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Broader Crises

Indian border-crossers illuminate the interconnectedness of mass migration

Before an excruciating second wave of Covid-19 drowned it out, my hometown in India was the site of one of the largest protests in history. I witnessed glimpses of it through the digital portal in my hands: elderly men with frosty beards kneading dough for parathas. Women in green dupattas, raising fists against the concrete horizon of the interstate highway. Young men securing each other’s turbans. And kids—swinging from tractors, waving flags. These families had thronged to Delhi from neighboring agricultural states to oppose new laws that the ruling party had rammed through parliament.

The measures, they argued, would decimate the little economic security they had left. Waves of economic liberalization in the decades since India’s independence have exposed its farming communities to exploitative multinational agri-corporations and climate injustices, plunging them into a perennial state of crisis. Spikes in suicide, high cancer rates, and destructive opioid epidemics have thus besieged their home states. These new laws were the last straw, they said.

When the farmers’ rallying cries reached a crescendo on the streets of Delhi this January, America was occupied with the political crisis unfolding in its own capital. But even in the absence of proximal distractions, for many Americans, a crisis on the other side of the world would have remained abstract no matter what.

Ripples created by far-off crises can come to lick familiar shores, however. And in this case, they have been doing so for a long time. The underlying circumstances compelling Indians to take to the streets in recent months have caused others to flee the country in recent years. Many travel all the way to the United States, where the number of Indians apprehended at the U.S. border climbed by almost 5,000 percent between 2007 and 2018, from 188 to 9,234. These migrants are often young Sikh or Muslim men; often from agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana; and often poor. The “root causes” of unauthorized Indian mass migration are intimately related to the same ills driving the mass mobilization we saw earlier this year.

The underlying circumstances compelling Indians to take to the streets in recent months have caused others to flee the country in recent years.

India is the world’s biggest source of migrants, with the highest numbers going to the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, according to the United Nations. Thousands of Indians come to America each year on work, college, and family sponsored visas. The ones who cross this country’s borders without authorization, however, are less visible. While their apprehensions are still much lower in absolute terms compared to migrants from Central America and Mexico, the increase over the last several years is remarkable.

The arrival of these migrants has been taken by many as another dimension of the United States’ never-ending “border crisis.” But, in reality, it represents a cross current of migration that author and activist Harsha Walia describes as the “outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change,” in Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. In the book, Walia provides a necessary global lens through which to understand migration, drawing connections between systemic forces in a variety of contexts. She asks: What role do countries like the United States play—what ideologies and institutions do they support—that create crises elsewhere around the world that force people to leave? How do these countries administer their borders as places where these myriad crises coalesce—where global inequities and harms reproduce? Is the result a “border crisis,” or a crisis of borders—that is, is the movement of people inherently a problem, or is it how they are restricted and contained?

The word “mob,” Walia writes, “is often used to link large groups of poor, racialized people to social disorder.” It derives from the word “mobility.” To the powerful, a collective of marginalized people at the boundaries of their kingdom, be it a nation or a neighborhood, is an obvious threat. In the United States, a common belief espoused by conservatives and liberals alike is that such “mobs” need to be actively discouraged through rhetoric or policy. So they constantly send migrants the message “do not come,” and then show them exactly what they will lose if they do

Nativist groups drive this narrative, and often succeed in shaming others into toeing the line as well by accusing them of being too permissive. It’s within this context that some have painted the latest wave of Indian migration to the southern U.S. border as a new phenomenon—lamenting that the Biden administration’s yet to-be-realized promise of a more humane border is drawing “mobs” from around the world.

What they don’t know, or choose to leave out, is that the arrival of Indians to the United States predates the creation of the southern border. As early as 1820, people from India were disembarking at American ports to work as farm laborers, according to the Migration Policy Institute. At the time, much of the Indian subcontinent was a British colony, and young men from rural districts in Punjab (present-day Pakistan-India border) or East-Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) would board British trade vessels for the United States. Upon arrival, some jumped ship, hoping to escape the crush of exploitative British taxation policies back home. As author and filmmaker Vivek Bald has extensively detailed in his research, this migration continued well into the twentieth century under the radar, even as all Asians were banned from entering the country between 1917 and 1965.

Today, the limited legal pathways to the United States are expensive and uncertain. Indians who cannot afford to take them often rely on smugglers. A common route is to fly to the Americas and travel north with other migrant groups. Once at the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants have increasingly taken dangerous paths into the country, as a result of years of intentional U.S. policy. Some don’t make it. In 2019, the body of a six-year-old Indian girl named Gurupreet Kaur was found near the border, seventeen miles west of Lukeville, Arizona. She and her mother had been on their way to join the young girl’s father in New York City, where he had a pending asylum application. They were separated trying to cross a remote part of the Arizona desert where temperatures rise well above 100 degrees. Gurupreet died of a heat stroke all alone.

To the powerful, a collective of marginalized people at the boundaries of their kingdom, be it a nation or a neighborhood, is an obvious threat.

Border agents, asylum officers, and immigration judges don’t usually regard Indian border crossers sympathetically, I have often been told in the course of my reporting. It is a common belief that many are trying to game the system; that they don’t really face persecution but come to America for economic reasons, and therefore are not eligible to apply for asylum. Indian migrants who do make it inside therefore often languish in detention. Over the years, dozens have launched hunger strikes against the dehumanizing conditions of confinement and been met with brutal responses. According to a new American Civil Liberties Union report based on internal government documents, detainees engaging in this kind of protest have been subject to force-feedings, solitary confinement, excessive force, and retaliatory deportations.

