Posted on November 17, 2023

What’s Behind the Rise in Undocumented Indian Immigrants Crossing U.S. Borders on Foot

Sakshi Venkatraman, NBC, November 14, 2023

An unprecedented number of undocumented Indian immigrants are crossing U.S. borders on foot, according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. What has been a years-long increase in migration has now developed into a dramatic spike.

From October 2022 to this September, the 2023 fiscal year, there were 96,917 Indians encountered — apprehended, expelled or denied entry — having entered the U.S. without papers. It marks a fivefold increase from the same period from 2019 to 2020, when there were just 19,883.

Immigration experts say several factors are at play, including an overall growth in global migration since the pandemic, 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 U.S. 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,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a lawyer and the director of non-partisan research group Migration Policy Institute’s New York office. “Why would you wait for a visitor visa in Delhi if you can make it faster to the Southern border?”

The Canadian border, on the other hand, has large stretches that are virtually unguarded at times, said Gaurav Khanna, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California at San Diego, whose research concentrates on immigration.

While not all routes look the same, a journey from India to the U.S. 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 said. “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 U.S.”

Long, treacherous journeys often land migrants in limbo, facing overwhelmed immigration systems, he said. {snip}


Though still relatively low compared to migration from Mexico and Central America, the number of undocumented Indians crossing U.S. borders has been growing for several years, said Pawan Dhingra, a professor of American studies at Amherst College. But the growth this past fiscal year was unprecedented.

He and other South Asian American scholars worry that the recent spike might have something to do with worsening conditions for minorities like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which has been widely criticized for human rights violations.


A series of laws deregulating India’s agricultural sector in 2020 threatened to upend the lives of many farmers, especially in the North Indian state of Punjab. Modi’s government, among other things, removed the minimum prices of key crops, leading to massive protests around the country that were sometimes met with violence from the state.

In September 2021, over 500,000 farmers gathered in the state of Uttar Pradesh to protest the laws.

The bills were formally repealed in December 2021.

But experts say the destabilization and the scale of the protests were enough to constitute an asylum claim.

“They have a perception that they have no future in that country,” Chishti said.

In comparison to an India that migrants might feel is pushing them out, a promised new life in the U.S. seems ideal. The general success of Indian Americans in the U.S. or of previous migrants who have taken the same journey are some of the factors that pull people in.

“People in Punjab might know people who went from their village, cousins and aunts and uncles and so forth,” Khanna said. “That creates more waves of movement.”

Decades-long visa backlogs have made it difficult for would-be immigrants to join their families in the U.S., 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 said.

With social media-savvy groups masquerading as travel agencies, hopeful migrants often pay their life savings to make the journey, Khanna and Chishti said.

“The poorest people in the country do not migrate; they can’t afford to,” Dhingra said. {snip}