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The Patels are believed to have been victims of a major human smuggling operation spanning India, Canada and the U.S.

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The Patel family of Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, 39, Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel, 37, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, 11, and Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, 3.RCMP/The Canadian Press

The mystery set in on Jan. 7 when 11-year-old Vihangi Patel, a straight-A student, missed an assignment. At first, her teachers at Joyful International Learning Academy, a school in Kalol, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, weren’t concerned. Classes had moved online the week prior while India dealt with a surge of Omicron cases, and the Patels had recently relocated to their native Dingucha, a village 12 kilometres from the town. However, when Vihangi missed another two days of schoolwork, her class teacher, Sonal Kumpavat, phoned home.

“Please don’t worry,” Vihangi’s mother Vaishali Patel said to Ms. Kumpavat, citing poor connectivity in Dingucha as the reason her daughter was behind on work. “The moment we’re back, [Vihangi] will submit all her homework.”

The school had no reason to worry: both Vaishali and her husband Jagdish stopped by the school to meet the principal on New Year’s Eve. They paid their daughter’s fees and beamed as the principal told them about Vihangi’s achievements during the term.

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Top, Joyful International Learning Academy, Kalol where 11-year-old Vihangi Patel attended school. Below, Ms. Falguni Suthar, principal of the school, holds up a photo of Vihangi Patel's science project.Akanksha Singh/The Globe and Mail

To neighbours too, nothing seemed amiss. The family, who settled in Kalol, a city with a population of over 134,000, so their daughter could go to the best-possible school they could afford, was presumed to be on vacation, visiting Jagdish’s parents in Dingucha. Their home was still furnished, Jagdish’s motorcycle still parked inside, and their bungalow, in a middle-class gated community, was renovated just two months earlier.

But days later, gossip trickled into the neighbourhood – the Patels had left Dingucha for Canada without telling anyone. By Jan. 19, no one was able to get in touch with them. The same day, Canadian authorities reported finding a family of four frozen to death near Emerson, Man. Could it have been the Patels? It didn’t make sense – Vaishali was the mother who made her children come indoors the moment there was the slightest chill in the air. How could she and the children have ventured out into a Canadian blizzard on foot for hours?

When Canadian authorities finally confirmed that the family was the Patels – Jagdish, 39, Vaishali, 37, Vihangi, 11 and Dharmik, three – the news brought Dingucha to a standstill. The village that once boasted that it had a member from every family settled overseas, with immigration ads painted and plastered on walls and lampposts, came under the microscope as a media frenzy ensued.

The Patels are believed to have been victims of a major human smuggling operation spanning India, Canada and the U.S.

No arrests have been made in any of the three countries, except for a man presumed to be a low-level player: Steve Shand. The Florida man was charged with two counts of human smuggling when the van he was driving was stopped by U.S. Border Patrol near where the Patels were found – two passengers in the van were undocumented Indian nationals. It is believed that the Patels were part of a larger group – including five others detained by U.S. Border Patrol that same day.

The seven Indians arrested were wearing newly-purchased parkas, gloves, balaclavas and insulated rubber boots and all spoke Gujarati. One of them told authorities they had been dropped off in Canada and had walked for 11 and a half hours through icy winds on a day when the temperature plummeted to -25C – but in that time, they’d only travelled one kilometre south from where they’d started. He said a family of four – believed to be the Patels – had been with the group but had been separated during the night.

Later that day, four bodies were found lying together in a prairie field, just metres from the Canada-U.S. border.

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Canadian authorities identified the family of four found frozen to death near Emerson, Mani., on Jan. 19 as the Patels.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Statistics from U.S. Border Patrol suggest the unorthodox route they took is a well-established one. In the decade from 2010 to 2020, an average of 168 Indian nationals were apprehended annually trying to cross the border from Canada to the U.S. In 2019 alone 339 people were detained by federal authorities.

These typically aren’t asylum seekers escaping war or persecution in the way the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees would define it, but people still desperate for a more stable, prosperous life in a place where they often have family connections, explains Reena Kukreja, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who has studied the global migration patterns of Indians.

“You have to suspend disbelief when you’re talking about people taking risks with their lives, to try to improve their life from what it isn’t,” she says.

“They are chasing, literally, the American Dream. They have a very strong network of families, kin ties and village networks operating there.”

Much of the flow of migrants from India to North America has fallen under the umbrella of chain migration, where people from a certain region follow others from that region and their social network to a particular destination.

In Canada, the largest sub-group of Indians have come from the state of Punjab in the north, and have concentrated in cities including Brampton and Surrey. Recent arrivals, many of whom are international students, have an established connection to an already-settled cousin, uncle, neighbour or former classmate who will help them find work or housing.

