Illegal migration from India to US under spotlight after Legend Airlines flight’s forced return

The vast majority of the 276 passengers who returned are from the states of Gujarat and Punjab, which are key sources of Indian migrants attempting to settle abroad.

Debarshi Dasgupta

Debarshi Dasgupta

The Straits Times


January 2, 2024

KOLKATA – Investigations into the Legend Airlines flight that was headed to Nicaragua with 303 Indians on board have strengthened suspicions that the passengers were attempting to migrate illegally to the United States, reflecting a growing trend of illegal migration from India to the US via South and Central America.

The Airbus A340, operated by the Romanian charter airline, had taken off from Dubai on Dec 21. It was forced to return to Mumbai on Dec 26 with 276 of its passengers following four days of detention over suspected human trafficking allegations in Vatry in France. It had stopped at the Vatry airport for refuelling en route to Nicaragua.

Twenty-five of the original 303 passengers stayed back, seeking asylum in France, and another two were held for further questioning. They have since been released after the authorities were convinced the passengers had boarded the flight of their own free will.

The vast majority of the 276 passengers who returned are from the states of Gujarat and Punjab, which are key sources of Indian migrants attempting to settle abroad.

Mr Sanjay Kharat, a senior official with the Gujarat police, told The Straits Times that 66 of the passengers are from Gujarat. Most of them are men aged between 20 and 35, potentially looking for better living opportunities in the US. Many were engaged in farming and animal husbandry while some were fresh graduates.

“All people on board going to the same place with the same purpose of tourism – it is not digestible as such,” said Mr Kharat, claiming the passengers had agreed to pay amounts ranging from 4 million rupees (S$63,300) to 12.5 million rupees to agents for facilitating their arrival in the US.

Over 40 of the passengers – individuals with “social or economic profiles of those who typically do not go to Dubai or Nicaragua for tourism” – have been interrogated. The authorities are now seeking further details on their travel and trying to track down the agents involved.

The Punjab police on Dec 30 also announced the creation of a special investigation team to probe the matter. Media reports have suggested that 70 per cent of the passengers could be from the north Indian state.

While some passengers on board the Legend Airlines flight may have been travelling to Nicaragua as genuine tourists or business travellers, the distant country, which does not even have an embassy in India, is likely to be yet another springboard to enter the US illegally.

According to data from US Customs and Border Protection, a record-breaking 96,917 Indians were arrested while attempting to enter the US illegally from October 2022 to September 2023, the US fiscal year 2023, signalling a more than 50 per cent jump from the previous corresponding period. At least 41,770 of them were arrested while crossing the Mexican land border from the south.

This illegal migration route involves arriving in a Latin American country, several of which offer visas on arrival for Indians, and then making one’s way up to Mexico.

Migrants cross the Darien Gap, a dangerous forested region between Colombia and Panama, taking three days to a week, with risks ranging from a lack of food or drinking water, wild animals and armed gangs.

The recent surge in the number of Indians seeking to enter the US illegally has been driven by several pull factors, said Mr Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a think-tank headquartered in Washington, DC.

These include visa-free regimes for Indian nationals to some countries in Central and South America that have made it easier for them to travel to transit countries closer to the US border, as well as the perception – one played up by human smuggling rings – that the US under President Joe Biden is “welcoming to asylum seekers”.

“A backlogged asylum system (in the US) where asylum claims are not heard for years – during which time claimants are allowed to work legally – has increasingly become a magnet,” Mr Chishti told ST.

“And most Indian nationals have connections to a large Indian diaspora in the US, which facilitates their entry to the labour market.”

Many of the undocumented Gujarati migrants, for instance, are employed in retail businesses like motels or food joints owned by Gujaratis in the US.

There are about 725,000 Indian illegal immigrants in the US – the third-largest population of unauthorised immigrants after Mexicans and El Salvadorans – according to a Pew Research Centre report released in November.

Indian immigration to the US grew rapidly during the 1990s and 2000s, drawing a large number of Indians in search of better lives and the idyllic “American dream”.

This lure has become stronger in recent years for many in India where the Covid-19 pandemic has limited opportunities for economic growth, especially for those who may not be highly educated but seek to improve their socio-economic status.

In addition to a dearth of domestic economic opportunities, a December 2022 MPI report suggested that the rise in unauthorised Indian arrivals at the US-Mexico border may also be due to growing religious and political persecution in India against non-Hindus, waning of pandemic restrictions on travel and extended US backlogs that have created long queues for legal immigration.

In Gujarat, a skewed sex ratio – 886 females for every 1,000 males according to the latest government census – has also added greater urgency for families with unmarried sons to have them migrate to the US.

A better socio-economic status, earned through higher incomes in the US, makes it easier for them to find potential brides, said Mr Bhargav Parikh, a senior journalist based in Ahmedabad, who has reported extensively on migration out of Gujarat.

Many agrarian families even end up selling or mortgaging their land to arrange the estimated 7.5 million rupees currently needed for a person to attempt to enter the US illegally, an amount they are able to recoup in just about three years of work in the US. “It has become a craze – that we will go there and earn millions,” Mr Parikh told ST.

In primarily agrarian Punjab, widespread discontentment among young people, because of falling farming incomes and overexploited and fragmented farmlands, has also driven many to emigrate. A survey conducted in 2021 found that 78 per cent of respondents in Punjab felt the state had “bad” jobs, compared with the national average of 41 per cent.

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