As an openly gay man living in a deeply conservative part of India’s Punjab, life had long been tough for Jashan Preet Singh.
Over the years, Singh, 34, had grown accustomed to daily discrimination in his hometown of Jalandhar: harassment and beatings inflicted by his neighbors and a family that had largely turned their backs on him.
But what happened late last year was different.
“There were 15 or 20 people who tried to kill me,” he told the BBC from Fresno, California. “I escaped from there and saved my life. But they cut several parts of my body.” The attack left him with a mutilated arm and a severed thumb.
Mr. Singh’s escape set him on a journey that took him through Turkey and France. Eventually, he took him to the US-Mexico border, nearly 8,000 miles (12,800 km) away, where he crossed into California to start a new life in the US.
He is not alone: For years, the arrival of Indian immigrants to the US has been slow but steady, numbering in the tens or hundreds each month.
This year, however, the numbers have skyrocketed.
Since the beginning of fiscal year 2022 which began last October, a record 16,290 Indian nationals have been taken into US custody at the border with Mexico. The previous high of 8,997 was recorded in 2018.
Experts point to a number of reasons for the surge, including a climate of discrimination in India, the end of pandemic-era restrictions, a perception that the current US administration welcomes asylum seekers and the rise of previously established smuggling networks.
While some immigrants come to the US for economic reasons, many are fleeing persecution in their home country, said Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration attorney who has represented Indian nationals in Texas and California.
The latter group ranges from “low caste” Muslims, Christians and Hindus to members of India’s LGBT community who fear violence at the hands of extreme Hindu nationalists, or supporters of secessionist movements and farmers in the Punjab region, which has seen shaken by the protests. since 2020.
Conditions for many of these groups have deteriorated in recent years, international observers say.
For Mr. Singh, the decision to leave his country was not an easy one. He first considered moving to another Indian city, but he feared he would be treated just as badly.
“The culture is not open-minded to gay people,” he said. “Being gay there is a big problem.”
India only decriminalized gay sex in 2018 and same-sex marriage remains illegal.
His brother soon put him in touch with a “travel agency” based in India, part of a sophisticated and expensive smuggling network that took him first to Turkey, where “life was very hard,” and then to France, Where did you consider staying? but he could not find work. The entire journey took just over six months.
Eventually, his “travel agent” arranged for him to join a small group of Indians headed to the US, where many, including Mr. Singh, had relatives.
“He charged us a lot of money,” Singh said. “[But] from France took me to Cancún, and from there to Mexico City and north.”
a difficult trip
Immigrants like Singh often see the United States as “the last gateway” to a better life, said Ahluwalia, the lawyer.
However, the enormous distances involved make the journey to the US extremely challenging.
Traditionally, Indian migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border use “door-to-door” smuggling services, with organized trips from India to South America. They are often guided the entire way and travel in small groups with their compatriots who speak the same language, rather than individually or with just family members.
These networks often start with India-based “travel agents” who outsource parts of the trip to associated criminal groups in Latin America.
Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Washington, DC-based Migration Policy Institute, said the number of Indian immigrants is also increasing as a result of a “domino effect” that occurs when those who have used these services successfully recommend them to friends or family. in India.
“It naturally expands and attracts more immigrants,” he said. “Of course, that doesn’t happen without the immigrants originally wanting to leave.”
The experiences of Manpreet, a 20-year-old from Punjab who asked that only his first name be used, are typical of those who have taken the southern route in the past. A vocal critic of India’s ruling BJP (Bharatiya Jannata Party), he fled the country after being persecuted for his political beliefs.
“From Ecuador I took a bus to Colombia, and from Colombia I took a bus to Panama,” Manpreet recalled in an interview with the BBC from California. “From there, via a ship, I [went to] Nicaragua and Guatemala, and then Mexico and entered the US.”
Even guided by experienced smugglers, the journey to the border is often fraught with danger, including robbery and extortion at the hands of local gangs or corrupt authorities or extreme weather, injury and illness.
These dangers were highlighted in 2019, when a 6-year-old Indian girl from Punjab was found dead in the scorching desert near the border town of Lukeville, Arizona, a case that made headlines in India. It was later reported that she died in temperatures of over 108 F (42 C) after her mother left her with a group of other Indians to fetch water.
An uncertain new beginning
Once in the US, migrants like Mr. Singh begin a lengthy legal process to apply for asylum. Most of the time, it begins with what US officials call a “credible fear interview,” in which they must convince authorities they will face persecution if they return home.
“This first step is the most important,” explained Mr. Ahluwalia. “If he [the officer] considers that there is no credible fear, his case will never move forward. That is very catastrophic.”
If an asylum officer believes these fears are credible, potential asylum seekers will likely receive a notice to appear before an immigration judge who will consider their application.
The process is lengthy, with multi-year waiting times now the norm in the US, with no promise of a positive outcome.
Mr. Singh, for his part, has been in the United States since the end of June. At the moment, he is saving money to hire a lawyer.
While his long-term future in the US is by no means guaranteed, and his journey was a long one, it was better than the alternative, he said.
“I would always fear for my life,” he added. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve never felt anything like this.”
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