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Most houses in Dingucha are empty, owing to their residents being settled outside the village in nearby cities or overseas. Local residents say the news was distressing, but it didn't impact them as much as it did the Patel community, who are known for leaving Gujarat for international opportunities.Akanksha Singh/The Globe and Mail

In the western state of Gujarat, the pull of America is unparalleled. After Gujarat became a state in 1960, agricultural development paved the way for the sales of cash crops, which made many farmers wealthy. From the start, it was invested in the kind of higher education that would allow well-educated Gujaratis to settle abroad and soon the Patidar community – an agrarian caste that took the surname Patel – became the dominant group to migrate west, explains Gaurang Jani, a professor of sociology at Gujarat University.

Previously settled generations of Patels absorbed incoming generations in their businesses (almost half of America’s motels are owned by Indian-Americans) and their extended, sometimes religious, communities.

“In a village like Dingucha, everyone wants to migrate. Any young family that is there is just biding its time to leave,” Dr. Kukreja explained.

But family connections in America aren’t enough to guarantee individuals in India can make an easy journey abroad. “I understand why people might say, ‘just get the visa and visit’ but we have such an unjust, terrible immigration system in the U.S. that even getting something as seemingly simple as a tourist visa is really challenging,” says Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asians Leading Together (SAALT), a Maryland-based advocacy group.

Ms. Sridaran, who describes herself as coming from a privileged, upper caste family, said her own aunt applied three times for a visitor visa to attend Ms. Sridaran’s wedding and was denied. “Even a case that benign being so difficult, I can’t imagine people that have far fewer resources, and are simply trying to seek a path and cannot access one.”

And so Indians have accessed smuggling networks that have them fly to Canada or countries in south or Central America and then try to make the undocumented journey into America, she explained.

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Billboards advertising consultants for student VISAs outside Dingucha.Akanksha Singh/The Globe and Mail

Despite extensive media attention and a high-profile police investigation, the deaths of the Patels did little to deter Gujaratis with dreams of settling overseas. In May, the Times of India reported that since the incident, an estimated 4,900 people left Gujarat to travel to the US through illegal means. Local sources the Globe and Mail interviewed in Dingucha confirmed this was the case.

Through her research, Dr. Kukreja has found a common trend of community members from a village or extended family members (some already living abroad) “sponsoring” a trip to North America via human smugglers. This often comes with the tacit understanding that the individual who is being smuggled into the U.S. will work for a member of the smuggling operation in the U.S. for a few years to pay off the debt – often low-wage work in motels, restaurants or as house cleaners.

In the cases Dr. Kukreja is familiar with, these plans start with the individuals who want to migrate and family members that already live in the U.S. The ones in India then contact local agents, who then reach out to their network (including people in Canada and the U.S.) to co-ordinate the trip.

An agent in Gujarat might charge a family 1.2 crore (almost $200,000) to facilitate human smuggling, a fee that could include everything from flights to ground transportation to local SIM cards, Dr. Kukreja said. Sometimes the operation might include sending a family on a shorter journey, to Dubai, Singapore or Malaysia to collect passport stamps and appear to authorities in Canada that, “these are people who actually have a desire to travel the world, and the financial means.”

Migrants who make journeys like this have been exposed to life abroad from members of their networks, social media or pop culture and tend to focus on what sociologists call “relative deprivation” rather than the risks they may encounter in transit, says Anna Triandafyllidou, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration who teaches at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“These are people who in their own home country were most likely middle class, they had the human capital to know about these options, the social capital to have networks, the financial capital to finance this journey that is usually expensive,” she said.

While Western cultures value certainty and predictability, that’s not the universal cultural disposition. “Oftentimes, people see hope in all sorts of ways, they see the uncertainty is pregnant with possibility, and a future and an opportunity,” she said.

Anil Pratham, director general of Gujarat’s crime investigation department, says the global scale of the human smuggling operation, the many links in the network operating outside of India, has made the Patels’ case difficult to investigate.

While several local immigration agents were brought in for questioning by police earlier this year, all were released. Not a single arrest has been made or charge laid in the case.

Another challenge in investigating these smuggling networks is that they are deeply embedded in communities and operate on trust. Even when the operation fails and would-be migrants are intercepted by police or border agents or, like the Patels, are injured or die in transit, there is a hesitancy to report the smugglers to authorities, Dr. Kukreja said. Doing so might implicate the would-be migrants’ family members or neighbours, who are often part of the networks that facilitate the migration journey.

While one of the Indian nationals apprehended at the border close to where the Patels were found said he came to Canada on a fraudulently obtained student visa, five and a half months later, authorities have still not confirmed what types of visas the Patels entered Canada with. Mr. Pratham told the Globe and Mail his agency was awaiting details from Canadian authorities on this, as well as how those visas were obtained.

Robert Cyrenne, a spokesperson from the Manitoba RCMP, said the types of visas issued to the Patels “forms part of the ongoing investigation.”

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The deserted main street that runs through the village of Dingucha. Shops and homes – most of which belong to people that live overseas – are shuttered.Akanksha Singh/The Globe and Mail

At the end of January, a funeral was arranged for the family of four at the Thompson In The Park funeral home in Winnipeg – a relative in Illinois raised funds to cover costs through GoFundMe. Some Indians in Winnipeg, including Bhadresh Bhatt, offered to help make arrangements, to fetch the Patels’ family members from the airport when they arrived for the service, but were told everything had been taken care of.

