Arizona sees surge of asylum seekers from India

Daniel Gonzalez, The Arizona Republic 9:03 a.m. EDT September 8, 2013
Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Indians over the past year have asked for asylum after paying as much as $35,000 to be smuggled halfway around the globe.

Migrants from India gather their belongings after being dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix.

The Indians are part of a surge of migrants from India arriving at the Arizona border and asking for asylum claiming fear of persecution in India.(Photo: Nick Oza, The Arizona Republic)

Story Highlights

  • Migrants fly from India to Central America, then travel by bus to Arizona
  • Many say they are Sikhs who face danger, persecution at home
  • Asylum claims called questionable by some

PHOENIX -- On a recent Friday night in Phoenix, an unmarked white Department of Homeland Security bus pulls up to a curb near the Greyhound bus station.

The door swings open and 15 young men and women from India step off. In the scorching summer heat, they climb into waiting cars and taxis, cramming as many passengers inside as possible before they are driven off into the night.

A half-hour later, a second DHS bus pulls up to the same spot. Twenty Indians climb into cars and taxis, and like the first group, speed off.

This scene is repeated almost nightly at the bus station near Phoenix Sky Harbor
International Airport.

The Indians are part of a mysterious surge in migrants from the South Asian country showing up at the Arizona border without legal visas and then requesting asylum to remain permanently in the U.S. out of fear they may be persecuted if returned to their homeland.

They arrive after paying as much as $35,000 to be smuggled halfway around the globe, flying from India to Central America and then embarking on an arduous and often dangerous 3,000-mile journey through several countries, including Mexico, to reach Arizona.

Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Indians over the past year have asked for asylum.

Some have been caught crossing illegally by the Border Patrol.

More often, they are simply turning themselves in at legal border crossings in Nogales, asking for asylum based on claims of political persecution.

While the Indians say they are fleeing persecution, some skeptics say they are more likely fleeing poverty.

The surge, part of a recent overall rise in asylum claims, comes as Congress debates border security and immigration-reform legislation and is raising humanitarian and national-security concerns.

Some immigrant advocates worry the Indians risk being robbed and physically harmed by smuggling gangs during their multicountry journey to the U.S. They also may be vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers once they get here.

"They are going to have a hard time paying off smuggling debts, and that could put them in a forced labor situation," said Elizabeth Chatham, a Phoenix lawyer who chairs the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Some border-security advocates, meanwhile, are concerned that the same criminal smuggling gangs being used by Indians to get to the U.S. could also become pipelines for terrorists.

"They will smuggle anyone who pays them," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

On a nightly basis, as many as two dozen Indians who have managed to establish so-called "credible fear" of persecution during hearings with U.S. immigration asylum officers are being set free at the bus station. Before their release, they are given notices to appear in immigration court at a future date, when a judge will decide whether to grant asylum. In addition to the many hundreds who have already been released, hundreds more remain in detention centers in Eloy and Florence waiting for credible-fear hearings.

It is unclear, however, whether those asking for asylum are legitimately fleeing persecution and whether they intend to show up for their asylum hearings.

In fiscal year 2012, nearly 10 percent of Indian asylum seekers failed to show up for their final asylum hearings in U.S. immigration courts nationwide, according to the Department of Justice.

Some experts fear they are fleeing poverty in India, the world's largest democracy with 1.2 billion people, to seek better economic opportunities in the U.S. In that case, they would most likely skip out on their court hearings so they can remain in the U.S. and work here illegally.

"I think it's mixed," said Chatham, who has been monitoring the surge in Indians asking for asylum. "Some have legitimate claims of persecution. But it seems like there may be many people who are not making a correct claim."

'Life was in danger'

On three recent Friday evenings, an Arizona Republic reporter observed Homeland Security buses dropping off Indians at the Greyhound bus station in Phoenix.
The buses are staffed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, who routinely bring recently released immigrants from many countries to the bus station so they can arrange travel to meet relatives in other parts of the country. Most are undocumented immigrants who are involved in deportation proceedings, are deemed low-flight risks and are not a danger to the community. They are allowed to go free under various forms of supervision until their hearings.
About half the migrants getting off the buses each night are Spanish speakers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other Central and South American countries.
The other half are Indians.
When approached by a reporter, the Spanish-speaking migrants eagerly agree to be interviewed. Most say they are fleeing rampant violence in Central America, where the murder rate in several countries is among the highest in the world.
The Indians, however, turn their backs and walk away.
"No English. No English," they say over and over.
On two nights, a Republic photographer who speaks the Indian languages Gujarati, Hindi and some Punjabi, also approached groups of Indians getting off DHS buses.
But the Indians stay stone-faced, suggesting they have been coached by smugglers not to talk.
Of the dozens of Indians approached, only one agrees to be interviewed, briefly, in English. He says his name is Mandib Singh and he's 23.
Singh says he is a Sikh from the state of Punjab in northern India.
Sikhs have long complained of discrimination in India, and for decades many Sikhs have tried to secede from the country to create their own independent state.
Singh says he left India in April, flew to Managua, Nicaragua, and then traveled by bus through Central America and Mexico to the U.S. border.
He spent two months in a detention center in Eloy and was released after he asked for asylum. He says he is headed to California.
"My life was in danger in India," Singh says. He refuses to elaborate.
He is standing with a group of 15 or so other Indians just released from detention.
Soon after getting off the bus, the Indians are approached by several men with cellphones who had been standing next to cars and vans in the parking lot.
The men, who appear to be of Indian descent, guide the Indian migrants to the cars and taxis in the parking lot and then make calls on their phones as the Indians are driven off.
The men with the cellphones also refuse to be interviewed.
Only one, who says his name is "Bob," agrees to answer a few questions.
Bob, a middle-aged man in his 50s, says he works at a convenience store in Phoenix. He says he was born in India but has lived in the U.S. for the past 10 years.
He says the majority of the Indians getting off the buses are Sikhs from Punjab. Some also are Hindus from the state of Gujarat.
They pay between $27,000 and $35,000 to be smuggled to the U.S. The journey takes a month and a half, or longer.
Bob says that since ICE began dropping off Indians at the bus station more than a year ago, he and other volunteers from the local Indian community have been coming regularly to provide assistance.
The volunteers help find the migrants a place to sleep and give them something to eat until they can make arrangements to travel somewhere else.
The volunteers take the Indians to locations around the Phoenix area, he says. But he won't say where.
Later, a Republic reporter and photographer find several of the Indian migrants, all men, staying temporarily at a house of worship in Phoenix.
They are resting on mats on the floorof a classroom but stand up quickly when the visitors arrive. The young men identify themselves as Sikhs from Punjab. They say they are in their late teens and early 20s. One says he is headed to meet relatives in New York.
Dinesh Kumar, an undocumented migrant from India sits in a detention center in Nogales, Ariz. waiting to be processed after arriving at the Arizona border and asking for political asylum. Kumar, from Punjab, is part of a surge of Indians asking for asylum along Arizona's border.(Photo: Nick Oza, The Arizona Republic)

The interview, however, is cut short after one of the migrants calls someone who tells the reporter and photographer to leave immediately.
Phone calls to the house of worship are directed to Sudeep Punia, a Glendale physician and community leader.
He emphasizes that members of the house of worship are only providing humanitarian assistance to the migrants.
"We have nothing to do with this process," Punia says. "We do not invite them. We are not responsible for them coming here. We are not responsible for their detention. We are not responsible for their release."
The migrants are given food and shelter for a few hours until they can make travel arrangements to prevent them from being left alone at the bus station where they could be vulnerable to crime, he says.
After they leave, the Indian migrants "go all over the United States," he says.
Claims questioned
Last month, Mohammad Arif traveled from California to Arizona to interview Indians at the detention center in Eloy.
Arif, who speaks Punjabi, works for a law firm in Los Angeles that is providing legal assistance to Indian migrants in detention.
Arif said 500 or more Indians, mostly Sikhs, remain in detention in Arizona. Some have been held for months.
Arif interviewed about 30 Sikhs who told him they belong to a political group called Akali Dal Mann.
The group wants to create a separate homeland for Sikhs and members are being "suppressed systematically" by the police and other political groups, he said.
Arif said "99 percent" of the Sikhs asking for asylum are from that group.
He said the Sikhs also told him militant members of an opposing political group threatened them, saying "they could be killed, kidnapped or kicked out of India."
The Sikhs told him they come from poor rural areas, Arif said. Family members sell land and property to raise money to help pay their smuggling fees.
"This is going on mafia-style," Arif said. "When you hear these stories, you want to cry."
But some find the asylum claims being made by Indians questionable.
Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, believes Indians being smuggled to the U.S. are coming mainly for economic reasons and may be coached to ask for asylum.
"There is no political reason for these numbers, so (I) assume it is a new route favored by smugglers," Ganguly said in an email. "Punjab and Gujarat are both extremely wealthy regions in India. There is no political strife or discrimination that they suffer" in India.
Sikhs have suffered persecution in Hindu-majority India in the past, she said.
Many sought political asylum in other countries in the 1980s and 1990s, when an estimated 30,000 Sikhs were killed in a decade of violence in India, Ganguly said.
The violence stemmed from the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The bodyguards were seeking revenge after Gandhi ordered the Indian army to attack the Golden Temple, the Sikhs' holiest shrine. The temple had been occupied by armed militant Sikhs seeking a separate state. After Gandhi's assassination, thousands of Sikhs were indiscriminately killed or burned alive in the streets.
But those problems have ended for the most part, Ganguly said.
"The secessionist campaign is not particularly active now, and we have not been hearing serious abuses against them to merit the refugee surge," Ganguly said.
Nicole Thompson, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said she is unaware of any mass conflict in India that would be contributing to an increase in asylum seekers from India.
But she pointed out that India is a complicated country with a "great degree of variance internally as far as the standard of living and income."
Vaughan, at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration and more immigration enforcement, said the surge in Indians is part of a general increase in migrants from many countries filing potentially frivolous asylum claims to avoid deportation and to remain in the U.S.
In January 2010, ICE implemented new guidelines essentially making it easier for migrants who establish credible fear to be released from detention as long as they are deemed neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.
The guidelines were intended to prevent migrants who establish credible fear from spending long amounts of time in detention. The change may have sparked a rise in asylum claims.
Since fiscal year 2011, credible-fear claims along the Southwest border have more than doubled.
Asylum claims from Indians nationwide have soared, up from 80 in fiscal year 2009 to 1,935 as of June 30.
Vaughan said word may have gotten out that it is not that hard for migrants to establish credible fear, the first step toward gaining asylum in the U.S., and that once migrants establish credible fear they are often released pending their asylum hearing.
That allows migrants released on credible-fear referrals to "disappear into the woodwork ... never to be seen again," Vaughan said. "They are very obviously using the fact that they are not being detained and that there is not a very high standard of review to basically bide time in the U.S. and game our system."
Department of Homeland Security officials say they are investigating the surge in Indian migrants at the Arizona border.
"DHS has implemented a collaborative, coordinated response to Indian apprehensions along the Southwest border," U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Victor Brabble said in a written statement.
That includes working with the governments of other countries to "analyze potential threats" and "identity and dismantle human smuggling networks," Brabble said.
DHS officials refused repeated requests by The Arizona Republic to provide statistics for the number of Indians who have asked for asylum in Arizona, the number of Indians who have been held in detention and the number who have been released after establishing credible fear.
DHS spokesman Peter Boogaard said in a written statement that in general credible-fear claims on the Southwest border vary depending on many factors, among them smuggling activity and "social, political and economic conditions both domestically and internationally."
Migrants who meet the credible-fear threshold are placed into removal proceedings.
An immigration judge makes the final decision whether to grant asylum, Boogaard said.
But he also said credible-fear determinations are not easy to obtain.
"They are dictated by long-standing statute, not an issuance of discretion," Boogaard said.
Won't go to hearing
On a recent August morning, a Republic photographer tracked down an Indian couple in Tucson. The couple had recently been smuggled to the U.S.
The couple agreeto share some details about their journey before phoning a relative in the U.S. who tells them to stop talking.
They both are wearing secondhand pants and button-down shirts donated to them by a charity in Tucson.
They say they are Hindu farmers from Gujarat. He is 27. She is 29 and recently had a baby.
Speaking in Gujarati, they ask that their names not be used.
They say they were desperate to make it to the U.S. to earn money. The husband says his father in India is heavily in debt and a man came daily to their home and threatened to kill them over the money.
The couple say they first tried to come to the U.S. legally. Their visitor visas, however, were denied. So in India they hired a smuggler.
In mid-April they flew from Mumbai, the Indian financial capital, to Nicaragua.
It took them three months to reach the U.S. They traveled by bus and taxi from Nicaragua through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. In Nicaragua, smugglers stole their luggage, passports and clothing.
In Arizona, the couple were caught by the Border Patrol attempting to cross the border illegally. The Border Patrol has caught more than 300 undocumented Indians in Arizona this year.
The couple say they spent a month in detention in Eloy.
They were released when the wife went into labor two months prematurely. She delivered at a hospital in Tucson, making the baby a U.S. citizen.
At the detention center, the couple say, they were given a notice to appear in immigration court in August to review their asylum case.
The date has come and gone, however, and the couple say they have no intention of showing up in the future.
Instead, they say they plan to travel to another state in the U.S.
After that, they plan to find work to earn money, for themselves and to pay off the debt in India.