TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA.- As an openly gay man living in a deeply conservative part of India’s Punjab, life had long been hard for Jashan Preet Singh.
Over the years, Mr. Singh, 34, had grown accustomed to daily discrimination in his hometown of Jalandhar – harassment and beatings doled out by his neighbors and a family that had largely turned its back on him.
But what happened late last year was different.
“There were 15 or 20 people who tried to kill me,” he told the BBC from Fresno, California. “I ran away from there and saved my life. But they cut various parts of my body.” The attack left him with a mutilated arm and a severed thumb.
Mr. Singh’s escape set him on a journey that took him through Turkey and France. Eventually, it led him to the US-Mexico border, nearly 8,000 miles (12,800km) away, where he crossed into California to begin a new life in the US.
He is not alone – for years, the arrival of Indian migrants in the US has been slow but steady, amounting to dozens or hundreds each month.
This year, however, the figures have spiked.
Since the beginning of the 2022 fiscal year that started last October, a record 16,290 Indian citizens have been taken into US custody at the Mexican border. The previous high of 8,997 was recorded in 2018.
Experts point to a number of reasons for the increase, including a climate of discrimination in India, an end to pandemic-era restrictions, a perception that the current US administration is welcoming asylum seekers, and the ramping-up of previously established smuggling networks.
While some migrants are coming to the US for economic reasons, many are fleeing persecution back home, said Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration lawyer who has represented Indian nationals in Texas and California.
The latter group range from Muslims, Christians, and “low-caste” Hindus to members of India’s LGBT community who fear violence at the hands of extreme Hindu nationalists, or supporters of secessionist movements and farmers from the Punjab region, which has been shaken by protests since 2020.
Conditions for many of these groups have deteriorated in recent years, international observers say.
For Mr. Singh, the decision to leave his country wasn’t an easy one. He first considered moving to another Indian city but feared that he would be treated just as badly.
“The culture is not open-minded for gay people,” he said. “Being gay over there is a big issue.”
India only decriminalized gay sex in 2018 and same-sex marriage remains illegal.
His brother soon put him in touch with an India-based “travel agency” – part of a sophisticated and expensive smuggling network that took him first to Turkey – where “life was very tough” – and then to France, where he briefly considered staying but was unable to find work. The entire trip took him just over six months.
Eventually, his “travel agent” arranged for him to join a small group of Indians headed to the US, where many – Mr. Singh included – had family members.
“He charged us a lot of money,” Mr. Singh said. “[But] from France he got me to Cancun, and from there to Mexico City and north.”
A difficult journey
Immigrants such as Mr. Singh often see the US as “the ultimate gateway” to a better life, said Mr. Ahluwalia, the lawyer.
The enormous distances involved, however, make the trip to the US extremely challenging.
Traditionally, Indian migrants who arrive at the US-Mexican border use “door-to-door” smuggling services, with journeys arranged from India to South America. They are often guided the entire way and travel in small groups with their fellow countrymen who speak the same language, rather than individually or with only family members.
These networks often begin with India-based “travel agents” who outsource parts of the journey to partner criminal groups in Latin America.
Jessica Bolter, an analyst at the Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute, said that the number of Indian migrants is also rising as a result of a “ripple effect” that takes place when those who have used these services successfully recommend them to friends or family back in India.