Desi Roots, Global Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

Earlier this year, global media covered the shocking story of an Indian family of four who attempted to walk across the border from Canada into the United States. The parents, Jagdish and Vaishali Patel, were teachers in India and had lost their jobs due to pandemic lockdowns. Their attempts to make a life for themselves in their village had not succeeded.

Against this background, immigrating to the US must have seemed like a plausible and tolerable way out. Relatives, who lived near Chicago, would help them find jobs and get established quickly. All they had to do was somehow make their way to the relatives.

Getting a visa to come to the US is not easy. So, the family (the couple was accompanied by their three-year-old son Dharmik and eleven-year-old daughter Vihangi), flew into Toronto on January 12 on tourist visas. They made their way to the border town of Emerson in Manitoba. The plan was to walk about five miles to Pembina, ND, where they would be picked up and driven to their relatives’ home.

The January weather would challenge even seasoned North Dakotans—temperature twenty below zero, howling winds whipping up blinding snow, trudging through knee- to waist-deep snow for hours, and no cell service to call for help or surrender to authorities.

The Patels’ story, especially if one ponders their final hours as they struggled to keep themselves and their young children warm, is harrowing. Their senseless deaths are all the more heart-breaking because just a few months delay would have made a literal life-or-death difference.

In this moment of grief, it is important to consider factors that contributed to this tragedy, beyond the Patel’s’ personal decisions.

First, what is the culpability of the relatives? Given that they live in the Chicago area, surely they are very familiar with the treacherous and dangerous winter weather conditions. Could they have done more to dissuade the Patels? Since we don’t know the full story, it is unfair to speculate. Even so it is safe to say that this is a cautionary tale to those who are inclined to encourage friends and relatives to immigrate to the US without apprising them of the various challenges and pitfalls that await them—finding a job that pays a living wage, the years-long wait to get a green card, learning to drive, mastering English, and so on. In particular, the years-long wait to get a green card can lead to deferred (or denied) marriage, children, and other life milestones.

Second, the issue of being out of legal status is far from trivial. The lack of immigration law enforcement can make it seem easy to stay indefinitely without authorization. However, this is not without its own dead-ends. For example, people who are out of status are not generally eligible for health insurance. Given the high cost of medical care in the US, families may have to get by without medical care and can easily go bankrupt in the event of an accident or a major illness. There are other challenges—for example, living in constant fear of deportation if found out or in the event of a minor infraction.

Third, the issue of ethics as it relates to illegal entry. An individual who is desperate to leave a terrible situation may not be blamed for ignoring the legality of their course of action. But surely it behooves the US-based relatives who are inclined to abet illegal or potentially illegal actions to be more thoughtful and consider their civic duty? A functioning society is not possible without the rule of law and the consent of the governed.

Fourth,  people in the home countries tend to have a skewed picture of life in the US. Former residents fund the construction of schools, temples, or community centers. Their noble deeds inadvertently create the impression of spectacular and guaranteed success in America. What goes unmentioned is that such altruism requires a relatively modest sum in dollars thanks to the exchange rate. Similarly unmentioned is the reality that US society has undergone massive changes and it is no longer as easy to build a nest-egg as it may have been for people who arrived decades ago. It behooves US-based relatives to be transparent and apprise would-be immigrants of the true state of affairs.

Fifth, the elephant in the room is the virtually non-existent enforcement of US immigration law. If US authorities were enforcing immigration law with consistency and swiftness, the result would be a more humane policy as it would deter desperate would-be immigrants from undertaking such dangerous journeys.

The Patel family paid the ultimate price for their decision to immigrate illegally and to do so at the most hazardous time of year. Hopefully this tragic case will serve as a wake-up call to US-based friends and relatives, as well as to US lawmakers. It is up to members of both groups to look out for the long-term interests of would-be-immigrants—even if that sometimes means being bearers of bad news, being gatekeepers, and finding other (legal) ways to help.

Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor.


Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu....