How people from north Gujarat risk everything for the American Dream
Dingucha in north Gujarat, where most households have only senior citizens. Photos: Damayantee Dhar

How people from north Gujarat risk everything for the American Dream

As search for a better life continues to fuel their quest to cross into US border illegally, a look at the perilous journeys they make, and the price they pay

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The streets lie empty as one walks through Dingucha, a small village in Gandhinagar district of north Gujarat. Local shops are sparse in this area, where usually an old man can be found behind the counter. Dingucha’s registered population is approximately 3,000 people. However, it is estimated that roughly half of its population has migrated to the US in pursuit of economic opportunities.

The village hit the headlines last year when a local family froze to death while attempting to cross the Canadian border to enter the US illegally. The eventuality of death while illegally crossing into the US is a risk that has always been there. But affluence and the American dream are connected in this village, and for the sake of economic prosperity, it’s a risk that the residents of Dingucha are willing to bear.

The network of agents

The illegal immigration from Dingucha to the US has been happening since the 1960s. ‘Kabootarbazi’ — as it’s called in local parlance — is well-known in every household in Dingucha and the neighbouring villages that are primarily dominated by Patels. From every household in Dingucha, an average of four-five members are in the US currently. Only the old and the ‘unlucky’ are left behind.

“Apart from the money, you also require luck to successfully immigrate to the US,” says Babubhai Patel, a 53-year-old resident, who has tried to migrate to the US several times but couldn’t. His first attempt was in 1998: he was part of a group comprising ten people — all from Patel community and residents of various villages of north Gujarat. After leaving Dingucha with high hopes, he was first placed in a hotel in Delhi. Along with the group, he went through a three-day training session on how to pass airport security without raising suspicion.

An advertisement of one of the companies facilitating illegal migration brazenly painted on a wall in the village.

Babubhai was given a ticket to Canada and the passport of a citizen of the village that he claims was original. They were divided into three groups while being dropped at the airport. “The other two groups successfully passed all the checkpoints but when our turn came, I got scared as the police personnel at the counter were matching the face of the person ahead of me with his passport photo. I got out of the line and came out of the airport. I never got back my money,” says Patel, who was assured by an agent of Kalol that there wouldn’t be any problem with carrying another man’s passport.

Kalol taluka in Gandhinagar is the hub of illegal immigration agents or ‘kabootarbaz’. A villager in north Gujarat is always contacted first by a ‘micro agent’ or local agent, who is usually a village resident and knows the family closely. A local agent’s job is to get new clients for their company. The local agent then takes the ‘passengers’ or the person trying to immigrate to a sub-agent, where the money required is discussed in detail. A certain amount is to be paid in advance to the sub-agent if the meeting is satisfactory. The passengers are then required to appoint a ‘financier,’ who could be a relative, family member or a friend, who would pay the remaining amount when the passenger crosses into the US.

“It costs Rs 40-50 lakh if it is one person. If you want to travel with your wife and children, the charge is usually between Rs 1.3 crore to Rs 2 crore,” says a local agent of Kalol on condition of anonymity. “After the advance money is paid and the sub-agent is sure that the passenger will not backtrack, the main agent of the company comes into the picture. The main agent is someone who is placed in either Delhi or Mumbai and who arranges the training session for a group of passengers before they start their journey. He is also the one responsible for all the paperwork — from applying for passports and visas to arranging PAN cards, marriage and education certificates, whether forged or original. Passengers are provided with visitor visas to Canada, Mexico or even Turkey. If a group is travelling via Canada or Mexico, they are required to cross into the US within 48 hours of their arrival in these countries,” he adds.

“The agents have a person to guide the group across the border,” says 76-year- old Bharat Patel, whose sons and their families immigrated years ago. The travel via Mexico or Canada is faster and hence costlier. After reaching Mexico and Canada, the group has to pass another check, which is the last one. The passengers are required to pay anything between Rs 75,000 to Rs 2 lakh at the airport. The amount is called ‘pulling money’ within the network of agents.

When a group has successfully crossed the border, the money is paid to the main agent, following which, like a well-oiled network, each agent in the process is informed of the success and paid their cut. The local agent gets anything between Rs 3-4 lakh for each passenger he can rope in.

The cost of the American dream

In April this year, three members of a family drowned when a boat carrying residents of Mehsana capsized in the Saint Lawrence River at Quebec-New York border. In March 2022, 35-year-old Jagdish Patel and Vaishali, his 33-year-old wife, froze to death at the US-Canada border with their two children aged 12 and three while attempting to enter the US.

The house (left) of Jagdish Patel, who froze to death at the US-Canada border with his family; Bharat Rabari, who has been missing since August 2023

The home of Jagdish and Vaishali Patel in Dingucha village wears a deserted look where once a family of five used to live. Madhuben, Jagdish’s mother who used to live with their son, has shifted out of the village after the family’s death. The body of the family couldn’t be brought back to the village as Madhuben was not left with enough money.

Following the death of the family, a case was filed in the Crime Branch of police, Ahmedabad, against four agents who had taken money from a group of 11 people, all from north Gujarat, to immigrate to the US. “The Patel family was part of the group. The group was taken to Toronto and then to Vancouver in Canada where the agents had asked them to walk in the snow to cross into the US border. Eight members of the group were held by the US authorities after they managed to cross the border. The Patel family froze to death due to extreme cold just 12 meters from the border,” said Chaitanya Madlik, the deputy superintendent of police, Ahmedabad Crime Branch.

“The crossing agents — who were to get Rs 60 lakh each — of the group abandoned them at Winnipeg in Manitoba. These are deputy agents of the primary agent who sits in Delhi. Two agents from Kalol involved in the process have been arrested while two others are yet to be held,” he added.

This is not an unusual incident for the people of north Gujarat, where immigrating to the US is a household dream. Many a time, those who have left the village, are unable to come back to the family they have left behind. If the residents are caught, they are detained for days. In some cases, a lawyer is arranged by the agents to help them seek asylum while most aren’t that lucky.

Chetna Rabari, a local from Prantij in Sabarkantha district, still awaits any news of her husband Bharat Rabari, who had disappeared, along with seven others, after crossing into the US in August this year. While three of the group were traced to a prison in Dominican Republic, the whereabouts of the rest, including Bharat, remains a mystery.

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