Was Jagdish Patel, the Gujarat man who froze to death with his wife and two kids on the US-Canada border, merely chasing an American dream or did he leave India in a desperate, jobless and frustrated state? The incident is taking on political colours in India. While Minister of State for Home Harsh Sanghavi refuted his party colleague and former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel’s claims that there are no jobs left in India, the local elected representative of Jagdish Patel’s village claimed that scores of people like him are left with no option but to explore overseas opportunities for survival.
In a major revelation, the elected MLA of Kalol Taluka in North Gujarat Baldev Thakor claimed to Vibes of India that on average 500 people from his constituency leave India annually. “This is not a craze. It is out of desperation,” he says.
“To struggle and live. All said and done, those who do not get visas and official entry take life-threatening risks. This is because living in their small villages on a paltry sum of money is a bigger risk”.
The Congressman represents Kalol in Gujarat Vidhansabha. The Patel family froze to death in Emerson on the Canada-America border. They were from his constituency. “It is a very sad incident but this is an incident that has come to light. Look at the figures in American prisons.” He elaborates that when a person decides to get illegally smuggled to Canada or America, they are mentally prepared for all consequences. “I have seen young men leaving behind their wives and children openly saying that American jails are five-star hotels compared to the lives they are living here. I will stay in the jail for six months and then again find a way out, they often say”.
Jagdish, his wife Vaishali and two children Vihangi (12) and Dharmik (3) were part of a large group of Gujaratis from Dingucha village being smuggled into the US from Canada. They are believed to have got separated from the group and froze to death. “They had no option. Money is very scarce. In India, these days, there are no government or private jobs. So-called middle-class people have become poor in my region. They have no option but to leave India. There is no point in migrating anywhere in India. Unemployment and inflation are on a rise.”
“You may say that the Patel family was chasing an American dream. But I will say they were helpless and desperate to live. Canada and America maybe were their last beacon of hope”, Baldevbhai told VoI. The Canadian government is yet to ascertain the identity of the family who froze to death but the villagers recognise them and recount tales.
The Patels are believed to have collectively shelled out $250,000 for this American nightmare. If they were so poor, how could they afford so much money for the agents?
Vibes of India (Vo!) visited Dingucha and nearby villages to dig out a massive scandal of human smuggling born out of a need to have a better quality of life and medical care. The details are gruelling.
A multi-layered system
There are five agents involved in the entire operation. The first two agents are invariably from the same district. They get a pittance for “recommending” the case. According to someone who knows these local agents, they do not get more than $3000 ( a little more than Rs 2.5 lakh ) for this job. The second agent confirms this recommendation and gets the same amount. That the person is not a decoy but desperate to go abroad is confirmed at this level.
Then comes the interviewer. This agent asks the person all sorts of questions ranging from his family background, the total number of people he knows abroad and most importantly his sponsors. His sponsors are often people who do not come out publicly. They may be from his village, district or country. They may have motels or convenience stores or say a chain of international franchises. He takes his charge and introduces them to agent number four who is the most crucial link in India,
Agent number four charges a bomb to make fake documents. He is in direct touch with the American agent. This Indian agent also tutors the eager illegal immigrant about his rights if he is caught being smuggled. Interestingly, films about crossing borders and the difficulties are shown on phones before the final money transaction is done. Unlike Punjab and Haryana, Gujarat agents do not prefer the sea route. They would fly their passengers with a valid Canadian visa directly to Toronto. If the passenger does not have a Canadian visa, he is flown to Maldives and Mexico. The charges for this sort of arrangement are tripled.
It is only when the passenger reaches the destination that he meets his non-Indian agent who comes across as some sort of officer and gives strict dos and don’ts for the remaining trip. Clothes are purchased from flea markets and the journey to smuggle the passenger always begins three days after a stay in Canada to ensure there is no jet lag.
Irresponsible and inhumane
The entire Patel belt from Kalol to Dingucha are against the “inhuman” practices undertaken during human trafficking. How can a three-year-old walk for kilometres? Had he informed the group that the temperature there was minus 35 degrees? Why did Steve Shand not ensure that the group remains together as an 11-member team? As a leader, he should have ensured passage and entry for all and should not have left behind the Patel family. These are some of the questions being thrown about.
