Gurupreet Kaur crossed the US-Mexico border shortly before her 7th birthday.
The little girl wore a black short-sleeved shirt and black pants as she took her first steps in America.
Before long, temperatures in the Arizona desert would climb to 108 degrees.
Gurupreet’s mother would leave her with others as she went to search for water.
And she would never see her daughter alive again.
A day after the girl crossed into Arizona, Border Patrol agents found her remains.
It was a tragic end to a journey that began half a world away.
They left India seeking safety
Gurupreet’s parents spoke out Monday for the first time since their daughter’s death, saying they’d made the trek because they felt they had no other choice.
“We wanted a safer and better life for our daughter and we made the extremely difficult decision to seek asylum here in the United States,” they said in a statement released by the nonprofit Sikh Coalition. “We trust that every parent, regardless of origin, color or creed, will understand that no mother or father ever puts their child in harm’s way unless they are desperate.”
The girl’s father, identified as A. Singh, has been living in the United States since 2013, and has an asylum application pending before the New York immigration court, Sikh Coalition Program Director Mark Reading-Smith said.
The girl’s mother, identified as S. Kaur, crossed the border with her this month. It isn’t clear when the mother and daughter left their home in the northern Indian state of Punjab, or how exactly they made their way to the US-Mexico border.
Three others from India — another mother and daughter and another woman — were also with them when they crossed, US Customs and Border Protection said.
There’s been an uptick in undocumented Indian migrants crossing the US-Mexico border in recent years, according to Border Patrol statistics.
Advocates say they’ve noticed the trend, but don’t know why more people from South Asia are making the journey.
“We have been trying to figure this out,” said Gujari Singh, communications director for the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Each case has been slightly different. There doesn’t seem to be one exact cause. … There is definitely some sort of movement, but we’re not really sure why.”
Kaur is a surname many Sikh women share. And after the medical examiner released her identity, the little girl’s death sparked an outpouring of responses from individuals and organizations who saw themselves in her name.
“The immigration crisis is directly affecting the Sikh community,” the fund said in a Facebook post sharing the news. “The death of Gurupreet Kaur is horrifying and we must ensure that this never happens again.”
Deepak Ahluwalia, an immigration attorney in California who’s on the board of the Sikh Coalition, said the news was even more devastating when he learned the little girl’s name and realized she was from Punjab.
“It hurts even more when you have a connection with that person. … My parents were from Punjab, I represent a lot of South Asians and it’s just disheartening to see stuff like this,” he said.
Days after he learned of the girl’s death, Ahluwalia got a call from the Sikh Coalition, putting him in touch with her mother. He’s now representing her in immigration proceedings. Her first court appearance in New York immigration court hasn’t been scheduled yet, Ahluwalia said, but when she has a chance, she’ll be seeking asylum.
The attorney said he hasn’t yet had a chance to discuss many details of her immigration case with the grieving mother, who’s devastated by her daughter’s death.
“All I do know is that she was being persecuted by someone in her native country,” Ahluwalia said Monday.
An increasing number of migrants from India are seeking asylum, fleeing political or religious persecution, Ahluwalia said. And even without knowing many details of this family’s case, he said, the fact that they decided to make the dangerous journey shows how desperate they must have been.
“This is not something they thought was a walk in the park and once they got there they learned how bad it was,” he said. “It really makes you think of how bad the circumstances really must be in your native country for you to want to make that journey and risk your own child’s life.”
Crossing the border
It was mid-morning on June 11 when smugglers dropped the group Gurupreet was traveling with near an interstate on the Mexican side of the border and told them to walk north.
The area about 17 miles west of Lukeville, Arizona, is “extremely remote,” and it’s rare for migrants to cross there, says Agent Pete Bidegain, a special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.
“You honestly almost can’t find a more remote area along the Southwest border than where this group crossed,” he said.
There’s no border wall there — just a series of 3-foot-tall metal poles driven into the ground to block vehicles from crossing.
It wasn’t long before Gurupreet and the other child in the group — an 8-year-old — were struggling.
“Once they walked north, they were out in a real desert area,” Bidegain said. “The little girls started during poorly right off the bat.”
The group decided to split up. Gurupreet’s mom headed away with another woman to search for water, leaving Gurupreet with the other mother and child.
“They were never able to find each other again,” Bidegain said.
A day later, on the morning of June 12, a Border Patrol agent patrolling a path spotted footsteps in the sand. He came upon the two women who’d been searching for water — and learned the rest of their group was missing.
Agents searched the area for hours and found Gurupreet’s remains.
It took them more than a day of additional searching to find the other mother and child she’d been left with. They were taken to a hospital and treated for dehydration. Authorities aren’t sure exactly how the group got separated — or what happened to them in the desert.
Searching for answers
Authorities determined Gurupreet died of heat stroke.
“She was traversing through the desert in a very hot environment and succumbed to the elements,” Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess said.
She was wearing a black short-sleeved shirt, black pants and a hair tie, Hess said.
Bidegain, the Border Patrol agent, said the case is the kind of tragedy that’s all-too-common along the border. Relying on cartel-run smuggling operations to cross the border, he said, isn’t worth the risk.
“They are a profit-driven business and they don’t have any regard for the people that they’re smuggling,” he said. “That’s what we just continually see here along the border here in Arizona.”
So far this year, 70 undocumented immigrants have perished in the area, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, which tracks migrant deaths. Last year, 127 died.
Advocacy groups say government policies are to blame for the mounting toll.
Long waits at ports of entry, they argue, are forcing asylum-seekers to cross in more remote and dangerous locations.
“As US Customs and Border Protection has escalated border enforcement and aggressively turned away migrants attempting to cross at ports of entry, deaths have continued to mount,” South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) said in a statement. “Migrants are forced right back into the dangerous conditions that CBP and other federal agencies often blame on migrant traffickers and smugglers.”
The group sent a letter to CBP last week, calling for an immediate investigation into Gurupreet’s death.
“Despite vastly increased budgets for DHS generally and CBP particularly,” the letter said, “the treatment of migrants has degraded significantly, and we deserve answers immediately.”
Preparing for a funeral
Gurupreet’s parents hadn’t seen each other since 2013, about six months after she was born.
Now the 33-year-old father and 27-year-old mother are together, planning their daughter’s funeral.
In their statement Monday, the parents asked for privacy and said their family is heartbroken over Gurupreet’s death.
“We will carry the burden of the loss of our beloved Gurupreet for a lifetime,” the statement said, “but we will also continue to hold onto the hope that America remains a compassionate nation grounded in the immigrant ideals that make diversity this nation’s greatest strength.”
The Sikh Coalition said a private funeral or Gurupreet will be held Friday in New York City, “the city her family had hoped to make their home.”