A record number of undocumented Indian immigrants are crossing US borders on foot, according to new data from US Customs and Border Protection.
In 2022-23 fiscal year ended September 30, there were 96,917 Indians encountered — apprehended, expelled or denied entry — having entered the US without papers.
It marks a fivefold increase from the same period from 2019 to 2020, when there were just 19,883.
Immigration experts cited by NBC News say several factors are at play, including an overall growth in global migration since the pandemic, alleged oppression of minority communities in India, smugglers’ use of increasingly sophisticated and in-demand methods of getting people to America, and extreme visa backlogs.
The number of undocumented Indians in the US has been climbing since borders opened post-Covid, with 30,662 encountered in the 2021 fiscal year and 63,927 in the 2022 fiscal year.
Out of the nearly 97,000 encounters this year, 30,010 were at the Canadian border and 41,770 at the Southern border.
“The Southern border has just become a staging ground for migrants from all parts of the world to come to the U.S. most quickly,” Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of non-partisan research group Migration Policy Institute’s New York office, told NBC News.
“Why would you wait for a visitor visa in Delhi if you can make it faster to the Southern border?”
While not all routes look the same, a journey from India to the US might take migrants on several legs, all while being passed among various facilitators.
“People will get you to, let’s say, the Middle East, or people will get you to Europe,” Chishti was quoted as saying. “The next journey from there would be to Africa. If not Africa, maybe then to South America.”
“Then the next person will get you from South America to the south of Mexico. Then from the south of Mexico to the northern cities of Mexico, and then the next person will get you over to the US.”
Long, treacherous journeys often land migrants in limbo, facing overwhelmed immigration systems, he said.
Though still relatively low compared to migration from Mexico and Central America, the number of undocumented Indians crossing US borders has been growing for several years, Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College, told NBC News. But the growth this past fiscal year was unprecedented.
Decades-long visa backlogs have made it difficult for would-be immigrants to join their families in the US, leaving many with little recourse. On top of that, Covid’s devastation has also created a crop of desperate migrants in India and around the world, experts cited by NBC News said.