The dreamers in danger at Gujarat’s gateway to US

Many families in north Gujarat have at least one member living illegally in the US. A look at stories of endless separation, and what caused it.

ByBasant Kumar
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“Several Diwalis came and went by but father never arrived.” 

For Rajeev, the endless separation from his father is a story spanning 20 years and two countries, from the age of letters to the digital decade. A 32-year-old communications specialist who lives near Kalol in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar, he was only eight years old when his father left India to illegally immigrate to the United States, posing as part of a south Indian film crew, and could never return.

They tried to stay in touch through letters, phone calls, and the internet, be it when Rajeev met with an accident, or when he got married, or when he became a father. But it all came crashing down in 2021, when a relative phoned Rajeev to inform him of his father’s death. “I sat down on the floor and thought of my father’s touch, a touch I hadn’t felt in 23 years. Our relatives and neighbours performed his last rites there. I watched the funeral on YouTube,” he says, breaking into tears.

Rajeev isn’t the only one. In hundreds of villages dotting the dusty landscape of northern Gujarat, one family after another recalls memories of separation from their loved ones, and economic prosperity that’s become a cross to bear.

When the United States eased its immigration policy in the 60s, it triggered a wave of legal migration by highly-qualified Indians, followed by their families who were sponsored. And in Gujarat, over the years, it was the Patidar community – commonly using Patel as a surname – which was most influenced by this rising American dream, and eventually carved a formidable niche for itself in the Indian diaspora story.

A story about an American dream that’s now turning into a nightmare for many, with a rise in illegal immigration, from India and Gujarat. 

Just last week, four Indians from Dingucha village in Gujarat’s Mehsana allegedly died while crossing the US-Canada border. The incident is strikingly similar to the episode involving the death of another family from Dingucha village in Kalol of Gandhinagar in January last year. 

Newslaundry visited several villages across Gujarat to understand this pattern.

Kalol is the hub for aspiring immigrants in northern Gujarat

Kalol is the hub for aspiring immigrants in northern Gujarat

'Kabootarbazi' in Dollar, near Embassy

The process of being illegally sent to the US is called “kabootarbazi” in Gujarat, and Kalol is the hub of such activities in the northern part of the state. At the centre of such operations are agents.

Agents that can be commonly found at shops in Kalol market, about 20 km from Gandhinagar, where the American dream is writ large, on banners and in the names of locations; a hotel named Embassy, and its surrounding areas called ‘Dollar’. From each house in the area, at least one person has migrated to the US – many of them illegally. 

Once payments are made, there are multiple routes these aspiring immigrants take to enter the US illegally. They first fly to another country on a visitor’s visa, and try to reach the US through either land – via the Mexico or Canada border – or the sea. The traffickers promise them work at Indian-owned convenience stores, manufacturing units, and other odd jobs, at less than the American legal minimum wage.

However, not all of them eye unlawful means to move out. 

Consider the example of Ansh Patel, a 15-year-old student of Class 8, whose parents illegally crossed the US border when he was just three years old. Loitering around with a bunch of teenagers during a village fest near a grand Swaminarayan temple in Palsada, two kilometres away from the Kalol market, he asserts that he will take the legal route.

“I do miss my parents. Especially when I fall ill. I’ve asked them to come to India many times. They’ve gone illegally so they can’t come back. They told me that you come here after studying. I’ll go after clearing IELTS,” says Ansh, who lives with his grandparents.

Palsada is where the Gujarat crime branch had last month arrested a suspected agent named Yogesh Patel. 

Besides, the legal way is not for everyone.

Like Ansh, Rajeev also hoped to meet his father, until the latter died in 2021. And now with his brother too having left for the US last year, he feels like he is staring at another abyss. “I also tried a couple of times, sat for IELTS too. But I didn’t get the visa…I have experienced the pain of the absence  of my loved ones. I don’t want my wife and children to go through the same…I speak to him (his brother) over the phone, both of us cry. He is everything to me, but he won’t come back now.”

The IELTS, or the International English Language Testing System, an English proficiency test that sees around 13 lakh applicants in India each year, has been reportedly rigged several times in the past.

Swanky properties, locked

According to the US Census Bureau data, around 5,87,000 undocumented Indian immigrants live in the country, and India has the largest share of undocumented immigrants after Mexico and El Salvador. “There is strictness from our side, but still thousands go to the US illegally every year,” says a crime branch official.

Senior journalist Bhargav Parik says while the aspiration to move to the US originated in central Gujarat, northern areas subsequently caught up. “Today, there are many villages in the state inhabited only by the elderly.”

Dingucha village is one of them. The signs of affluence among its residents are written over their luxurious homes, but most of them are locked as their owners are in the US. 

The sarpanch, Thakor Mathurji Sairagi, claims that nearly 500 villagers are in the US, and about a 100 of them are actually NRIs. He refuses to comment on the number of those who have taken the illegal route.

Dingucha had made headlines after its inhabitant Jagdish Bhai Patel, his wife Vaishaliben and two children froze to death at the US-Canada border, in an illegal immigration attempt gone awry.

Locals refuse to point out Patel’s home, and there is a shroud of secrecy over unlawful immigration.

“When we go to arrest someone, people get alerted by a police vehicle in the village. When asked about anything, they claim to not know anything,” says Dilip Thakor, an officer of the Ahmedabad Crime Branch.

