Police wearing berets and bulletproof vests broke down the door of a Guatemala City apartment in February hunting for illegal drugs. Instead, they found a different kind of illicit shipment: 27 immigrants from India packed into two locked rooms.
The Indians, whose hiding space was furnished only with soiled mattresses, claimed to be on vacation. But authorities quickly concluded they were waiting to be smuggled into the United States via an 11,000-mile (17,700-kilometer) pipeline of human cargo–the same network that has transported thousands of illegal immigrants from India, through Central America and Mexico and over the sandy banks of the Rio Grande during the past two years.
Indians have arrived in droves even as the overall number of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. has dropped dramatically, in large part because of the sluggish American economy. And with fewer Mexicans and Central Americans crossing the border, smugglers are eager for more “high-value cargo” like Indians, some of whom are willing to pay more than $20,000 for the journey.
Between October 2009 and March 2011, the Border Patrol detained at least 2,600 illegal immigrants from India, a dramatic rise over the typical 150 to 300 arrests per year.
The influx has been so pronounced that in May, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate committee that at some point this year, Indians will account for about 1 in 3 non-Mexican illegal immigrants caught in Texas.
Most of the border-jumpers are seeking jobs, even though India’s economy is growing at about 9 percent per year. Once safely inside the U.S., they fan out across the country, often relying on relatives who are already here to arrange jobs and housing.
Many of the Indians apprehended are Sikhs, followers of India’s fourth-largest religion, who tell authorities they face persecution back home and want asylum. Applicants need to convince officials that they have a credible fear of persecution in India. If so, the case is referred to an immigration judge.
Such persecution was common in the mid-1980s, when the state battled a Sikh secessionist movement, Kumar said. But today the ruling party in Punjab is Akali Dal, a Sikh party, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also Sikh.
“It’s all nonsense,” Kumar said of asylum claims.