Federal authorities say Rajinder Pal Singh figured out a sweet scam by smuggling illegal immigrants from India across the northern border and into the Seattle area — by putting them in Ubers.
Investigators revealed evidence of more than 90 Uber trips from just one account that they said showed patterns of smuggling connected to Mr. Singh. They also traced a total of 17 accounts to his organization, according to court documents.
Mr. Singh’s arrest late last month underscored the dangers and vulnerabilities at the northern border, far from the U.S.-Mexico boundary, which gets most of the attention these days.
His case also highlights the increasing numbers of illegal immigrants from Asia, particularly India, who hope the path less traveled will give them a chance to sneak past the Border Patrol and attain a foothold in the U.S.
In April, Customs and Border Protection agents and officers nabbed 1,197 Indians at the northern border. That represents about 13% of all border jumpers along the U.S.-Canada line. Indians made up less than 1% of encounters at the southern border.
It’s not just Indians. Other people from Asia are testing the northern border in large numbers and are willing to pay dearly, authorities say.
David A. Spitzer, the Homeland Security Investigations agent who filed the affidavit backing the arrest of Mr. Singh, said those transgressing the northern border are paying $30,000 to $70,000, which covers travel arrangements and often includes bogus documents to help them surmount legal obstacles.
Mr. Singh, 48, who also went by the name Jaspal Gill, charged $11,500 for his part of the smuggling journey, according to communications investigators recorded between him and a co-conspirator.
Mr. Spitzer said Mr. Singh had at least 17 accounts with the ride-hailing company dating back to 2018. He would arrange for Uber drivers to pick up migrants at the border and run them to the area near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he said, where the migrants would switch to other Ubers.
Of the 17 accounts, four were still active when authorities moved in on Mr. Singh last month. One of those accounts was used exclusively to get people from the airport to stash houses that Mr. Singh operated, according to court documents.
Mr. Spitzer said at least 90 rides billed to that account showed signs of smuggling because they were booked to times and locations that corresponded with other Ubers coming from the border.
“Based on records provided by Uber, law enforcement’s knowledge of this investigation, and the patterns identified herein, investigators believe that members of the organization are splitting trips to obscure the origin of the trip, i.e., the international border, and to provide a potential lack of knowledge defense relating to the immigration status and/or manner of entry of the noncitizens that the organization is smuggling,” Mr. Spitzer said in his affidavit.
Uber didn’t respond to a request for comment, and neither did CBP.
Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the northern border stretches roughly three times the length of the southern border. Because it is covered by only a fraction of the agents, he said, it is difficult to police.
“You’re always going to have all that wooded forestland and lakes, and there’s no wall or anything like that, and there’s no Border Patrol out there. There’s like one guy for 10,000 acres. There’s no roads or anything. That’s a really tough proposition,” Mr. Bensman said.
The one thing the U.S. has going for it, though, is that Canada is an able partner in screening arrivals. Except for homegrown bad actors, anyone making it into the U.S. has been vetted by Canadian authorities.
That doesn’t prevent tragedies like the one in January, when Canadian authorities found the dead bodies of a family of four Indian migrants just yards from the U.S. line. Smugglers had left them behind.
U.S. authorities were tipped to the situation after discovering infant supplies with another group they arrested. They found no infant. A massive search turned up the four Indians, huddled together in death.
Reporters who traced the family’s travels back to Gujarat, India, found stories of economic and social mobility enticing people to make the trip. The BBC learned of “clandestine travel networks” that moved families along the line.
Mr. Spitzer described a complex web of smuggling organizations operating in the Seattle area. “Brokers” arrange the travel and connect the migrants with smugglers, who charge $2,000 to $5,000 to get from British Columbia across the border into the U.S.
That is where U.S.-based organizers take over. According to communications investigators swept up in their probe, Mr. Singh was charging $11,500 for a smuggling trip by January. That covered expenses such as rental cars or airplane tickets to help the migrants disperse from Seattle to their final destinations throughout the country, prosecutors said.
“There are a lot of expenses,” Mr. Singh said in one conversation with a co-conspirator whom agents said they recorded.
His smuggling escapades dipped during the early part of the pandemic. Canada imposed restrictions on inbound flights, preventing would-be migrants from using the country as a jumping-off point to reach the U.S.
When agents moved in on Mr. Singh, they searched his California home and found counterfeit identity documents and $30,000 in cash.
Indian nationals seem particularly drawn to the northern border. More than 40% of illegal immigrants from Indian nabbed by CBP this fiscal year came from Canada. The ratio is even higher for other Asian nations. Nearly 80% of apprehensions of Chinese nationals and 99% of Filipinos came from the northern border.
Like the Indians, most were caught at the border crossings.
Judging by Mr. Singh’s operation, a significant number of others are likely sneaking into the U.S. successfully.
The biggest worry is that terrorism suspects could be among those undetected.
The Border Patrol said it hasn’t caught a single person at the northern border this year who is on the government’s terrorist screening database. That’s striking because CBP officers, who man the official crossings, say they have encountered 115.
At the southern border, the ratio is roughly even. Border Patrol agents have nabbed 35 people flagged in the terrorist screening database, and CBP officers encountered 42.
Mr. Bensman, who wrote a book on terrorism, “America’s Covert Border War,” offered a caveat. He said many entries could be for one or two people — perhaps commercial truck drivers — making multiple trips and quietly getting flagged each time.
“It could be one guy who crosses three times a week, and it jacks up the number of hits,” Mr. Bensman said.