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Betting on a brighter future and well-paid jobs, Indians are risking it all to make costly, zigzag odysseys to the United States
- Unemployment, aspiration fuel illegal migration to US
- Young Indians chase remittances, citizenship despite risks
- Families use life savings, loans to pay people smugglers
- Immigration is a top issue in campaign for US election
DHATRATH, India/RICHMOND, Virginia – In Sumit Bhanwala’s village in northern India, pictures of the Statue of Liberty adorn facades and tractors display stars and stripes bumper stickers – a way to let neighbours know that sons, brothers and nephews have made it to the United States.
For 25-year-old Bhanwala, the images are a source of inspiration as he prepares for an arduous, months-long journey to sneak across the U.S. border – an odyssey that will cost his family tens of thousands of dollars in fees to people smugglers.
“America is the solution. Look around you,” he said, pointing out the modern multistorey houses that have sprung up in the village in Haryana state thanks to remittances sent from migrants already overseas.
He is among a growing number of young Indians – mostly men from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, and Gujarat in the west – migrating illegally to countries including the United States, Canada and Britain in search of better-paid jobs.
A record 96,917 Indians were caught or expelled last year trying to cross into the United States, up from 30,662 in 2021, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It is not clear how many more managed to cross the border.
Aware of the risk of failure, Bhanwala declined to share details of his journey plan – fearing it could jinx his travels.
Instead, he showed off a new pair of hiking boots, a puffer jacket and a big blue rucksack purchased for the trip, and recounted his reasons for deciding to go.
“I’ve been unemployed for six months … There’s nothing here for me,” Bhanwala, a political science graduate, told Context at his home in Dhatrath, which lies some 150 km (93 miles) from the capital, New Delhi.
Bhanwala wanted to be a policeman, but gave up after question papers for a recruitment exam in 2021 were leaked to other candidates – dampening his hopes of success.
“I lost all faith in the recruitment process, and thought ‘enough is enough’,” said Bhanwala, whose father sold the family’s farmland and borrowed money from a loan shark to pay a people smuggler 5 million rupees ($60,175) for the trip.
In interviews with 32 people in seven Haryana villages, most cited unemployment and a lack of skilled, well-paid jobs as the motive driving hundreds of men to leave via the “donkey” route – a long, roundabout journey designed to dodge border controls.
India’s unemployment rate has been steadily falling since 2018, but rural joblessness remains a problem – especially among the young. Both joblessness and underemployment are a key concern for authorities ahead of a general election due by May.
The number of Indians betting it all to migrate to wealthy countries is as much about aspiration as fleeing poverty, migration experts say.
“People are trying to find better job prospects wherever they get them … even if that means doing low-end jobs abroad … just for better pay,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
The federal labour ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Risk and reward
The “donkey” route has been an open secret in Punjab for more than a decade.
The term originates from the Punjabi word “dunki”, meaning to “hop from place to place”, and is also depicted in the eponymous Hindi film starring Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan.
The “donkey” practice made international headlines in December when France grounded a charter flight, which was carrying 303 Indian passengers from Dubai to Nicaragua, on suspicions of people smuggling. Most were sent back to India.
People traffickers often take migrants from New Delhi and Mumbai to the United Arab Emirates on tourist visas.
Then they go through as many as a dozen transit points in Latin America such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Guatemala to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, according to families of men who had recently completed their “donkey” journeys.
Once at the border, handlers supply them with fake backstories – in case they get caught while crossing – to make asylum claims on grounds ranging from economic hardship to persecution over religious or LGBTQ+ identity.
A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the overall number of would-be immigrants being caught or denied entry continues to fluctuate “as smugglers and bad actors continue to spread falsehoods and show complete disregard for the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable migrants”.
Such immigration is also known as the “number two” route, the “number one” being the legal way, which villagers and migrant rights campaigners said was nearly impossible to pursue due to visa rejections or backlogs.
U.S. visa services are still attempting to clear a backlog after Washington halted almost all visa processing worldwide in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indian applicants for visas – including those pursuing tech jobs in the United States – have seen wait times for an appointment of over a year in some cases, though delays fell sharply in 2023 when a record 1.4 million visas were processed, according to the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in India.
But the visa backlogs seen in recent years may have spurred some would-be migrants to take the “donkey” route instead.
“We’re leaving these people with no other ways of trying to pursue economic prosperity or safety, in a sense,” said Mario Montoya of Aliento, a Phoenix-based immigrant advocacy group.
For would-be migrants, the decision carries a hefty price tag, and huge risks.
Some villagers said they had spent most – if not all – of their family savings or up to 8.5 million rupees to pay for the journey, knowing they could face harsh weather, hunger, disease, abuse and sometimes even death.
