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Indian govt must brace itself

Indians living illegally in the US stare at an uncertain future, writes Debdeep Chakraborty.

Indian govt must brace itself
With the Donald Trump administration determined to crackdown on illegal immigrants through strict enforcement of the country's immigration laws, thereby paving the way for mass deportations, a large number of undocumented Indians living in the US may have to head back home in the coming months unwillingly, if not sooner.

President Trump's stance on illegal immigrants living in the US is well known. During the Presidential campaign, he had vowed to clamp down hard on them if voted to power for the sake of national security and to protect American jobs. After taking the office of President on January 20 this year, President Trump has made sure to keep that promise. Already, some tough measures, as part of an overall immigration reforms package, have been enacted by the administration enabling immigration officials to swoop down upon those who do not possess valid papers to live in the US.

There is no doubt that the 11 million or so illegal immigrants in the US are living in an extreme climate of fear and uncertainty, not having any idea when and how immigration officials would pick them up and deport them to their home country. As of now, the measures enacted by the US government to deal with illegal immigrants lack clarity, particularly concerning who can escape deportation and who can't. Whether these illegal immigrants deserve to be treated with sympathy and understanding by the US administration, is altogether a different issue. It can't be denied that these people have violated US laws by unlawfully crossing the country's borders and/or staying beyond the permitted period. Nevertheless, some recent reports suggest that President Trump could grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have not committed any serious crime. Again, there are no clear indications as to whether such a proposal, which will dilute President Trump's hardline stance on illegal immigration, is actually under serious consideration.

Irrespective of whether some of the illegal immigrants manage to secure legal status over time or not, the picture that emerges is that life won't be easy for illegal immigrants in the US henceforth, and that includes illegal Indian immigrants, compelling a large number of them to return to their home country.

The South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a Maryland-based South Asian advocacy organisation, estimates that there are 450,000 illegal immigrants from India in the US. Since 1990, illegal immigrants from India to the US surged manifold. India now ranks fourth, after Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, among countries from where illegal immigrants arrive in the US. In fact, it is already considered the fastest growing source of new illegal immigrants to the US.

According to the Pew Research Center, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan fact tank focused on American issues, Mexicans remain the majority of the unauthorised immigrant population in the US, but, at the same time, their total number has been shrinking. It decreased to 5.8 million in 2014 from the peak of 6.9 million in 2007, largely due to the decrease in new arrivals as a result of tougher enforcement at the country's south-west border. What also needs to be taken into account in this regard is that Mexicans were deported from the US 242,456 times in 2015.

As opposed to the declining number of unauthorised immigrants from Mexico, the number of India-born unauthorised immigrants in the US has been growing steadily. It went up by 130,000 between 2009 and 2014 to 500,000, Pew Research estimates.

The crackdown on unauthorised immigrants in the US is expected to further intensify in the coming days and months. A recent Los Angeles Times report said up to 8 million illegal immigrants in the US faced the risk of deportation and that a 75 per cent boost in deportations was expected in the first full year of the new administration.

It is definite that President Trump's decision to strictly enforce the country's immigration laws will hit every illegal immigrant, irrespective of his or her nationality. While a few might ultimately succeed in escaping the noose of deportation, others will just have to accept the inevitable.

For the India-born illegal immigrant in the US who will need to make the journey back home because of the crackdown, life is not going to be easy thereafter. In Mexico, the government has set aside $50 million to help its citizens legally fight deportations from the US. Also, a system is already in place to help them reintegrate in their home country and provide assistance for various tasks such as job search, getting official IDs and school enrollment. Those returning from the US to India under similar circumstances, however, will not have access to any such government support, meaning that they are going to be on their own and will have to themselves deal with the bureaucratic hurdles and corruption, all of which infest the Indian administrative machinery, particularly at the district level and below in most states.

In the coming months, India is likely to witness the return of a vast number of its citizens from the US, mostly those without valid US residency documents but also a few who may decide to voluntarily return home despite having valid papers to live in the US because of the uncertainty that surrounds the H-1B visa programme. The Indian government should brace itself for such movement and seriously consider initiating programmes that are focused on helping these returnees integrate with their new environment and also to ensure that they experience minimum social and cultural resistance. It is entirely possible otherwise that many among the deportees, unable to accept and face the hardships here, and in desperation, may again attempt to illegally enter the US, or possibly some other western country, taking the help of numerous unscrupulous visa agents active across the country.

(The views are strictly personal.)
Debdeep Chakraborty

Debdeep Chakraborty

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