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Migrants brave the journey from Nepal to Guatemala, then to Mexico, and into US.
NEW YORK — Tashi vividly remembers the two black Customs and Border Patrol helicopters that hovered over Arizona desert’s blue sky two years ago, marring the first moments of his American dream. It had been nine days since he left Nepal, a journey that took him by plane to Guatemala, then overland by van and finally on foot to Mexico across the US border.
Now it seemed the long journey was about to end. His jeans were covered in desert sand. His shirt reeked of dust and sweat. There, in the desert outside of Tucson, Ariz., as the border patrol closed in, Tashi saw his childhood dreams of making his fortune in the West disappear.
“I was numb, didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “ I have never seen anything like this except in movies.”
And then, they got him.
Tashi, 28, asked to withhold his real name because he fears being investigated by immigration authorities. He grew up in a small, remote Himalayan village in the Sagarmatha Zone of northeastern Nepal.
He is one of several thousand South Asians arrested every year while illegally crossing the US border, according to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency.
They are a small minority among the vast group of Asians who comprise the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States — now even surpassing Latinos. In 2010, 36 percent of all new residents, with or without papers, were Asian, according to the latest Pew Research.
In May 2011, Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said at a Senate hearing that soon Indians would account for nearly one in three non-Mexican illegal immigrants apprehended in Texas. “We have seen that trend over the last few months. We have devoted some additional resources to that trend, and we're trying to get to the bottom of it,” she said.
In 2004, border patrol agents detained 2,777 Indians crossing from Mexico into the United States. That number grew to 5,953 in 2011 — more than doubling in just seven years.
India’s population is about 40 times that of Nepal, and the number of Nepalis apprehended is far lower than the Indians. But the growth rate is still striking: In 2007, 65 Nepalis were arrested for crossing the US border illegally; in 2011, 104 were arrested.
“South Asian smuggling networks usually go either through South America or Europe, both eventually converging in Central America, then up to Guatemala [and to Mexico],” said Michael Tutko, section chief at Homeland Security’s Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit.
Once the migrants arrive in Mexico, he added, people traffickers known as “coyotes” escort them to the US border.
The pipeline that carries South Asians to the United States takes a circuitous route, with Central America playing a key role. This is largely because of “the lack of visa requirements, corrupt government officials and lack of border enforcement,” said Tutko.
Guatemala is an especially favored destination because of the ease of acquiring a tourist visa to get there. Five out of the six Nepali migrants interviewed for this story said they had a Guatemalan tourist visa.
The wave of South Asians hoping to enter the US illegally, said Tutko, has been a boon for a whole range of people who profit from human smuggling — “from the fake document providers, to corrupt officials, to stash house operators to drivers.”