Life in America
If Jagdish Patel and his family had reached America, life would not have been a bed of roses. He would be at the mercy of his “sponsors”. If he is lucky to have even a distant relative, he would adjust quickly and the extended family would go all out and accord good Indian hospitality to these illegal immigrant relatives of theirs. But if they are not lucky, the sponsors would take over.
If the minimum wage in the State they live in is $14 an hour, they would pay $7 to this person who is illegal. However, for an Indian where the poverty rate is defined by a daily income of one dollar; seven dollars an hour is also huge money. Food and accommodation are free for the first six months so he saves. He would do three shifts a day too to make more money. It is from this money he conveniently saves, that he clears the debt and the agent fees.
Who opts to be illegal immigrants?
They are usually people above 30 who do not earn well in India and don’t see a good future for themselves and their families. They have met and seen several people like them who have come back to India after a decade and a half and talking about the quality of life and the bright future their children have. Jagdish Patel was a teacher once. But those uneducated America-returned people that he must have met several times had a better quality of life and money than him.
Dingucha is not an isolated NRI village. Baldevbhai tells us that in Kalol taluka alone, there are at least 59 villages. Population in these villages is not more than 6,000 but each village would at least have two to four people out of home with two being in Canada, London or America. The first choice is always America.
Punjabis amongst Indians are number one when it comes to chasing a foreign dream. Ranjit Kaur of Amritsar says several families teach their sons to swim and live in difficult situations. “If you take the sea route, you have lots to swim before you reach Mexico”, he says. Gujaratis are taught to work multiple shifts and save money on food and accommodation.
What are other methods of landing in America illegally?
The most preferred one is human smuggling through the agents.
Then there is the riskier and more expensive one called Duplicate. In this, agents “buy” passports of deceased people with American visas. They groom the applicant and send the person on that fake passport.
However, the riskiest process is kabutarbaazi, a more polished one than duplicate. Here you accompany a valid visa holder and pose as their mother, wife, father, whatever.
In 2007, a member of parliament from Gujarat, Babubhai Katara was found indulging in this scam. He was caught at Delhi airport when an alert non-corrupt officer found that despite much make-up, the picture of the MP (Senator)’s wife on her diplomatic passport looked different from the woman accompanying him. So did the MP’s 15-year-old son. Investigations later found that the mother and son were Punjabis and were all set to sneak into Toronto misusing diplomatic immunity and status.
In short, Punjabis and Gujaratis would risk everything to chase a “phoren” dream. The BJP promptly suspended the MP.
An obscure land
Dingucha village is absolutely nondescript. On the way to the village, we stopped for a cup of tea. The person there says he has no tea and points to a board that reads “only fry and Chinese”. It is A-one quality he adds, but we pack up. Directions to Dingucha are easy and as Baldevbhai has told us, it is not just Dingucha. Village after Village, small pockets, Dhanot,
Dhanot, Borisana, Adhana, Bhadod, Dhamasana and countless others boast of American connections. We see Costco bags filled with Indian homemade snacks and most people we spoke to had heard of the Patel family freezing to death in Emerson but nobody would want to go on record. “It is not our system”, an old man told us. The driver speculated that most villages would have illegal immigrants and it is their reality. Dinguha’s population according to government figures is 3,834. We spoke to about a dozen people who had friends and relatives in America.
Who was Jagdish Patel?
Jagdish was a teacher and did seasonal business. Vibes of India is yet not clear whether he was sacked or quit on his own. Most people we spoke to were not aware that he did not have an American visa. Some others claimed he was going to settle in Canada only. Everyone said Jagdish was ready to work three shifts in motels and convenience stores.
“We will struggle but we will send our children to good colleges”, a person at a tea kiosk outside the village claimed Jagdish told him. Jagdish joked that he will come back to the village after a decade and a half with Dharmik and his American bride. Dharmik, his son, was found a little away from the family. Frozen to death. In minus 35 degrees Celsius. He was only three. Back home in India, the temperature that day was 22 degrees Celsius.