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Undocumented Indian migrants chart new path to US via Canada


FILE - The marker of the US/Canada border at Roxham Road Feb. 26, 2017, in Champlain, NY.
FILE - The marker of the US/Canada border at Roxham Road Feb. 26, 2017, in Champlain, NY.

In recent years, the United States has seen an unprecedented surge in undocumented migrants from India, most slipping in through Mexico. But as the U.S.-Mexico border faces growing pressure, many are turning to a less conventional path: crossing the expansive and lightly guarded border with Canada.

In fiscal year 2023, U.S. border agents encountered nearly 97,000 undocumented Indian migrants nationwide, including more than 30,000 at the northern border, according to data from the Customs and Border Patrol or CBP.

Encounters include apprehensions and expulsions. In fiscal year 2019, more than 16,000 Indian migrants were encountered nationwide, CBP data shows.

In recent months, the numbers have continued largely unabated. Between October 2023 and February 2024, nearly 14,000 Indians were encountered at the U.S.-Canada border.

The record influx is part of a migration rush through Canada that has overwhelmed border security officials and unsettled communities in northern U.S. states. CBP data show that there were nearly 190,000 encounters at the Canadian border in 2023, more than six times the number in 2021.

A spokesperson for the Indian embassy in Washington said the "extent of illegal immigration from India to the United States is unclear."

"We have been constantly engaged with the United States authorities including through dialogues such as the India- U.S. Consular Dialogue and the Homeland Security Dialogue to enhance cooperation and strengthen people to people ties and to facilitate legal mobility and migration and to check illegal immigration and human trafficking," the spokesperson said in a statement to VOA.

Indians drawn to US asylum process

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a rise in global migration. While people migrate for different reasons, experts say many Indian migrants are drawn to the U.S. by the Biden administration's perceived openness to asylum-seekers.

"Overall, people are looking to come to the U.S. because they've heard about the asylum process here," said Chirag Patel, a Maryland-based immigration lawyer who handles Indian asylum cases.

Patel and other experts say the flow of asylum-seekers to the border will likely keep up as they anticipate potential policy changes with the November U.S. presidential election.

"People are trying to get a lot of things in before November, but also obviously before January, if November ends up being in favor of Trump," Patel said.

'From all over the globe'

Once a trickle, the flood of Indian asylum-seekers entering the country shows the changing face of unauthorized migration to the U.S.

"They're coming from all over the globe, literally all over the globe," said Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

The rise in unauthorized Indian migration has made Indians the third-largest group of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. There were about 725,000 undocumented Indians in the U.S. in 2021, more than from any other country outside the Western Hemisphere, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.

Though many have genuine claims of persecution, experts say Indian asylum-seekers are predominantly economic migrants, drawn by the prospect of a better life in the U.S.

"Very few of these are the professionals," said Devesh Kapur, Starr Foundation professor of South Asian studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Because these youths are not very well-educated, their economic opportunities in India are pretty limited."

Most are relatively well off by Indian standards and hail from Punjab and Gujarat, two of India's more prosperous states with a long history of immigration to the United States.

"One of the mistakes we make is to think it's the poor that migrate," Kapur said. "The poor in South Asia simply cannot afford to take a flight."

But those who can often lack a legal pathway into the United States. U.S. student visas are hard to come by, and because of a massive backlog of immigration cases, an immigrant visa can take up to 20 years to secure.

That leaves the "donkey route" as the only option for many Indians anxious to reach America. The sometimes-dangerous journey across several continents, widely publicized on social media, is facilitated for a hefty fee by global human trafficking networks.

The cost of getting to the U.S. can exceed $50,000, but even a small-scale landlord in Punjab can afford it. An acre of agricultural land in the fertile state can command the same price, Kapur noted.

While Indian migrants often take the donkey route to Mexico, many find Canada a quicker and safer option, according to experts.

Political scientist Shinder Purewal said the current Canadian government's push to attract international students has made it easier for Indians to obtain visas.

"It's easier to get a visa to Canada than to Pakistan," said Purewal, who teaches at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, British Columbia.

Until recently, Indians often moved from Canada to the U.S. when they couldn't get Canadian residency, Purewal said.

"Now, more and more people are just entering Canada so they can just go straight to the U.S. because the economy is better, job prospects are better there," Purewal said.

In a statement, Canada's immigration agency said all study permits are reviewed "holistically" to ensure applicants "respect Canada's immigration laws and regulations."

"Canada's visa policy decisions are made in an effort to support travel and people-to-people connections, while preserving the integrity of our immigration system," the agency said. "We continuously monitor the impacts of our visa policy for both visa-exempt and visa-required countries and consider objective criteria when deciding whether to lift or impose a visa requirement. And new developments would be communicated publicly."

But economic prospects are not the only reason Indian migrants choose the U.S. Support from established Indian communities in the U.S. also influence their decision.

A smuggling network recently uncovered by U.S. investigators ferried Gujarati migrants from the Canadian border to Gujarati American-owned business establishments in the Chicago area.

"People who come have a way of coming," said Pawan Dhingra, an associate provost and associate dean of the faculty at Amherst College who teaches immigration studies. "They have a connection to the country. If it was just escaping India, they could just go anywhere in the world."

Not all cross border safely

Despite its reputation for safety, crossing the Canadian border has occasionally proven fatal for Indian migrants.

In January 2022, an Indian family of four was found frozen to death in Manitoba just meters from the U.S. border. In March 2023, the bodies of eight migrants, including four Indians, were recovered from the St. Lawrence River.

Maureen Silcoff, a Canadian refugee and immigration lawyer, said the extreme risks migrants take show their dire need to flee hardship.

"People don't simply pick up and leave their homes, their communities, their families, their jobs out of a sense of wanting a thrilling adventure," Silcoff said in an interview. "People become desperate, and sometimes people are subject to very serious human rights abuses, and they try to alleviate those kinds of problems and other hardships by relocating to another country."

VOA immigration reporter Aline Barros contributed to this article.