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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Hunger, bandits, poisonous snakes: Indian deportees recount journey to Mexico

Early on Friday, Saini and the 310 others landed at New Delhi international airport in a Boeing 747 that took off from Toluca City international airport on Wednesday.

india Updated: Oct 19, 2019 07:32 IST
Adrija Roychowdhury
Adrija Roychowdhury
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
A majority of the deportees are aged between 18 and 35 and belong to Punjab and Haryana.
A majority of the deportees are aged between 18 and 35 and belong to Punjab and Haryana. (PTI image)
         

On October 16, when Ajay Saini was picked up by Mexican immigration authorities he was less than 200 metres from crossing over to his dream destination-- the United States of America.

The 22-year old from Kurukshetra, Haryana, left home on June 6, pinning his hopes on a local travel agent who promised him safe entry into the US through Mexico, in exchange for Rs 12 lakh.

“I just wanted a good life. Any work in the US would pay me more than what I make here,” said Saini, a farmer back home, who embarked on a journey which took him from Equador through Colombia, then Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala before he reached his penultimate destination, Mexico.

His journey was to end there. On Wednesday, Mexico decided to deport 311 illegal immigrants to India.

Early on Friday, Saini and the 310 others landed at New Delhi international airport in a Boeing 747 that took off from Toluca City international airport on Wednesday. The Indians, including one woman, were caught over a period of weeks in the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Baja California, Veracruz, Chiapas, Sonora, Mexico City, Durango and Tabasco. The move came after US President Donald Trump threatened tariffs in May on all Mexican imports if the country failed to check people entering America illegally through Mexico’s borders.

A majority of the deportees are aged between 18 and 35 and belong to Punjab and Haryana.

“My friend, who lives in California, is making huge money in his transport business. I also wanted such a life, so I took off,” said 35-year-old Bajinder Singh from Karnal, Haryana, who left home three months back ago, leaving behind his wife and mother. he has spoken to neither for the past two months.

Mandeep Singh, 19, a second year college student from Patiala, Punjab, said his father, who works for the Punjab Police, mortgaged their house and sold off a car to pay the visa agent’s fees. “So many graduates were travelling with us. I am willing to do any work in America,” he said.

The journeys were similar. They reached Equador on an “on arrival” visa arranged by a local agent (the South American country is one of few to grant a visa on arrival for Indians who can then spend up to 90 days in it), and from there travelled to Colombia, where they lived in camps. Their next stop was Panama to reach which they travelled across rivers and mountains for about 13 to 15 days on foot, battling hunger, bandits and poisonous snakes.

“We saw so many bodies in the Panama forests. Many died of hunger and many others due to snake bites,” said Manish Kumar, 22, a farmer from Karnal, Haryana.

Once out of Panama, they moved through other Central American countries before reaching Mexico. In each of these countries, the immigrants spent an average of 15 to 20 days in refugee camps before being given a country pass (a document which entitled them to leave the country).

“We were kept like animals in these camps. They did not even give us a blanket to cover ourselves. The food was inedible. For the last three months I have been wearing this same T-shirt and shorts,” said Saini.

Over the past few years, the route through Equador and other South American countries has been the preferred one for illegal immigrants from India. A 2018 report by the US Customs and Border Protection noted that in the preceding three years, the number of Indians arrested for illegally trying to enter the US had tripled to about 9,000 a year. Almost half of them had crossed over to the country from Mexicali, the capital city of the Mexican state of Baja California.

At the New Delhi international airport the deported migrants were angry with Mexico.

“Mexico has cheated us. Never before have they sent back any Indians,” said Mandeep Singh.

But their travails do not seem to have deterred them. As Singh struggled to find a way to get in touch with his family in Patiala, he said: “It is okay if I could not enter America this time. I shall go again a few months and I am sure I will be successful.”