Not all NRIs in the U.S. are living the dollar dream.

When Nilotpal Das graduated from the University of Calcutta, he dreamt of becoming a teacher. But this eldest child of a poor farmer found it impossible to get a suitable job, or help his family survive on agriculture alone. So, at the age of 28, he used a bank loan to pay a recruiter to help him get into the United States.

Seven days after landing in New York, Das’s tourist visa expired, his recruiter disappeared, and his passport was lost. Though alone and afraid, he never considered returning home. “I had destroyed my family’s future by putting them in debt,” says Das. “If I went back to India, I would have considered suicide.” Eight years later, Das still lives in New York, working long shifts for low wages at an Indian restaurant and sending the money home.

Mounami Malik, founder and executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) in New York — of which Das is a member — says such stories may be rarely discussed but they are not unusual. “There’s a misconception that any Indian who makes it to the U.S. can’t be very badly off. But there are thousands of people living in exploitative, hard conditions who haven’t even seen their children in years.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that there are some 240,000 Indian immigrants like Das in the U.S., making them one of the largest and most rapidly growing undocumented populations. They arrive in a variety of ways: overstaying tourist visas, aging out of dependant visas, and walking across the Mexican border.

The Washington DC-based advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) convened a national coalition of South Asian American community-based organisations that recently created a list of priorities for the immigration reform legislation presently under consideration in Congress. These include protecting the rights of women by increasing the availability of H-4 visas for spouses of employment visa holders; protecting survivors of domestic abuse by raising the cap on U-visas; protecting undocumented students by providing them a path to citizenship; and protecting families by limiting deportations. These measures reflect the diversity of the Indian immigrant population and problem, but Indians are almost exclusively associated with H1B visas.

“Most people believe that Indians come in only through the employment-based system,” says Manar Waheed, policy director, SAALT. “In fact, Indians are impacted by all layers of immigration reform: from the employment-based system to the family-based system to enforcement measures and many more.” Immigration rights activist Prerna Lal says moving beyond employment visas means facing sensitive topics such as violence and intolerance. “We want to see Indian immigrants as only good immigrants, so we don’t see them as asylum seekers or battered women — that’s a story that doesn’t look good in the media,” she points out.

Lal has personally faced what she calls a cultural need to maintain a positive image. Although Lal’s Hindi-speaking family is descended from farmers in Uttar Pradesh, they lived in Fiji for several generations. In 1999, Lal was visiting her grandmother in the U.S. when Fiji suffered a coup and Lal’s town burned to the ground. Rather than return to the violence, Lal’s family decided to stay in the States. Lal became undocumented several years later, when her age and intention to stay rendered her ineligible for a visa. When she realised it, her family advised her to keep it secret. “It was always ‘be silent about your immigration status’; don’t tell a single person, not even your friends,” Lal remembers.

Anoop Prasad, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, says the pattern is widespread. At a recent legal clinic, Prasad remembers, “There were two Indian families who had known each other for years but had no idea they were both undocumented. It probably happens quite a bit because people aren’t comfortable with shame and judgment in the community.”

Undocumented Indian immigrants who remain silent lack networks of legal and emotional support, thus becoming vulnerable to exploitation. Das, for example, shares an illegal basement apartment with five other immigrants. Faulty windows let in cold air in winters and often there is no heat or water; conditions the landlords won’t rectify because they know the tenants are afraid to call the authorities.

The fear is not unfounded. According to DHS, the number of Indians in immigration detention in the U.S. tripled between 2009 and 2011. Waheed says it’s partially the fallout of the 7/11 security measures that profile South Asian communities. The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, for example forced immigrants from about 25 countries (including India) to register with the authorities and resulted in tens of thousands of deportations. Portions of the legislation were suspended in 2011.

Prasad says border security measures affect immigrants even before they enter the country. An increasing number of Indian immigrants, particularly asylum seekers, are crossing over the Mexican border on foot. Says Prasad, “With increased border security measures, immigrants are taking more dangerous routes through the desert. They don’t have access to water, they have to face robbers… there’s a rising number of people dying on the trip.”

Avoiding detention is a struggle that Lal knows all about firsthand: she has faced the threat of deportation for years. It is what inspired her to go to law school — a challenge because her immigration status made her ineligible for college scholarships and unable to get access to something as simple as a state-issued ID or an on-campus job. She paid for her education through contributions from her parents and by working in the family house-cleaning business. She also received funding from immigrant rights organisations, a resource that would have been unavailable had she remained silent about her status.

Prasad believes that India can influence the current debate on immigration reform and protect its citizens in the U.S. “A piece of immigration advocacy that hasn’t really been seen is international pressure on American deportation policies and immigration policies,” he says, pointing out that in 1965 the U.S. made immigration reforms specifically because it was worried about its image in the eyes of the world.

Das, however, would rather have India make changes at home. “That’s actually the most important thing to do — create jobs so that people are not forced to leave,” he says. “The government should create more work opportunities.”

Lal is waiting for the results of her bar exam but without citizenship, she won’t be allowed to practise law. Luckily, she is also waiting for her green card: she recently married her female partner, an American citizen.

Das is not so lucky. He has not seen his family in India in eight years and he has no immediate path to American citizenship either.