The surge of Central Americans crossing into the U.S. claiming asylum is no secret around the world. Just a snapshot of those caught entering on any given day is stunning – Nigeria, Romania, Nepal – in addition to the hundreds of Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans.
But one of the fastest-growing groups of illegal immigrants come not from the barrios of South America or the slums of Africa, but mega-sized cities in India – 8,000 miles away from the tiny town of El Centro, California, where a handful of Indian nationals are illegally entering the U.S. every day, officials say.
“It’s a common misconception that we just arrest Mexicans – that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said El Centro agent Justin Casterhone. “We arrest people from all over the world.”
Unable to obtain H1b visas, which are given to highly skilled workers, because of a crackdown on the visas by the Trump administration, and because of a fear that Sikhs are coming under attack by fundamentalist groups in their country, Indians are heading to the U.S. — illegally — in droves.
In 2015, agents caught six immigrants from India trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico. So far this fiscal year, the figure is already at more than 3,400.
The U.S.-Mexican border is divided into nine sectors. The smallest is El Centro, a tiny 70-mile stretch just west of the Arizona-California border. That area has become a conduit for those from India fleeing their country.
“Communication is very, very hard,” said Casterhone, who like most border agents speaks fluent Spanish, but no Punjabi, the native language. “When trying to communicate, we are gonna have to get the interpreter to get the entire story.”
Agents said they arrest roughly five to 10 Indian nationals a day, with most young men claiming asylum as victims of political or religious persecution. Women, who often belong to a lower class in India’s stratified caste system, claim abuse or fear of retribution from families in a higher social class.
“When someone marries beneath their caste, or above their caste, the parents generally get really angry about it and can subject the couple to honor killing,” said immigration attorney Judith Wood, who has represented and won a number of asylum claims on behalf of Indian nationals.”
Unlike those coming from Central America, who generally flee poverty and seek protection from gangs, most Indians claim persecution based on politics, social group and religion.
“People who are untouchables, the lowest caste, are basically not allowed to participate fully in society,” Wood said. “Among members of the Sikh religion, there’s a high incidence of torture.”
Most Central Americans pay an $8,000 smuggling fee to cross through Mexico to the U.S. For Indians, it is considerably more.
“Some of these organizations are charging Indian nationals up to $25,000 dollars to get smuggled into the U.S.,” said El Centro Sector Chief Gloria Chavez. “These traffickers, they are winning on this. Law enforcement is not.”
Chavez said Indians generally fly to Qatar then Ecuador, then travel on foot or by bus through the jungles of Colombia and Panama, through Central America and Mexico to El Centro. Most know to travel without any documents verifying their identity.
“Many use their lack of identification to claim to be one person in Mexico and another one in the United States,” she said. “In Mexico, they claim to be an adult because unaccompanied minors under 18 are arrested. In the U.S., the opposite is true. Here, they claim to be juveniles so they must be released.”
Asylum seekers without a criminal history in the U.S. are typically released. The Indian nationals usually head to the local Sikh Temple for a meal, change of clothes and a bus ticket. From there they will go live with relatives until an immigration judge can hear their case – typically a year or two later.
“They have the right to migrate wherever they want to go,” Chavez said. “But there is a legal way and an illegal way. We want them to do it the legal way.”