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More undocumented Indians attempt to enter the United States

February 1, 2023

The arrivals of Indians without visas at the US border shot up drastically in 2022. With India growing its middle class, what is drawing more people to take the risk?

The Mexican and American flag seen at El Paso
More than 18,000 undocumented Indians were stopped at US border with Mexico between 2021 and 2022Image: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP

During a speech in January, Georgia Congressman Rich McCormick said that Indian Americans are "some of the best citizens we have in America" and called for a "streamlined" immigration process for those who have come to the United States to "obey the law, pay their taxes and be the most creative and productive in society."

Although Americans of Indian origin are often presented in this manner as "model" migrants, an increased number of Indians sought unauthorized entry to the US in 2022, according to US Customs and Border Patrol data.

In 2022, 63,927 undocumented Indians reached the US borders and sought asylum, which is more than double the previous year's figure. The US southern border with Mexico is a common arrival point.

From October 2021 to September 2022, US border authorities stopped Indian migrants "18,300 times" at the US southern border, according to the Migration Policy Institute's (MPI) 2022 report on Indian immigration to the US. This is a spike from 2,600 encounters recorded the previous year.

Lopita Nath, professor of history and Asian Studies at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, said that this increase in unauthorized Indian arrivals could serve to tarnish the positive image of Indian immigration.  

"If the numbers grow as exponentially as they are now, the Indian diaspora will not be very happy about it, because it gives a bad name to the legal migrants," she told DW.

Indian immigration to the US  

As of 2021, 2.7 million immigrants of Indian origin are living in the US, according to the MPI report.

The Indians coming to the US are generally highly educated, and many Indians receive employer-sponsored H-1B temporary visas for high-skilled workers. Indians are also the second largest demographic of foreign students at US universities.

A woman holding a beaker
An Indian doctoral student carries out research on viruses at a US university on a three-year visa Image: Robert Cohen/newscom/picture alliance

However, a lower percentage of Indian immigrants become US citizens when compared to other groups.

"Indians were less likely to be naturalized US citizens than immigrants overall, which may reflect the large numbers arriving on temporary visas and the relative recency of arrival," the report said.

New York-based immigration lawyer Rohit Biswas told DW that with the legal pathway to naturalization getting tougher, more and more Indians may opt to either enter illegally or flout visa laws.

"We have an economic system that requires certain immigrants. And I don't think we have the immigration system that supports it," he said

Stringent visa rules and organized migrant smuggling networks are also contributing to rising Indian encounters at the US border, said S Irudaya Rajan, chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram.

Although smuggling networks operate more on the southern US border, when it comes to Indians, the US-Canada border has seen a recent increase in encounters with undocumented migrants.

In 2020, an Indian Uber driver was arrested for transporting people illegally across the border. A subsequent investigation revealed how this one arrest led to the uncovering of 90 similar people-smuggling trips.

And many undocumented Indians are those who have overstayed their visa. It is a huge task to pinpoint every single visa overstayer in the US.

Moreover, newly arrived undocumented Indians often find it easy to "blend in" with the sizable Indian diaspora, said Nath.

"After they are let out from the detention centers, they go wherever they have friends, family connections," she said.

However, Jeanne Batalova, one of the MPI report authors, said that undercounting the number of people living in a community can have long-term negative effects on funding and providing social services.

Why are more undocumented Indians coming to the US?

Indian immigrants in the US have high labor market participation, with 72% of Indian immigrants aged 16 and older in the 2021 civilian labor force, according to MPI data. This is more than both foreign and US-born populations, whose labor market participation ranged respectively from 66 to 62%.

Both Nath and Rajan said the recent emergence of a new middle class in India has allowed more people to afford the costs of migration.

Preexisting networks within the Indian diaspora — and the image of success they present — also encourage Indians with money to take their shot at the "American dream."

 "Where there are networks, jobs, possibility of a family connection, that is where migrants are inclined to go," said Nath.

"On the other hand, the domestic reality [of India] is out in the open. We noticed a lot of backlashes against minority communities, whether it is the Muslims, Christians, or on the basis of sexuality or gender," she added.

The MPI report also cited "growing religious and political persecution in India against non-Hindus" as well as "lack of domestic economic opportunities" as contributing to Indians arriving at the US border.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

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