Jagdish Bhai Patel's mother at the family's home in Dingucha. His picture adorns the wall

Jagdish Bhai Patel's mother at the family's home in Dingucha. His picture adorns the wall

Dreamers in danger

Adjoining Dingucha is Pansar village, whose sarpanch Bharat Bhai Baghela gave up on his American dream after failing “10 times”. “I had reached Cuba, from where I was supposed to go to the US. But I couldn’t and had to return. The next time, I got stuck in Thailand and had to stay there for a month. The agent tried to get me to the US from there, but it didn’t work out and I had to come back. When I was stuck in Cuba, there were 15 others with me. In Thailand, there were eight. All of them were Patels.”

The 52-year-old says that 20 people from his village are in the US. “None who went there have come back because all of them went illegally.” He claims that all families in the nearby Mokasan, Kotha and Karjishan villages of Gandhinagar district and Vadu in Mehsana have at least one member living illegally in the US.

But unlike Baghela, not everyone is able to survive a failed attempt.

Five kilometres away from Pansar is Beda, where a suspected agent named Dhurubhai Beas was recently arrested in the case of Brij Kumar Yadav, who died while trying to cross the “Trump Wall” at the US-Mexico border in December last year.

While Yadav’s family did not file a police complaint, Beas was held after the State Monitoring Cell of the Gujarat police took suo motu cognisance and began probing the matter.

According to officials, a migration to the US currently costs anywhere around Rs 70 lakh per person and over one crore for a family in the kabootarbazi market.

However, Yadav’s brother and his father refused to comment on the issue. “Right now, we ourselves are trying to get out of trouble. He didn’t tell us anything. We don’t know from where he got so much money. He used to work in a private company.”

Yadav had left the country with his wife and son but his father and brother say they have no information about their whereabouts.

Hundreds of people from Beda and nearby Paliyad live in the US, claim village representatives. In Paliyad, the number of such people hovers around 50 percent of the population, claims Vipul Bhai, a panchayat official from the village.

The specifics, however, go missing when it comes to kabootarbazi. No complaint is filed even when someone dies or goes missing on such journeys.

In Dingucha, Newslaundry managed to trace Jagdish Bhai Patel’s residence, whose veranda had pictures of him, his wife, and his children, hanging on a wall behind grain sacks. His father Baldev Bhai Patel and mother Madhu Ben, however, refused to share any details – either of the motive or mode – of Patel’s journey.

“You are repeating the same questions as the police. They harass my elder son Mahendra and me. They repeatedly tell him that he had sent Jagdish…no one could have sent him forcefully.”

Police officials, however, told Newslaundry that both Patel’s and Yadav’s family are aware of the details but refuse to give any information.

Even the sarpanch of Dingucha village has tried moving to the US '10 times'

Even the sarpanch of Dingucha village has tried moving to the US '10 times'

The nowhere Indians in Gujarat

“Those who are going have a lot of money. Most who go are from farming families. They arrange the money by selling their land. They feel that there is less scope for development in this country. Unemployment is not the reason at all,” says Hemant Shah, a retired professor of economics at H K Arts College who lives in Ahmedabad.

Each year, thousands of Indians from other states flock to Gujarat in search for better economic opportunities – while the state’s development record is criticised over  various parameters, its gross state domestic product hovers above the national average.

Most aspiring immigrants Newslaundry spoke to denied that unemployment was a reason.

A crime branch officer in Ahmedabad who is probing a case of illegal immigration says it is the affluence of the previous generation of immigrants that has presented the “American dream” as feasible and palatable to the new.

A resident of Mehsana who has been trying to move to the US illegally for the past 12 years, and has spent Rs 65 lakh on brokers without any success, says the only reason is “money”.

But not for all, it seems. 

Ravindra Patel, a 60-year-old resident of Panchvati who sent his son and daughters to the US illegally around two decades ago, says the government “takes care of everyone there. Here, no one cares.”

It isn’t just a quest for better amenities but also marriage prospects that drives many of these journeys. 

Consider the example of the Patidar community, where the search for prospective spouses from within the community is made difficult by a skewed sex ratio of around 800 girls per 1,000 boys, according to senior journalist Bhargav Parik.

And this drives interstate and intercountry migration, especially among women from the community.

In October 2015, a mass marriage was organised for the Patel community in Surat, attended by 5,000 prospective grooms from the Patel community and 42 prospective brides from Odisha. It was neither the first nor the last such incident reflecting poorly on the sex ratio within the community.

For Patel families living in the US, it becomes even more difficult to find a son- or daughter-in-law if they don’t have any relatives in the country.

In such situations, such families support the legal or illegal migration of prospective grooms and brides, with the consent of all parties involved.

Ravindra Patel's daughters had settled in the US the same way, through marriage. “Every father wants his daughter’s future to be secure.” He could neither attend the weddings nor see them live on a screen as there was no internet back then. “We saw video cassettes and arranged a reception for the people here.”

The anguish of such families exists alongside several aspects of this relentless migration from Gujarat – the widely contested brain drain, the Indian diaspora’s success story, and the government’s position on this phenomenon.

“What can the government do about this? At best, it can catch those who send people illegally, and take action,” says retired professor Shah.

Gujarat police state monitoring cell’s deputy SP K T Kamaria says many cases have been filed over the years, but there is no figure for the number of convictions. “The sentencing will happen only if we get evidence.”

Names have been changed to protect identities.

The second part of this series looks into the dark underbelly of the industry that aids such migrations.

Translated from Hindi by Shardool Katyayan.

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