Illegal Emigres Defy The Image—Fastest Growing Source? It’s India.

Illegal emigres defy the image

By Mike Swift
San Jose Mercury News
Article Launched: 02/18/2008 01:30:47 AM PST

The Bay Area has a piece of the nation's fastest growing group of illegal immigrants. But don't assume you know who they are.

Turning stereotypes on their head, a recent federal analysis of unauthorized immigration says the most rapidly growing source of illegal immigration is India – the same country whose engineers and programmers help power Google and other Silicon Valley companies, whose doctors heal the Bay Area's sick, and whose entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have become a force on both sides of the international date line.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that there are 270,000 unauthorized Indian natives in the United States – a 125 percent jump since 2000, the largest percentage increase of any nation with more than 100,000 illegal immigrants in the United States.

The number of undocumented Indians is dwarfed by the estimated 6.6 million illegal residents from Mexico, according to the estimates from homeland security's Office of Immigration Statistics. Yet, considering the high level of education of many Indians, immigration experts say the federal report hints at a new phenomenon: a high-skilled undocumented workforce to go along with the nation's sizable numbers of low-skilled illegal workers.

If trends continue, within three years India would trail only Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala as a source of illegal immigration. Another national immigration expert, Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center, estimates that the number of illegal Indians is even higher, at 400,000 people.

Virtually all entered the United States legally but violated the terms of their visas, say experts who study the nation's much maligned immigration system.

“How do you get in? You come across the border, or you arrive here with a visa,” said Lindsay Lowell, policy director for the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University. “Indians aren't going to be walking across the border like Mexicans.”

Indians are among the most affluent ethnic groups in the United States, with a median household income that is 62 percent higher than the figure for all U.S. households.

Santa Clara County has the largest Indian-born population, and Alameda County ranks fifth, among the nation's 3,141 counties, according to 2006 census data. But there is no way to know what share of Bay Area Indian immigrants are illegal.

The Census Bureau does not ask people about their immigration status, and the Office of Immigration Statistics report did not provide state or local estimates. Of the 2.5 million people of Indian ancestry living in the United States, about 1 million are not U.S. citizens.

Federal officials calculated the number of illegal immigrants by using census estimates of the total number of immigrants from individual countries, compiling the total number of legal immigrants using federal immigration and naturalization records, and then subtracting the number of legal residents from the total immigrant population to determine the number of undocumented people.

It is certainly a minority of the local Indian community, however, and probably a very small one. Half the people of Indian ancestry living in Santa Clara County are already U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization, according to census data. Thousands of others are legal permanent residents, or they are here legally on student, tourist or work visas.

Asked about the number of illegal Indians in Silicon Valley, Banjit Singh, an Indian-born taxi driver waiting for a fare at Mineta San Jose International Airport, said, “Here, there is a little bit. But you go to another city or state, like L.A. or New York, there are many illegal people.” Drivers need to show proof of citizenship or legal immigration status to get a taxi certificate.

But that doesn't mean the local number is insignificant. Local immigration lawyers say that particularly among Indians, the ups and downs of Silicon Valley's economy since 2001 are one reason why Indians have fallen out of legal status.

“Most are bachelors; the way they get here is they have a job,” Gabriel Jack, a San Jose immigration lawyer, said of many of his Indian clients.

“They come here as professionals, most often in the H-1B program, and given the fluctuations of Silicon Valley, the business climate, these guys lose their jobs. They get laid off or they wager their hands on a start-up coming in,” Jack said. “The problem with the H-1B program is, you can't have any significant time between jobs” without falling out of legal status.

Indians made up 44 percent of H-1B applicants in the 2005-06 fiscal year, five times the number from second-place China, according to federal data.

Because an immigrant's status can be dependent on the status of a spouse, the break-up of a marriage can also create an illegal immigrant.

Among Indians in the United States, “there has been a rapid increase in the divorce rate. If they are on an H-1, maybe the wife is protected and maybe she isn't,” said Navneet Chugh, an immigration lawyer whose firm is based in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles. “The guy is an engineer at HP or Cisco, and he goes home on vacation, and his parents say, 'We have a girl for you.' And they get married, and they come here and have all kinds of problems.”

Another source is relatives from India who arrive for a visit on a tourist visa and never go home.

“America is a very attractive country; everybody who comes here wants to stay,” said Shah Peerally, a Silicon Valley immigration lawyer. “I can tell you right now, there are nearly 1 billion people in India, of which maybe 800 million want to come here.”

The United States has deported slightly less than 500 Indians a year in recent years. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “we have substantially expanded our effort to find visa violators,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The government, she said, pursues cases based on public safety, rather than focusing on a specific country of origin.

Silicon Valley companies such as Google say they need to recruit the world's best talent to compete – and about one in 12 of Google's U.S. employees, roughly 900 people, are H-1B visa holders. “We have not seen major problems with prospective candidates being out of status,” said Adam Kovacevich, a Google spokesman.

But immigration lawyers like Jack say there is such a backlog of people waiting for green cards – the wait is up to seven years for skilled workers from India as of this month – that an immigrant can still be waiting in line when even a six-year H-1B visa expires.

That can result in an illegal, highly educated, Indian immigrant, they said.

Unless Congress reforms the immigration system, “we are going to see this high-skilled, illegal workforce emerging,” said Frank D. Bean, director of the Immigration Research Center at the University of California-Irvine. “From a narrow economic point of view, it might work. From a social justice, fairness point of view, it's a time bomb.”

Contact Mike Swift at or (408) 271-3648.