New Delhi : Guatemala has emerged as a major smuggling corridor for Indians attempting to enter the US illegally, according to a Fox News Latino report published earlier this week.
In the past three years, the number of Indians legally entering Guatemala through immigration checkpoints has surged dramatically. In 2008, only 304 Indians entered the country legally. By 2010, that number surged to 4,966—out of which only 1,058 legally exited the country (just 21% of those that entered), according to the Fox News report.
This follows a 2009 change in Guatemalan immigration policy that allows Indian nationals to enter the country without a visa, reflecting closer commercial and diplomatic ties between the two countries. But while Guatemala may be their first stop, most Indians’ final destination appears to be the US.
“An abrupt increase in the number of Indian citizens entering Guatemala led us to ponder whether they were using this country as a bridge,” Enrique Degenhart, Guatemala’s director of immigration services, told Fox News. “After exchanging information with Mexico, we realized that a high percentage (of Indians) entered Guatemala due to the visa status modification and crossed the border illegally into Mexico.”
In 2009, US immigration authorities arrested 99 Indians along the south-west border. In 2010, that number had risen to more than 1,600 in southern Texas alone. In 2011, the numbers of Indians entering Guatemala through legal channels has been growing monthly, according to the Fox report. Kumar Kibble, deputy director for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told Los Angeles Times earlier this year that the rise in the number of Indians was the “most significant” human smuggling trend tracked by American immigration authorities, and US ICE now names people from the country as the second largest migrant group (behind Latin Americans) caught attempting to enter illegally through the south-west border.
A report published in 2008 by Washington DC-based think tank Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found that “the number of unauthorized immigrants from India grew faster than the number of any other immigrant group between 2000 and 2006”. But at that time, most Indian unauthorized immigrants were relatives of Indians working legally in the US, according to MPI’s Aaron Terrazas, many of whom overstayed on tourist visas. More recent Indian unauthorized immigrants caught at the US-Mexico border appear to be Punjabis and Gujaratis, as reported by a joint investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and Los Angeles Times published earlier this year. “It is possible that immigration authorities are getting more vigilant and, therefore, more people are getting caught. Historically, if you see traditional movements from India to the US—there have been so many,” said Cristina Albertin, regional head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “We have a history of Indians moving to the US and Canada—it has been one of the primary movements, along with the UK.”
Gurnam Singh, a professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar studying human smuggling, said the spike in the number of Indian immigrants caught at the US-Mexico border indicates shifting routes used by smugglers in response to changes in international immigration policies rather than an increase in the total number of Indians trying to enter the US illegally.
Countries in the region—Nicaragua, Belize and Cuba—have been used as major smuggling hubs when immigration restrictions were lax. As policies became stricter, smugglers quickly shifted routes to countries with more open policies. Today, Guatemala has visa exemptions for 84 countries, which makes it an ideal smuggling route. “They go to countries where it’s easy to get a visa,” Singh said. “From Central America you can sneak into Mexico. There are many agents there that charge money to help them cross the border into the United States.”
Price may also be a consideration for Indians opting to fly to Guatemala directly: According to a 2009 report on smuggling out of Punjab to the UK published by UNODC, smugglers generally charge more than $50,000 (Rs 22.5 lakh today) for passage from India to the US. From Mexico, the price ranges between $2,000 and $4,000 per person, according to Singh.
Indians are not alone in exploiting Guatemala’s lax visa laws: Earlier this week, Mexican immigration authorities caught 513 unauthorized migrants packed into trucks in the southern state of Chiapas (which shares a border with Guatemala) en route to the US. Of these, 400 were from Guatemala. The remaining migrants included 12 from India, three from China, six from Nepal, 47 from El Salvador, 32 from Ecuador and one each from the Dominican Republic and Honduras.
“This a huge business and there is a huge demand for this service,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, head of UNODC for Mexico and Central America. “There is absolutely no risk for the smugglers. There are hardly any convictions, no investigation and almost totally impunity. The risk is all on the migrants.”
The presence of non-Latinos in the incident above “confirms the existence of powerful international smuggling rings that operate from Asia to Latin America in order to reach the United States”, Mazzitelli told CBS News.