It’s not clear to me that the research U.S. officials rely on to make asylum decisions captures the complexity of the circumstances on the ground some Indians are fleeing. It likely does not capture the extent of India’s current identity crisis or the crisis that is its borders.

As a baseline, in India, access to food, water, jobs, and justice is controlled by the powerful. From the local mafia and the beat cop, to city politicians, religious leaders, and business entities, each power player stakes a claim on the land—and every person on what they claim as their turf becomes subject to their whims and prejudices. Extra judicial police killings are common, and even celebrated; as are arbitrary stops, seizures, and disappearances in regions like Kashmir, where the Indian military has special powers. It can therefore be difficult to untangle political persecution, religious oppression, caste violence, and economic exploitation in the experiences of people at the bottom of this food chain. This internal social hierarchy sits, like a Russian doll, within the larger hierarchy of nations. Local marginalization is compounded by global disparity.

In the United States, immigration lawyers have noted an uptick in Indian migrants seeking refuge, citing persecution under the right wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The erosion of Indian democracy has accelerated under the current regime. As human rights monitors and news reports have extensively documented, state and vigilante violence against marginalized groups has worsened; police brutality and arrests of protesters and dissidents have increased. Inequality has climbed, thanks to misguided economic policies. This year, a preventable second surge of Covid-19 killed thousands and left low-wage laborers with no means to fend for themselves. As funeral pyres burned en masse, citizens scrambled to organize aid, and scores of impoverished workers in informal sectors left for their villages. Data on how the pandemic and international travel restrictions may have further affected this migration is not yet available, but anecdotally, all the “push factors” that drive migration have only intensified.

In Border & Rule, Walia unpacks at length the parallels between Modi’s far-right hyper capitalist ideology and those of leaders around the world: Modi is “one of the world’s most business-friendly politicians with a ruthless agenda of deregulation, private investment in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, corporate subsidies, and regressive taxation.” His Hindu supremacist, or “Hindutva” ideology, finds “common cause” with white supremacist and Nazi ideologies in the West, she adds.

Those Indians who embrace Modi’s ideology, or who otherwise draw power from caste, class, and religious hierarchies at home, often migrate abroad with relative ease. They also often back the same, or similar, politics abroad. Groups such as “Hindus for Trump,” Walia writes, are therefore “best explained through the prism of Hindutva’s brahminical supremacy and adjoining Islamophobia, rather than the typical explanations of white-washed, model minorities or upward class mobility.” Indians who fit this bill will often ignore the existence of their countrymen coming to the Southern border because acknowledging it would mean acknowledging their own complicity in oppression; in creating, and then criminalizing, migration.

Despite the truly global context underpinning migration to the United States, Americans hold a narrow view of the situation at the southern border, associating it almost exclusively with illegal migration from Mexico and Central America. This makes sense to some extent: because of their proximity, and because they are driven by conditions to which the United States has directly or indirectly contributed, migrants from these regions arrive in the highest numbers, either to work or request asylum. (Per the law, it is legal to request asylum no matter how a person enters this country, and you have to be on U.S. soil to do it.)

Central Americans are fleeing political instability stemming from regime changes the United States helped facilitate decades ago; or from the economic fallout of coffee crop failures due to climate change the United States has been slow—and at times, unwilling—to address. Mexicans come as a result of a longstanding push-and-pull created by twentieth century labor and tariff agreements, such as the Bracero program, between their country and the United States. With the rise of maquiladoras—export-focused border factories, often U.S.-owned—in the latter half of the twentieth century, the two nations together abolished the border for goods and capital, but not for people. Since migration cycles had already been established, people kept coming. In response, U.S. immigration policies increased deportations, creating a permanent underclass of laborers on both sides of the border with Mexico.

Americans hold a narrow view of the situation at the southern border, associating it almost exclusively with illegal migration from Mexico and Central America.

The figure of the “illegal immigrant,” created through U.S. policies and propped up to justify harsher policing of the borderlands, was seen as Mexican. The “illegal immigrant” wasn’t just a legal category, but also a racial one, as historian Mae Ngai has argued.

This construct persists today despite consistent declines in Mexican arrivals. Among other things, it helps obscure the complexity and scope of human migration—and the United States’ role in enabling it. And not just in Mexico and the Northern Triangle. For instance: American agribusiness has worked hand-in-hand with successive Indian governments to sideline India’s farmers. Its leaders have exported high-carbon fuels to India, even as they tout the perils of climate change at home; hoarded life-saving vaccines during a pandemic; and normalized, even celebrated, Modi, for years.

“Border crises are not merely domestic issues to be managed through policy reform,” Walia writes. “They must, instead, be placed within the globalized asymmetries of power—inscribed by race, caste, gender, sexuality, ability, and nationality—creating migration and restricting mobility.”

Viewing the world’s migration crises in silos and slivers hides from view the real reasons why certain groups of people are unable to stay in their homes, but equally unable to move elsewhere to survive—and discourages us from understanding that their world and ours, as separate as they may seem, are one and the same.