Why and how people from Gujarat are trying to sneak into US

Many of them end up jailed or dead at the US border, but agents go scot-free

Canada-Bodies Near Border Search mission: Authorities look for migrants in Quebec, Canada. The bodies of the Chaudharys were found in a marsh bordering the St Lawrence River | AP

THERE IS A steady stream of mourners at Manekpura village in north Gujarat’s Mehsana district. Political leaders, too, drop in to pay their respects. The mourners gather outside Ashwinbhai Chaudhary’s two-storey house. On April 1, the bodies of his elder brother and family were recovered from a marsh bordering the St Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. Pravinbhai, 50, his wife Daksha, 45, daughter Vidhi, 23, and son Mit, 20, had reportedly drowned while trying to cross over to the US illegally. Inside Ashwinbhai’s house, Kakuben, 75, is grieving the death of her eldest son. At her age, she is unable to bear the four blows at one go, and so mourners are not allowed to meet her.

Just 200m from Ashwinbhai’s house stands Pravinbhai’s two-storey house. He also owned around 2.4 acres. Villagers said that he ran a business, but did not know the specifics. Vidhi was in her final year of MBA and Mit was doing his graduation.

Pravinbhai’s cousin Jasubhai tells THE WEEK that the family of four had travelled to Canada on a tourist visa in February. Since then, their house has remained shut. Jasubhai claims Pravinbhai never talked about going to the US. He was in touch with him till a fortnight ago. Ashwinbhai does not remember when he last spoke to his elder brother. He is getting his passport renewed to go to Canada.

“We cannot afford to bring the bodies back home,” says Jasubhai. “It will cost Rs20 lakh for each body. It will be good if the government can get it. Otherwise, two family members should be given a visa to go to Canada and perform the last rites.”

The Chaudharys have paid a heavy price to realise the so-called American Dream of a better life, ample opportunities and a secure future for their children. And, it is not an isolated dream, but one harboured and chased by many, especially in north Gujarat. And, while earlier it was mostly the Patels, now people from other castes, including Brahmins and dalits, too, are going to great lengths, legally or illegally, in pursuit of that dream.

But it seems more of a pipe dream, going by the recent reports of people failing―even fatally―in their attempts to sneak into the US. In January 2022, Jagdish Patel, 39, from Dingucha village in north Gujarat, along with wife Vaishali, 37, daughter Vihangi, 11, and son Dharmik, 3, were found frozen to death near Emerson, Canada―just 12m from the US border. In December 2022, Brijkumar Yadav, 36, from Chhatral in Kalol taluka of Gandhinagar reportedly fell to his death while climbing the ‘Trump wall’ on the US-Mexico border.

A resident from north Gujarat―a Brahmin―recalls how four of his relatives were caught crossing over to the US from Mexico. “They spent 10 days in jail and later got bail,” he says. “After working for about a month, they sent Rs1.5 lakh to the person in their village who had helped them get to the US.” The family reportedly spent Rs1.5 crore on their American Dream. The charges for illegal immigration may vary between Rs30 lakh and Rs75 lakh per person.

In December 2022, the Migration Policy Institute wrote that a lesser-known trend in Indian immigration is the rise in unauthorised arrivals at the US-Mexico border. Between October 2021 and September 2022, authorities encountered Indian immigrants 18,300 times at the US southern border, a spike from 2,600 in the same period a year earlier, it stated.

Moreover, a study by New American Economy has estimated that about 5.87 lakh undocumented Indian immigrants lived in the US in 2019―the third largest share of undocumented immigrants after Mexico and El Salvador.

Mourners at the house of Pravinbhai’s brother in Manekpura | Janak Patel Mourners at the house of Pravinbhai’s brother in Manekpura | Janak Patel

Sociologist Gaurang Jani says, “The type of people who are migrating now do not have much education. Earlier the trend was of educated people going to the US.” Twenty years ago, two of his students from north Gujarat sneaked into the US from Mexico.