An Indian family, including a 3-year-old, froze to death near the U.S.-Canada border in January 2022.
But most said the potential rewards compensated for the risks.
Families said their sons and nephews sent at least 200,000 rupees home every month, mainly doing a mix of full- and part-time jobs at gas stations, malls, grocery stores and restaurants.
“He makes about $100 a day at a dairy farm in California. He made 6,000 rupees ($72) in a month doing the same job here,” said Suresh Kumar, 45, referring to his nephew who left in November 2022 and reached the United States in April 2023.
Relatives said the money not only helped them clear debts and pay for things like school tuition, dowries, home renovations and new cars, but also boosted their social status.
It is easy to identify households with a relative in the United States in Haryana – besides the glossy posters depicting the U.S. flag, the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. national bird – the bald eagle, cars and motorbikes sport red, white and blue “America” stickers.
Locals in the village of Ahar call it “Mini America”.
But the success stories of a handful of “donkey” migrants misleads the majority, warned S. Irudaya Rajan, chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development in southern Kerala state.
“Everybody keeps talking about the benefits of migration, but nobody talks about the problems and challenges … We have to tell the full story,” said Rajan.
Across Haryana, stories abound about failed attempts to reach the United States, where illegal migration has been a major issue in the run-up to this year’s presidential election.
Goru Khenchi, 22, said he and 10 other migrants, including several from Nepal and Bangladesh, were stuck in Italy for six months after their handler abandoned them. They were eventually caught and deported back to India in early 2023.
For those that reach their destination, a raft of challenges await – from language barriers to problems finding work, housing and accessing healthcare, said Rajan.
Biden vs. Trump?
Loneliness and mental health problems such as depression are also common among new arrivals.
When Chris, who asked to go by his newly adopted American nickname, reached New Jersey in August 2023 after an arduous six-month “donkey” journey that involved sleeping in safe house toilets and surviving on water and biscuits, he said it felt surreal.
Big roads, clean air, huge portions of food – just like what he had seen in Hollywood movies.
“But that soon ended. I couldn’t understand or speak English properly … Everything became a struggle. I started missing home, my family, my friends,” he said on a WhatsApp call.
“It’s very lonely here,” said Chris, who shared a photo of his accommodation – the basement of the grocery store where he works, equipped with a single mattress, small TV and a few provisions.
The possibility of permanent residence and eventually citizenship keep him motivated, he said. Almost all the relatives back home said that was the ultimate goal.
Many said they wanted President Joe Biden to win a second term in November’s election, perceiving the Democrat as more welcoming of undocumented migrants than his likely rival, Donald Trump.
Biden’s administration is grappling with record migration flows that have pushed U.S. border controls to the limit, though the U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said immigration law is being enforced.
“Our borders are not open for those without a legal basis to enter the country,” the spokesperson said.
Migration experts say the U.S. lacks the capacity to detain and process migrants at the border due to understaffed patrols and shortages of asylum officers and immigration judges – an opportunity that people smugglers have been quick to seize.
“Right now, under the system, we should be detaining millions of people at the border – we just don’t have (the) capacity to do it,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a U.S.-based think-tank.
“And migrants, or their smugglers, know it too well,” he said.
At the same time, the current tight U.S. labour market has stoked demand for undocumented workers – providing an added incentive to those contemplating the journey, but increasing the risk of exploitation among illegal immigrants.
“The question becomes – is there a way to make it safer for these migrants?,” said Ina Ganguly, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, pointing to other major sources of migrant labour such as the Philippines where the government promotes economic migration and seeks to protect workers’ rights abroad.
India’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. But in parliamentary proceedings in December, it said it had identified nearly 3,000 suspected people smugglers.
It also said there were “continuous efforts to raise awareness on safe and legal migration” via a series of initiatives including a pre-departure workshop for migrants to help build their soft skills, and educate them on their rights and support services.
Migration, public policy and economic experts, however, said it was difficult to stop such movement completely as it was usually voluntary.
“The ultimate solution would be for India to start growing at a much higher pace, and create more and well-paying job prospects,” said Verma of CPR.
At home in Dhatrath, Bhanwala spends his last days at home exercising, watching YouTube vlogs by young Indians who have documented their successful “donkey” journeys, and practicing his English on a language-learning app.
“I need to be mentally and physically strong. My family is depending on me to change our fortunes,” he said.
“If I get sent back, everything will be gone.”
($1 = 83.0910 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Annie Banerji and David Sherfinski; Additional reporting by Diana Baptista; Editing by Helen Popper and Amruta Byatnal.)