In Harlingen, Texas, Indian citizens released from an immigration center… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Harlingen, Texas — Thousands of immigrants from India have crossed into the United States illegally at the southern tip of Texas in the last year, part of a mysterious and rapidly growing human-smuggling pipeline that is backing up court dockets, filling detention centers and triggering investigations.
The immigrants, mostly young men from poor villages, say they are fleeing religious and political persecution. More than 1,600 Indians have been caught since the influx began here early last year, while an undetermined number, perhaps thousands, are believed to have sneaked through undetected, according to U.S. border authorities.
Hundreds have been released on their own recognizance or after posting bond. They catch buses or go to local Indian-run motels before flying north for the final leg of their months-long journeys.
"It was long … dangerous, very dangerous," said one young man wearing a turban outside the bus station in the Rio Grande Valley town of Harlingen.
The Indian migration in some ways mirrors the journeys of previous waves of immigrants from far-flung places, such as China and Brazil, who have illegally crossed the U.S. border here. But the suddenness and still-undetermined cause of the Indian migration baffles many border authorities and judges.
The trend has caught the attention of anti-terrorism officials because of the pipeline's efficiency in delivering to America's doorstep large numbers of people from a troubled region. Authorities interview the immigrants, most of whom arrive with no documents, to ensure that people from neighboring Pakistan or Middle Eastern countries are not slipping through.
There is no evidence that terrorists are using the smuggling pipeline, FBI and Department of Homeland Security officials said.
The influx shows signs of accelerating: About 650 Indians were arrested in southern Texas in the last three months of 2010 alone. Indians are now the largest group of immigrants other than Latin Americans being caught at the Southwest border.
The migration is the "most significant" human-smuggling trend being tracked by U.S. authorities, said Kumar Kibble, deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. In 2009, the Border Patrol arrested only 99 Indians along the entire Southwest border.
"It's a dramatic increase," Kibble said. "We do want to monitor these pipelines and shut them down because it is a vulnerability. They could either knowingly or unknowingly smuggle people into the U.S. that pose a national security threat."
Most of the immigrants say they are from the Punjab or Gujarat states. They are largely Sikhs who say they face religious persecution, or members of the Bharatiya Janata Party who say they are targeted for beatings by members of the National Congress Party.
But analysts and human rights monitors say political conditions in India don't explain the migration. There is no evidence of the kind of persecution that would prompt a mass exodus, they say, and Sikhs haven't been targets since the 1980s. The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is a Sikh.
"There is no reason to believe these claims have any truth to them," said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor and director of the India Studies Program at Indiana University.
Some authorities think the immigrants are simply seeking economic opportunities and are willing to pay $12,000 to $20,000 to groups that smuggle them to staging grounds in northern Mexico. Kibble said smugglers may have shifted to the Southwest after ICE dismantled visa fraud rings that brought Indians to the Northeast.
Many Indians begin their journey by flying from Mumbai to Dubai, then to South American countries such as Ecuador or Venezuela, according to authorities and immigration attorneys. Guatemala has emerged as the key transit hub into Mexico, they said. The roundabout journeys are necessary because Mexico requires visas for Indians.
They sneak across the dangerous Guatemala-Mexico border and take buses or private vehicles to the closest U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican organized crime groups are suspected of being involved either in running the operations or in charging groups tolls to pass through their territory.
The Indians usually wade across the Rio Grande, and then are shuttled from stash houses to transportation rings that take them north. David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, said he believed a high percentage were caught as soon as they crossed the river.
"We very intensely interview, look at their backgrounds, check them against any watch list," Aguilar said, adding that although India is not considered a "special interest" source country for terrorists, the undocumented immigrants are scrutinized as if it were.