takes these young men 3-4 months to reach here, with their smugglers arranging travel, fake visas etc. My attorney friends who work with Indians and Bengali clients in San Diego had no business at all, from April 2020 till February 2021. With the new administration, yes, definitely the numbers have slightly increased compared to 2020. I am at the Calexico ICE facility often. I met 43 people today, on 18 May 2021. There were only about 23-24 Indians today, and about 12-13 Bangladeshis.”Immigration Attorney Gurpreet Kaur
The low numbers of Indians in the ICE detention facility in Calexico are corroborated by a Sikh priest, Jaswant Singh, who has been volunteering here for the last six years. He finds that compared to pre-pandemic months, there are just a handful of Indian youngsters in detention now.
“All our young Indian boys have left this place. Many were deported by Trump. Not many new ones have arrived since COVID struck. There used to be about 250-300 Indian youngsters at a time, in detention here. I used to lead a 2-hour Sikh prayer session for them every Wednesday. Most of the young lads were Sikh, so we would provide them with turbans and prayer beads,” says Singh.
News reports from 2019 mention that almost 40% of the 600 odd inmates of this detention centre were Indian.
On 28 May 2021, 302 inmates were housed at the Imperial Regional Detention Centre, with very few Indians among them. Due to the pandemic, volunteer visits by religious priests have been stalled at the Calexico facility.
Singh is the priest of The Sikh Temple of El Centro, which is minutes away from the US-Mexico border and from the Calexico based ICE detention facility. Often, it is the first destination for Indians on their release from the detention centre.
A recent report in New York Times mentioned that ‘ever greater numbers’ of transcontinental refugees including from India, are arriving at the US Southern border, fleeing pandemic-ravaged economies.
But, according to a CBP official only 19 Indians have been nabbed between 1 October 2020 and 20 May 2021 in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector alone, the area that witnesses maximum arrivals from across the border.
Between 1 October 2018 and September 2019, the number of Indians apprehended in the same sector was much higher at 143 – consistently rising from 27 in 2007. In the El Paso sector, not many Indians have been seen recently, so much so that given the low numbers, Indians are not even on their radar.
CBP tracks Indian refugees arriving to the US, along with those from many countries in a category referred to as ‘other’, while classifying refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by country name, even though the number of Indians being apprehended at the US Southern border has been consistently rising from 76 in 2007 to 7,675 in 2019, dropping sharply in 2020, in line with an overall plunge in apprehensions.
Pandemic The Only Reason?
Along with pandemic-related travel restrictions, the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal entrants are believed to have also resulted in a reduction in CBP apprehensions from all countries to just 16,182 in April 2020.
Todd Bensman, a former counter-terrorism intelligence analyst for the Texas government finds the claim that the impact of the pandemic is making Indians flee their country and take the treacherous road to the US Southern border, absurd.
“I believe that is an inaccurate characterisation of what is happening. They did not leave India because of the pandemic – that claim in NY Times is wrong. By blaming the pandemic, someone is evading the real responsibility. The actual cause is the policy at the border – that people who come in, families coming in will be allowed to settle in. Indians in Punjab hear about this, and they are on their way. The same with aspiring immigrants anywhere in the world – those who can get here, will be released in a short period of time with no fear of deportation, as deportation has been dropped on the very first day of office. They (Biden administration) suspended deportations of any kind,” he says.
Todd Bensman has been in the trenches studying the US-Mexican border to establish the presence of a secret national counter-terrorism project.
He has spent years in South American nations tracking those who are believed to represent a potential terrorism threat if they were to enter US, authoring the book, ‘America's Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation's Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration’.
During his research and intelligence gathering, he came across groups of Indians traversing the South American countries on way to the US-Mexico border.
He believes the number of deportations under the Trump administration, financial deterrents, and stricter ‘credible fear’ asylum interviews are behind the drop in refugees arriving at the border.
“What Trump did was that they started claiming big value bonds and the numbers slowed down. Immigration officers were given special training to spot false stories to Indians’ persecution claims to get asylum. It was the first time that ever happened, and deportations followed. Loads of Indians were deported during Trump years.”Todd Bensman, Former Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Analyst for Texas Government
Bensman explains that Trump’s pressure on Latin American countries to not let other nationals flow through them to the US-Mexico border also played a part in sending the message to those planning the long haul.
“Mexico started it too. The new president in Brazil cracked down on Indians. This acted as a dampener for the number of Indians coming in. Trump was the kind of a guy, if he said no to you, he will destroy you. Asylum officers under Democratic regimes like Obama’s were told to check the yes box for all Indians. With Biden, it’s back.”Todd Bensman, Former Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Analyst for Texas Government
In spite of Biden’s friendly policies, the 2020 dip is continuing for Indian refugees, yet to pick up significantly in 2021.
But the few who are making their way through South America and Mexico have to wade through greater risks to reach the US.
Assistant Professor of Economics at the School of Global Policy and Strategy in University of California, San Diego, Dr Gaurav Khanna believes that clamping down on Indians who traverse the globe to reach the US Southern border, increases more life-threatening illegal attempts.
”There has been a 100 times increase in the Indians apprehended at the US-Mexico border between 2007 and 2019. Mexico had started turning Indians away because of this increase, to cut down on numbers crossing the border, as per a deal with Trump. That clampdown has increased (human) smuggling. We don’t know the proper numbers as they are undetected, but we are hearing anecdotally.”Dr Gaurav Khanna
Dr Khanna who teaches Immigration, Immigration Policy, & Economics of Immigration, identifies certain factors in India which encourage people to leave: “We call them push factors. India has always had issues with communal violence. A heightened sense of political violence and lynchings have pushed people out.”
Immigration attorney Gurpreet Kaur has found that her clients’ political reasons for seeking life safety in asylum, have remained the same over the last few years – ‘If I am deported, I will not make it’.
This year, some of her clients are sharing a different story. “The reason is not COVID. In the last few months, many Indians in detention are making claims based on farmers’ protests, related to political parties they are associated with. You can see why that would be the case,” says Kaur.
Immigration attorney with offices in California and Texas, Deepak Ahluwalia shares that the number of Indians who ‘run across the fence’ illegally to ‘enter without inspection’, is higher than people who fly in to apply for asylum, or enter US legally with a valid visitor visa to overstay.
He believes that they make this hazardous quest because they feel threatened and deserve a fair hearing, ”No one is going to tell you that they come for economic reasons. I represent people from all over the world. I take on a small number of asylum seekers from Punjab. Many of my clients are LGBTQ, Dalit, Muslim asylum cases, who feel threatened.”
Along with an escape from persecution, US does represent a viable economic option for refugees making treacherous transnational journeys to reach its borders.
Even though the current numbers are low, the push and pull aspects of immigration will ensure that Indians continue to be a part of the global migration crisis. Their numbers are bound to increase, if not immediately, once pandemic-related travel restrictions ease.
(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. )