Claiming persecution, paying $35,000 to reach the US.
By Deepak Chitnis
WASHINGTON, DC: The US, especially the state of Arizona, has seen an alarming increase in the number of illegal immigrants coming from India, according to a report published Sunday by USA Today.
The exposé goes into some detail about how, in recent years, Indians have paid incredible sums of money to be smuggled into the United States across the Arizona-Mexico border. Hailing mostly from the states of Gujarat and Punjab, these immigrants pay sums as high as $35,000 to fly from Mumbai to central America — either Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, or another country in the region — where they then begin an arduous trek via train, car, and foot, to get to the US.
The number of illegal immigrants in the US who originated from India is estimated to be about 240,000, which makes India the 7th-highest ranked country in that regard. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced 11.5 million as the total number of illegal immigrants in the country, some have disputed that number as being far too low. Zack Taylor, a former border patrol agent and currently the chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, Inc., in an open letter published on Sunday as well, says the real number is somewhere in the range of 18-20 million.
Between the years 2000 and 2009, the DHS estimates that illegal immigration from India spiked 64%, going from about 140,244 to right around 230,000 in a span of nine years. The definitive cause of this is as yet unknown — some point to the unbearably slow and arduous visa and Green Card procedures as the main incentive for seeking illegal means of entry, other say it’s simply the power of the American dream that convinces people from all over the world to do whatever they can to get here. But the real reason may be very different.
The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which is a sub-division of the DHS, is responsible for maintaining border security all across the north and south of the continental US. When they catch immigrants crossing the borders illegally, they are detained and questioned, sometimes for as long as months. Many Indian immigrants, however, claim to be seeking asylum in the US, which complicates the matter of simply deporting them.
Sheela Murthy, founder and president of the Murthy Law Firm in Owings Mill, MD, laid some (though not all) of the blame at the feet of US border protection, in an interview with The American Bazaar.
“Why not just come through the easy route, which is to sneak in slowly through Mexico and enter the United States? The south has [countless] miles of border with no wires and no fences. I know a lot of politicians have talked about high-level security cameras and drones and other such things to protect the borders for thousands and thousands of miles, but realistically, [border enforcers] are not going to be able to tell someone who has had no food or water for days that there’s no hope for them at the end of the tunnel.”
The report estimates that thousands of Indian immigrants in the past year alone may have entered the US by seeking asylum, although there are many who doubt the veracity of their claims. Critics point to the fact that there are currently no major religious or civil upheavals occurring in India, making the likelihood of religious or geographic persecution highly unlikely. They also state that it makes little sense for poor people to risk all their money trying to come to the US and put themselves at the mercy of their smugglers, who could take financial advantage of them at any time, only to potentially be turned back at the border after all that hard work, stranding them in Mexico.
“Illegal immigration has been around almost as long as legal immigration,” says Murthy. “[The US] is tired of giving amnesty and protection to people who keep breaking its laws.”
Although India is not the only country to see its citizens migrating to the US using asylum as a means of doing so, the increase in the number of Indians using this practice has seen one of the most dramatic increases — in 2009, the number of Indian asylum-seekers was 80, but as of the end of June 2013 the number has risen to 1,935, representing an increase of over 2,318%.
Additionally, once granted entry into the country, many of these migrants often skip court hearings that may grant them asylum and the opportunity to pursue permanent legal citizenship, out of fear that going to court is synonymous with packing their bags. In 2012, 10% of Indian asylum seekers skipped their mandatory court hearings.
So then how does the illegal immigration problem get fixed?
“A huge portion of the illegal immigration is based in economic migration,” says Murthy. “Obviously it’s unrealistic to expect the US to solve the economic problems of other countries, but right now India’s economy isn’t doing particularly well — something like 50% of the Indian population earns around just $1 a day — and that may be a big reason for this surge in illegal immigration.”
Aron Finkelstein, managing director at the Murthy Law Firm, blames the immigration laws themselves: “The bottom line is that the US is working with laws that are 20-40 years old. People want to be legal citizens, people want to pay taxes and abide by the law, the government just has to update its laws. The more updated the laws are, the most dramatic a change we’ll see in illegal immigration.”
[This story was updated on 9/11/13.]
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