The detainees eventually claim asylum. In January, immigration court calendars at the area's two main detention facilities were full of the common Indian surnames Patel and Singh, and attorneys and judges struggled to keep up. Some attorneys had failed to file the necessary forms; interpreters were not always available. Judge Keith Hunsucker said more immigration judges would soon be assigned to handle the increased workload.
Many detained immigrants clear the first hurdle toward a full asylum hearing by convincing asylum officers they have a "credible fear" of persecution if they return to India. They can then post a bond and move anywhere in the United States as long as they agree to appear for their next court date.
Not all show up, however. "That's why I won't take their cases anymore," said Cathy Potter, a local immigration attorney who helped about 20 Indians get freed on bond last year. "It undermines my credibility. I don't want anything to do with this."
It is not clear how many Indians have been granted asylum or deported; immigration officials did not fulfill requests for that information. Judges and attorneys appear to be toughening up, however. Bond amounts have risen sharply in recent months, and attorneys say asylum claims are increasingly being rejected.
Judge William Peterson raised doubts during a recent hearing when a 27-year-old Punjabi woman said she had been beaten and raped, her sari ripped off by several attackers. The petite woman, her long hair in a ponytail, said she was targeted because her husband was a driver for National Congress Party officials.
"I haven't heard you tell me anything that you did on behalf of the party that would irritate these people," Peterson said at the hearing held by video conference.
"We used to give help to the poor. They did not like that," she said. Peterson rejected her claim for a finding of "credible fear," deeming her story inconsistent with statements she had made to an asylum officer. "They're going to kill me. They're going to rape me," she pleaded, wiping away a tear.
But hundreds of immigrants have persuaded asylum officers and judges to grant credible-fear findings, clearing the way for bond hearings.
Hunsucker, an immigration judge at the Port Isabel Detention Center near Brownsville, set bond amounts ranging from $15,000 to $40,000 for 10 Indians one recent morning.
Most said they had relatives or friends in the U.S. willing to sponsor them, though the judge raised concerns about some. In one case, a young man said his sponsor was his cousin, a woman. But the faxed identification document of the cousin showed a picture of a man with a beard. The bond was set at $15,000.
Once released, the immigrants are transported to the Greyhound bus station in downtown Harlingen. One recent evening, 10 Indians crowded around pay telephones and the bus counter, struggling with limited English skills to arrange travel.
One young man paid for a $204, two-day bus ride to New York City. When the clerk asked his name, he handed over his detention center ID wristband.
A young man wearing a turban asked the clerk for information on the next bus to Indiana. He spoke broken English and later tried to provide details about his journey, but other immigrants nudged him to keep quiet. The trip was worth it, he said, adding, "I'm happy, because it's safe" in the U.S.
Outside, motel operators offered to shuttle the men to their nearby quarters. Shoving matches between motel operators have broken out in recent weeks as they compete to fill their $44-per-night rooms with immigrants.
The Indians are largely unseen in the towns along the Rio Grande Valley, where they disappear into detention centers, stash houses or motel rooms. Some Sikhs have been confronted by locals alarmed by the sight of people wearing turbans, motel workers say.
Federal agents investigating human-smuggling rings have visited at least one motel, America's Best Value Inn in Raymondville, workers said. General Manager Kevin Patel denied any wrongdoing.
He houses about 20 Indians per week, he said, shuttling them to and from the bus station and printing out airline boarding passes. He serves them meals in his motel apartment, often the first Indian food they've had in months, he said.
One recent guest, Bharat Panchal, 37, said he was released from detention in late January after friends posted his $20,000 bond. India had become dangerous, he said, because of political unrest in his home state of Gujarat. He was flying later that day to Los Angeles to live with a friend, he said.
Patel said the sudden appearance of Indian immigrants in southern Texas baffled him.
"When they first showed up, I scratched my head a little bit," Patel said. But he has opened his doors and makes the immigrants feel at home.
"They need a place to stay," he said. "They need food. They speak my language, so of course, as a human being, I can help them out."
This report is published in cooperation with the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, where Becker is a staff reporter.