A main reason for this immigration trend, says Jani, is that people want their children to settle in the US and have a better education and future. This, despite the fact that Gujarat has the highest number of private universities in the country.

The new generation from lower middle class families, says Jani, is not afraid of taking risks.

Bulk of the risk lies in reaching the US, because once they are in they can bank on the diaspora community to find jobs and sustain themselves. BJP leader Himanshu Vyas says that those who want to migrate know that they will get jobs in convenience stores and after a couple of years they will become partners in the store and eventually own it. Also, there is shortage of manpower there, and people also get jobs in motels, he adds. But it is a tough life―majority of immigrants, he says, toil from 6am to midnight. He recalls the 1980s, when passports with the US visa stamp would get stolen from the Gujarat Mail bound for Ahmedabad from Mumbai. Those passports would then be available in the market for lakhs of rupees, he says.

This obsession with the American Dream has been captured on reel, too. Kevi Rite Jaish (How Will I Go?), a 2012 film, is about a father, with an unfulfilled American Dream, trying to send his son to the US. Then, recently, there is Minus 35, a short film based on the tragic deaths of the Patels from Dingucha. Its maker Nisarg Lakhmani, who hails from Ahmedabad and is settled in Canada, tells THE WEEK that the short film is a dramatic reflection of desperation, mistrust and fatal decisions that ended all dreams. “For my directorial venture, I was looking for a topic and then I came across this,” says Lakhmani, an event planner. “I could also relate to it as I belong to Gujarat. The message through the film is to stop illegal immigration and do lots of research and meet good consultants or lawyers before filing for permanent residence.” The Canadian government, too, issued an advertisement in vernacular newspapers to be careful about the agent people hire.

A family, lost: Pravinbhai Chaudhary with family. A family, lost: Pravinbhai Chaudhary with family.

And, that is key. As recent cases show, illegal migration can fail or turn fatal. In either situation, the agents are rarely held accountable. Sources in investigating agencies said the modus operandi is simple. People go on valid visas to Canada or other places, like the Patels and Chaudharys did. From there, another set of people are involved in helping them to sneak into the US. In all likelihood, agents in India are in touch with agents abroad, but on paper there is no proof to initiate action. The agents abroad could be working for multiple agents in India. A common feature found in the case of Patels and Chaudharys was that both families went incommunicado a few days before attempting to cross the border.

In the case of the Patels, the police arrested Bhavesh Patel, 30, from Kalol, and Yogesh Patel, 40, from Vastrapur, in January. Deputy Commissioner of Police (crime) Chaitanya Mandalik said that the duo was charged with culpable homicide. During the investigation, it was revealed that they have been in operation for more than a decade. However, there is fear that the accused could be acquitted if the entire chain from Gujarat to Canada is not proved.

In the case of the Chaudharys, Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police, Mehsana, says, “We are in touch with our counterparts in Canada for more details. In another case, where we had our suspicion, we had called a couple of agents and interrogated them, but the papers were all clear.”

On its part, the police is trying to create awareness. “When people approach us for police verification for Canada or other visas, we ask them to ascertain if the agent is good and whether there are chances of them getting duped,” says Tyagi.

But not everyone in Manekpura, home of the Chaudharys, dreams of going to the US. Gaurav Patel, 29, owns nearly 16 acres and repairs air conditioners. He has not renewed his passport. His friend, Paresh Patel, 42, a graduate who works for a pharmaceutical company, does not have a passport. The two are happy in India. “What the Chaudharys did was illegal, but what happened to them is not good,” says the duo.

Some 15km away in Ranasan, Jignesh Patel, a contractor, and Hasmukh Patel, a government servant, say a majority of students in their village have moved to Australia on student visa. The Kadva Patidar Credit Society provides loans to students, up to Rs20 lakh, which the students can repay over a period of time at low interest. Hasmukh, however, understands the obsession with the American Dream. “What will parents of sons do? They do not get brides if the son is not in the US,” he says.

The reasons behind chasing the American Dream are many, but so are the risks.