Shubham Singh is lean, 5-foot-5 and just 22 years old. Once a civil engineering student at a technology institute in India, now Singh works in the kitchen at Masala, an Indian restaurant here in Iowa City. He is waiting for his request for political asylum to be processed by U.S. immigration.
We drink tea on his afternoon break, and he tells me the fantastic story of how he and Ankit Ankit, 19, his friend and co-worker, came to be here. Singh is pleasant and well-spoken, but just learning English, so he speaks Punjabi. In translation, here is the story of their 10-month ordeal to reach Iowa City.
I came to America to escape what is happening in India. I do not support the ruling party’s policies, as the government of India has moved away from democracy. The Modi government claims we no longer have the right to protest. When Ankit and I protested the actions of some powerful people that were harming the poor, we became targets. We were harassed constantly. When they threatened to kill us, we decided to leave India and come to the United States where we would be safe.
First, we tried to get visas in India, but our applications were rejected. Then I learned we needed to apply for political asylum. We met with agents who explained that we needed to apply at the U.S. border with Mexico. This seemed very dangerous, but there was no other option — it was too dangerous to stay in India. I am from Haryana, and the agents wanted almost $25,000 U.S. I have heard people from other places in India have paid less. For what we paid, they said we would be taken all the way to the U.S. border, and from there, they would tell us what to do.
We borrowed a lot of money for their help. Now that we are working, we send payments back every month.
Ecuador and Columbia
The agents arranged for us to fly to Ecuador because a visa is not required to enter there. Our agent in India had a network of partner agents everywhere along our journey. Some of these agents took care of us in Ecuador. We didn’t know their names. They had our pictures and took us on a small bus.
For the next four months, until we got to Mexico, we hid in the daytime and travelled at night, when the police were not as active. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we took a bus and sometimes we went by car. When we went by car, there was another car in front and behind us to watch for police. We stayed in homes or hotels, depending on where we were, and travelled at night. From the start, we were afraid. We didn’t speak Spanish, we didn’t know the people we were depending on and we were avoiding authorities.
When we finally got to Medellin in Colombia from Ecuador, the agents left us near a United Nations camp. At the camp, we were given a “country-out pass.” This is a legal document that gives you a status in the country but requires you to leave the country within 20 days. They didn’t know we were headed for America, and I don’t think they cared about that. Their only concern was that we leave Colombia within 20 days. If you don’t leave in that time, you can be jailed for three months. The police don’t detain people who have a valid country-out pass, and it helps later with getting a boat from Colombia to Panama.
The agents took us from Medellin to Turbo, a small city on the northern coast of Colombia. Many boats sail from here to Panama. Migrants with the country-out pass travel on government-sanctioned boats which have bodyguards onboard. Some of these boats are not safe. If you pay more to the agents, you get a safer boat. It takes about three to four hours to reach Panama on these boats.
Medellin does not provide a country-out pass to non-adult travelers. For this reason, underage migrants take private boats, which are illegal and more dangerous. These boats typically carry more people than is permitted, and they are not in the best condition. They can take more than 10 hours to cross to Panama. I know someone who was stuck at sea for four days because their private boat broke down. They were lucky — a ship spotted them, gave them food and water and fixed the boat.
Panama and Costa Rica
When we disembarked in Panama, our agent found us and took us to his settlement. We would cross the jungle at night to avoid gangs that prey on migrants, he said. He also took our passports because he told us it was too dangerous to travel with these through the jungle. He said he would send them ahead to the agent in Mexico, where we might or might not get them back. (We didn’t.) We walked for four hours in the dark until we reached a mountainous place. He told us to sleep there, and he would be back in the morning, but the next day he never came back. We finally continued by ourselves, through the jungle at night. We followed the trash left behind by people who’d gone before us.
There are three mountains to cross in the Panama jungle. How long it takes to cross them depends upon your stamina. If you are strong enough to carry your food and walk, then you will be fine. Otherwise you walk without food and water, and you have to risk getting supplies from villages along the way.
Gangs from small villages near the jungle have guns and steal people’s belongings. We were told that it was safest to just give them what they ask for — people who resist have been killed. Of our group of 27, seven continued across these mountains, and 20 stayed to travel more slowly. We learned later that a gang came upon the 20 people we left behind and stole their money, their clothes, even their food and water.
Our group of seven included a small family with an 8-year-old child. It took us four days to cross on foot. We came to a river that leads out of the jungle. We followed it for two days. We walked along the banks, but the river wound back and forth a lot, so we were constantly crossing back and forth across the river. It helps to know how to swim. When I was there, it had rained, and the water was high and moving fast. I saw the dead bodies of two women and three men floating in the water.
