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.”
Two years ago, the phone rang in Tashi’s rented apartment in Swaymbhu, a neighborhood of Kathmandu. On the other end was Tashi’s uncle, who worked at a restaurant in Queens, New York. He knew of his nephew’s dream.
His uncle offered to pay $10,000 — the price of Tashi’s journey to the US, by way of Guatemala. The trip would be safe, his uncle assured him. The person arranging it was a friend and co-worker. With the cost of the trip covered, Tashi had no reason to stay. The next day he researched YouTube videos on the trails of migrants who had gone to the US by way of Mexico.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute estimates that 150,000 people cross its border into the US illegally every year.
The cost depends on where the journey begins. Emigrating from Mexico, it can run between $1,000 and $3,000 to be escorted across the US border, Tutko said.
South Asians, who have to cover airfare and travel documents, often pay 10 times as much. Travel documents alone can run anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, Tutko said.A Texas-based immigration lawyer who has represented Indian nationals arrested for illegally crossing the border said Indians typically pay between $20,000 and $50,000.
Like Tashi, Rabin was introduced by a family member to human smugglers who would take him to the United States. The smugglers, he said, were “everyday people” who operate travel agencies with contacts in Singapore and Central America.
Rabin ultimately paid more than $25,000 to enter the United States via Guatemala. He only succeeded after a costly ordeal that took years.
In late 2005, Rabin left Nepal for Singapore on the instructions of a smuggler who promised to arrange travel documents so he could fly to Ecuador. But when the smuggler’s contacts were unable to arrange for his travel, Rabin stayed in Singapore longer than he had planned. Because Nepalis can only stay a month at a time in Singapore without getting a visa, Rabin spent seven months shuttling back and forth between there and Malaysia.
During that time, the smuggler’s Singaporean contacts asked Rabin for more and more money, each time assuring him it would be used to get him an Ecuadorean tourist visa. The visa never materialized. Tired and frustrated, he returned to Kathmandu.
A year and half later, the Nepali smuggler called Rabin and told him to try again. There wouldn’t be a problem this time, the smuggler assured him. So in 2007, Rabin flew to Singapore, then to Costa Rica and then traveled on to Mexico. With the help of coyotes, he crossed into Texas.
Even though Tashi is, by Nepali standards, middle class, he took the chance that he might find work in the United States at a restaurant or grocery store.
The average Nepali makes less than $650 a year in his country, and prospects for finding work are slim. The country is enduring prolonged turmoil following a 10-year violent conflict that ended in 2006.
In the United States, Tashi can earn $2,000/month working in a grocery store.
On April 18, 2010, Tashi took Qatar Airways from Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu to Doha, and from there, he flew on an Air Arabia plane to Madrid. There, he took another plane to Guatemala. The entire journey took 36 hours.
He landed at Guatemala’s La Aurora International Airport in Antigua. There, a customs agent stopped him and brought him to a small room. Tashi told the officer that he’d come to Guatemala to meet the smuggler, Moncho. The agent knew the drill — Tashi got the passport stamp he needed.
Moncho was a small man in his early 30s, about five feet, four inches tall and dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. He was already waiting outside the airport with a van to take Tashi to a hotel. That night, on Moncho’s advice, Tashi ate fried chicken and rice, and rested. He’d need the energy for his walk through the desert.
Four days after reaching Guatemala, Tashi and Moncho left for a small Mexican town on the border, a journey that took nearly 10 hours. For all of it, Tashi sat in the van’s trunk.
Moncho assured him neither police nor immigration officials would stop them. When they arrived in the small town, a large truck was waiting to take Tashi and six other hopeful immigrants to Mexico City.
Early the next morning, they set out again and ended the day in a small village where Tashi saw a number of other groups like his own, nearly 200 people, waiting to cross the border. That night, the migrants set out. They were told to be quiet and to walk in a straight line, except when they stopped to rest. In the morning, they rested in what looked like a campsite with tents.
As the sun rose on the third day, the migrants were near the border and closing in on Tucson. And then they ran into US Border Patrol.
Tashi hid in the bushes when he saw the helicopters in the sky. He watched silently as officers used ropes to lower themselves from the helicopters. Shortly afterward, they began arresting everyone.
After being detained in Tucson for a week, Tashi was taken to an immigration detention center in Florence, Arizona. There he spent 28 days and was interviewed by immigration officials through a Nepali translator about his background and motivation to come to the US. Moncho had coached him well for the interview. Later, he was allowed to call his uncle in New York.
Tashi’s tale was that he had to flee Nepal because Maoist insurgents had threatened to kill him.
When migrants arrive at the US border and make an asylum claim, they are either detained or released on parole pending a “credible fear” interview, said Tutko. If a migrant can convince the officers that there is “credible fear of persecution” in their homeland, they are allowed to file for asylum.
After posting $2,000 bond to the Customs and Border Protection, Tashi was allowed to apply for asylum with the help of a lawyer his uncle had hired. Then, he took the bus to New York.
Two years later, he commutes an hour from Woodside, Queens to a Chinatown restaurant six days a week. His job keeps him on his feet for 12 hours, serving food, helping cook, washing dishes or mopping floors. It’s a lifestyle that is in sharp contrast to his comfortable life in Nepal. Yet, he believes life in New York is better than home.
“I love Sundays because I can relax and Skype with my wife and see my daughter,” he said.
When he left Nepal in April 2010, his wife was three months pregnant. He hopes to bring her and their daughter here once his asylum application is approved. Right now, he is happy that he is able to help his wife and mother financially by sending them $800 every month.
Even if his asylum plea is rejected, Tashi says, “I will stay here.”
With support from the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.