Mr. Patel’s brother and sister-in-law had flown in for the funeral from India, while the others in attendance were cousins who had arrived from the U.S., said Mr. Bhatt. During the two-hour service, Hindu bhajans were sung as mourners paced between the four open caskets to perform rituals. Some, while studying the faces of Jagdish, Vaishali, Vihangi and Dharmik, sobbed, their shoulders shaking.

A pair of glasses with thick black frames were placed on Jagdish’s face. Vaishali had been dressed in an iridescent coral sari. A fuchsia bow had been affixed to Vihangi’s hair and a unicorn stuffed toy with a face as large as hers was nestled beside her small body. A Paw Patrol figurine, still in its package, was tucked inside Dharmik’s coffin.

When the family travelled domestically, they’d often make pilgrimages to local Hindu temples. During religious holidays, Jagdish held elaborate photoshoots to capture his family’s outfits, the results of which he posted on his Facebook page. He shared videos of Vihangi dressed up and dancing, but also in cutoffs and flip flops, tilling a farm field. Plans for a move abroad may have been germinating for a while but it didn’t stop the Patels from living vibrant lives in their community in Gujarat.

The fact that the Patels left so abruptly, without neighbours or their daughter’s school having any idea of their plans, wasn’t all that unusual, Dr. Kukreja said. Would-be migrants are at the mercy of smugglers, who have put in the application for a visitor visa and the day it arrives stamped, they are informed they must leave.

It’s a far cry from the route Amrut Patel (no relation to the deceased) took to America in the late 1980s. Mr. Patel, a lawyer and farm owner, was among the first to leave Dingucha for the U.S. three decades ago. At the time, it was relatively easy for farmers to get a Green Card in two years – a program that no longer exists.

Mr. Patel visits Dingucha annually, and still maintains his farmland, but his family has been settled in the U.S. for three generations now. He believes that people from his village will continue leaving for the U.S. because of the job shortage locally.

The village remains reliant on the money families settled overseas send back home. He estimates that 70 per cent of the houses in the village are empty because the residents of these homes are in the U.S.

According to the town collector, Jayesh Chaudhary, donations from the Patel community are primarily responsible for the village’s temples, water tank, schools, and a community health centre that doubles as a hospital.

Jagdish and Vaishali had worked as teachers in cities south and east of Dingucha, but Jagdish later joined a garment business where his brother Mahendra worked. Jagdish’s family lived in Gujarat, while much of Vaishali’s had settled in the U.S.

Shailesh Prajapati, a neighbour and family friend of the Patels in Dingucha, said the family had been trying to get to the US for two years but faced challenges when the American embassy closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He said they were in a rush to get to the U.S. to reunite with Vaishali’s parents.

The Globe and Mail made several attempts to contact the Patels’ family members in India and the U.S. but none were interested in speaking on the record.

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Dingucha's main square is populated with signs advertising Canadian and U.K. student visas. Authorities have still not confirmed what types of visas the Patels entered Canada with after abruptly leaving their home in Dingucha in January.Akanksha Singh/The Globe and Mail

While residents of Dingucha may have been reluctant to out the people they know who helped co-ordinate the Patels’ failed journey to the U.S., it’s impossible to avoid the industry of immigration when visiting the village.

Painted advertisements to get student visas with “free applications” for the U.K. and Canada “without IELTS” (the language proficiency exam prospective students must take a receive a minimum score on to get into post-secondary institutions) fringe the main square. Faded hand-painted Gujarati Western Union and MoneyGram “money transfer services” and DHL, FedEx, UPS, TNT courier services discreetly line walls alongside the central municipal Gram Panchayat building. Dust-caked banners hang from lampposts, flapping in the midday sun, advertising opportunities to study everywhere from Canada to New Zealand.

In April, six undocumented Indian nationals from Gujarat and one American were found in the St. Regis River in New York after a failed attempt to cross the Canada-U.S. border by boat. The vessel sunk less than 250 metres from the border and the Indians – none of whom could swim or were wearing life jackets – were rescued, transported to hospital, and later arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. The American who was with them, Brian Lazore, faces charges of bringing in and harbouring aliens.

The Indians were ultimately let off and given deportation orders, but at a court hearing, a judge warned, “Tell people in your home countries about the difficulties you faced and urge them not to use illegal means to travel to the U.S.”

Mr. Shand’s trial begins this month in Minnesota, but it’s unclear if any further details about the Patels that may emerge in court will deter residents who share the Patels’ aspirations of moving their lives to America.

“This has been going on for years, and it will continue for years,” said Mr. Prajapati. Even for those who stay in the village, maintaining connections to the U.S. is vital, he said.

“What happens here when a marriage happens, people ask, ‘Do you have anyone in America?’ If not, your child will not get married,” he said.

With files from Stephanie Chambers, Rick Cash and Amit Cowper

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