After crossing the jungle, we were still in Panama when we saw another UN camp. It had security officers to protect migrants from gangs, and it was the first time we felt safe. We no longer had passports, but the camp workers gave us food and water. They also interrogated us and registered us as immigrants without passports.
About 150 people of many nationalities arrive at a UN camp every day, and that many people move on. In Panama, the UN security forces loaded us onto buses and took us to camps in different states of Panama. After a 10-hour bus ride, we arrived at a new camp and completed our immigration formalities. Eventually, they loaded us onto four buses and took us to Costa Rica, where we were registered at another UN camp and were given another country-out pass good for 20 days. In Costa Rica, we met with our agents and travelled by bus to Nicaragua.
Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala
Nicaragua is mostly jungle.
We were left near a UN camp where we followed the same process we’d followed in Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. To move on from the camp, we connected with our original agent in India, but we decided to make our own arrangements instead.
In Nicaragua, the more you pay, the better your agent. A good agent can get you through the jungle in 30 minutes. An ineffective agent might lead you on a route that takes up to eight hours, and the Nicaraguan jungle is even more dangerous than the jungle in Panama. In the Nicaraguan jungle, you will definitely be attacked by gangs and the only safe approach is limiting how long you are there. For this reason, we paid an extra $150 each for a good agent to help us get to Honduras.
They dropped us near the border, we crossed the jungle quickly and new agents met us on the Honduran side with a bus.
In Honduras, we were kept in a room until we travelled by bus to Guatemala at night. When we got to Guatemala City, the agent who was supposed to meet us at the bus depot never came. We learned via WhatsApp that he had been arrested. While we waited a few days for someone else to come, we pretended to be beggars at the bus station. Since we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t dare talk to anyone, so we didn’t eat during that time.
From Guatemala, we crossed a small river to enter Mexico at Tapachula. Here, there is another UN camp. In Mexico, every city has a UN camp. They all follow the same process as in every country we’d entered. We received a country-out pass that required us to leave Mexico in 20 days, and again we were told that if we stayed longer, we could be jailed for three months.
Because of changes to U.S. immigration policy, people were waiting for up to three months in Mexico to file for asylum, but their status in Mexico is illegal after 20 days. In our case, we left Tapachula and travelled north, sometimes by bus and through the jungle by foot. We saw very little of the places we travelled because we only moved at night.
Mexico was the first country we really saw after Ecuador. For the first 20 days, we could move around some. Unfortunately, it took 45 days to reach Mexicali at the U.S.-Mexico border. Because our status became illegal before we could reach the border, we were detained several times for as long as three days without food and water. But each time, we were released, and we continued north.
Five months after we’d left India, we reached America’s southern border. To enter the United States, we needed to cross over a wall that is 40 feet tall. We used a pipe attached to the wall as support to climb, and as we crossed over, the agents in Mexico filmed us. This was their proof for the agents in India that we had reached our destination. They showed this to our families in India and received our final payment.
The United States of America
Once we were on American soil, U.S. border forces picked us up and took us to a post where we stayed the night. They interrogated us there, and sent us by bus to the Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado. This facility has more than a thousand people. We stayed in a hall with 60 people; about a third of them were from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, etc.). The others were from all over the world.
At this facility, they took our statements. Those people who were able to prove they were not safe in their home countries could stay. Those who could not prove this were sent back. We were kept here for five months and seven days, and then they approved our cases. After that, we filed for political asylum and each of us provided a $4,000 bond.
A friend from India was working here at Masala, and he asked the owner, Sam Singh, if he would give Ankit and me jobs. He said he was happy to help, and he arranged our travel and helped us to get set up in an apartment. Now, we are waiting for our asylum cases to be processed.
We are very happy here. The people in Iowa City make us feel very welcome, and it is so good to feel safe. After many months eating bread and soda, and then the food at the facility, we are also happy to cook (and eat) Indian food. Our only concern is that we cannot afford health insurance. I had some back problems, and a friend told me about the free medical clinic. I’m better now; I will go there if I need care.
Eventually, I will learn English so I can study engineering here in the United States, but first I need to work and pay off the loans I took out to get here. It was a long and terrifying trip, but now that I am here drinking tea with you, it was worth it.
Ikram Basra is enrolled in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa. He is a former television news producer and reporter in Pakistan. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 280.