KOLKATA- Investigations into the Legend Airlines flight bound for Nicaragua with 303 Indian passengers on board have intensified suspicions that the individuals were attempting illegal migration to the United States, highlighting a growing pattern of unauthorized migration from India to the US through South and Central America.
The Airbus A340, operated by the Romanian charter airline, departed from Dubai on December 21. However, it was compelled to return to Mumbai on December 26 with 276 passengers due to a four-day detention in Vatry, France, over suspected human trafficking allegations. The aircraft had made a stop at Vatry airport for refueling on its way to Nicaragua.
Illegal Migration from India to the US
Of the original 303 passengers, 25 opted to stay in France, seeking asylum, while an additional two were detained for further questioning. Subsequently, they were released after authorities were convinced that these passengers had boarded the flight willingly.
The majority of the 276 passengers who returned are predominantly from the states of Gujarat and Punjab, recognized as significant origins of Indian migrants seeking to establish themselves abroad.
According to Mr. Sanjay Kharat, a senior official with the Gujarat police, 66 of the passengers hail from Gujarat, primarily comprising men aged between 20 and 35, potentially in search of improved living opportunities in the United States. Many of them were previously involved in farming and animal husbandry, while some were recent graduates.
Mr. Kharat expressed skepticism, stating,
“All people on board going to the same place with the same purpose of tourism – it is not digestible as such.” He mentioned that the passengers had apparently agreed to pay varying amounts, ranging from 4 million rupees (S$63,300) to 12.5 million rupees, to agents facilitating their arrival in the US.
More than 40 passengers, characterized by “social or economic profiles of those who typically do not go to Dubai or Nicaragua for tourism,” have undergone interrogation. Authorities are now actively seeking additional details regarding their travel and working to trace the involved agents.
Surge in Migration
On December 30, the Punjab police also declared the establishment of a special investigation team to delve into the matter. Media reports have indicated that as much as 70 percent of the passengers could potentially be residents of the northern Indian state.
While certain individuals on the Legend Airlines flight might have been genuine tourists or business travelers heading to Nicaragua, the distant country, which lacks an embassy in India, is likely serving as another gateway for illegal entry into the United States.
According to data from the US Customs and Border Protection, an unprecedented 96,917 Indians were apprehended while attempting to illegally enter the US from October 2022 to September 2023, marking a surge of over 50 percent from the corresponding period in the previous fiscal year.
Notably, at least 41,770 were arrested while crossing the Mexican land border from the south.
This illicit migration route involves arriving in a Latin American country, with several of them offering visas on arrival for Indians, and subsequently making their way up to Mexico.
Entering the US labor Market
Migrants traverse the perilous Darien Gap, a densely forested region between Colombia and Panama, enduring a journey that spans three days to a week, exposing them to risks such as a scarcity of food or drinking water, encounters with wild animals, and potential threats from armed gangs.
The recent upswing in the number of Indians attempting to enter the US illegally has been fueled by various factors, as outlined by Mr. Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a think-tank based in Washington, DC.
These factors encompass visa-free arrangements for Indian nationals to select countries in Central and South America, simplifying their travel to transit countries in proximity to the US border. Additionally, there is a prevailing perception, amplified by human smuggling networks, that the US, under President Joe Biden, is perceived as “welcoming to asylum seekers.”
Mr. Chishti highlighted, “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.”
He further noted that most Indian nationals have ties to a substantial Indian diaspora in the US, facilitating their entry into the labor market.
725,000+ Illegal Indians in US
A significant portion of undocumented Gujarati migrants, for instance, find employment in retail establishments such as motels or food outlets owned by fellow Gujaratis in the United States.
As of November, a report from the Pew Research Centre revealed that there are approximately 725,000 Indian undocumented immigrants in the US, constituting the third-largest population of unauthorized immigrants, following Mexicans and Salvadorans.
The influx of Indian immigrants to the US experienced rapid growth during the 1990s and 2000s, attracting numerous individuals in pursuit of improved lives and the idealized “American dream.”
In recent years, this allure has intensified for many in India, where the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic have restricted opportunities for economic growth, particularly for those with lower levels of education but aspiring to enhance their socio-economic status.
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