Soon after Manpreet Singh landed at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he overheard the three other men who had boarded with him from New Delhi making plans for their onward journey. Singh, 21, realised that something was amiss. “What? US? Aren’t we going to Canada?” he asked them.
Singh says that’s when he realised he had been duped by the Jalandhar-based agent, to whom he had paid Rs 15.50 lakh for a Canada visa. He was now part of a group making a circuitous and dangerous journey into the US as an illegal immigrant. “I panicked and called my parents. What could they have done? They told me to simply stay with the others and stay safe,” says Singh, whose parents had sold half of the family’s two-acre land to pay the agent’s fee. He only had a bag of clothes, a phone, Rs 7,000 and the $300 that the agent had given each one of them to cover their travel expenses.
Four months later, on October 18, Singh was among 311 Indians, including a woman, who were deported by Mexican authorities for illegally entering the country in order to sneak into the US. Sitting in his two-room house in Sidhwan Dona village, in Punjab’s Kapurthala district, Singh recalls the four-month-long nightmare.
“From Addis Ababa, we took a 12-hour flight to Sao Paulo (Brazil). We spent the night at the airport and on June 17, we took a five-hour flight to Lima (Peru). After a three-hour wait, we took a flight to Quito (Ecuador), where we reached six hours later,” he says.
The group met the first set of “donkers” (traffickers) in Quito. “They took us to a hotel after charging $20 from each of us. The next morning, a woman accompanied us in a taxi to Cali (Colombia), and from there, we were taken to Medellin (Colombia),” he recalls. Here, he says, the woman spoke to the immigration agents, who took $50 from each of them. During the three-day bus journey that followed, they were given rice and rajma once a day.
In Turbo, Colombia, Singh says, another donker took them to a hotel room “with tattered mattresses” and “with no water in the bathroom”. Twelve days later, another local donker took over, and the group was put on a ship to Capurgana, Colombia.
They then proceeded to the Panama jungles. “The donkers gave us biscuits, roasted rice and some water, enough to last about three days. They walked with us for about three hours in the jungle, after which we were on our own. They said we would be out of the jungle in three days but it took us eight days,” he says, of the hellish trek.
They reached mainland Panama, hungry and penniless, and, he says, were directed by the police to the donkers’ camps, where each of them was given $25 and medical attention. The next leg of the journey, which began on August 10, included a bus ride to Costa Rica and a trek through the forests of Nicaragua and Honduras, until they reached Guatemala. There, the group was sent to a house, with another agent taking charge.
Soon, they realised that the agent intended to hold them hostage since he hadn’t recovered his dues for smuggling a previous group of people into the US. “We spent 45 days there. The agent gave us one meal a day — again, rice and beans. He had fenced the rooftop with live electrical wires to ensure no one escaped,” he says, showing a video in which the agent can be seen brandishing a gun.
“After the previous agent paid the man Rs 35 lakh, he took us to Tapachulla in Mexico, where we were kept in a locked room for 22 days. It was a camp with nearly 300 young men from various countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and African countries,” he says. They were then taken to another camp in Veracruz, where they stayed for five days along with 500 other men and a few women, including two from Punjab.
This was a Mexican deportation camp. Singh realised it was the end of their American dream. “People from the Indian Embassy came and got us to sign on the deportation papers,” he says. Most of the Indians were soon put on a plane to New Delhi. He says, “A lot of us were crying…we did not want to come home after all these struggles. How could we have faced our families or our relatives?”
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The long road back’