70-hour weeks, taking selfies for Ice: life as a migrant trucker in California

After spending a night in late September driving an 18-wheeler across the country, Gurpreet Singh woke up to see his phone lit up with notifications from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immediately, Singh called back to acknowledge the contact attempts. Then he snapped a selfie to upload into the mobile app immigration officials used to track his whereabouts.

Earlier that morning, worn out from a nonstop 11-hour trip that started in Bakersfield, California, Singh, a Punjabi immigrant awaiting asylum, had gotten the time zones confused. When the notification he expected didn’t arrive, he simply submitted an unprompted selfie and fell into a deep sleep. As his co-driver continued the journey from St Louis to Chicago, the first notification arrived, followed by a flood of others, including missed calls from a cousin whom Ice had contacted while searching for him.


Already stressed about delivering his load on time, Singh now grappled with the fear that this mistake could hurt his immigration case.

Four years ago, Singh left his village in Punjab, India, flew to Mexico and crossed the US border, where he was immediately apprehended, detained for five months, and released on bond to await an asylum hearing. After six months, he applied for a temporary work permit and soon began working as a truck driver, hauling fruits, vegetables and meat back and forth between his home in Bakersfield, California, and various east coast destinations.

Two years ago, however, an immigration judge denied his asylum case and issued a deportation order. Singh filed an appeal and was granted another hearing, scheduled for next year.

In the meantime, Ice continues to surveil Singh through various means, from automated phone calls to in-person appointments that sometimes clash with his load delivery schedule. Recently, Singh told me, immigration officials installed the BI SmartLink app on his phone; he explained that during a two-hour window on a preset morning each month, the app prompts him to upload a selfie that is then run through facial recognition technology.

Related: Poor tech, opaque rules, exhausted staff: inside the private company surveilling US immigrants

For Singh, 27, navigating the labyrinth of the US immigration and asylum processes means adapting his life and work to deal with constant and crushing uncertainty. But he refuses to let himself entertain the possibility of deportation.

“Negativity does come into my mind, especially when all routes seem to close up,” he said, speaking in Punjabi. But his spirits rise when he listens to recordings of Gurbani, the Sikh scripture.

One morning this summer, Singh drove into the scorching desert east of Bakersfield, his truck’s trailer loaded down with peaches. Before starting, he freshened up, inspected his truck, and prepared a strong batch of chaa on a portable gas cylinder to fuel him for the drive across the country.

At one of the Punjabi truck stops just off the highway, he picked up two dozen rotis, enough to last him through the week. To keep alert, he prefers to stay a bit hungry, often eating only one full meal a day. “If I eat too much, I’d fall asleep,” Singh told me.

For months, he’d been working 70 hours a week on average, taking short breaks between journeys and earning up to $9,000 a month. He was saving up to start a life with his fiancée, who lived in Punjab and was applying for a US visa. They had not seen each other in nearly half a decade. Meanwhile, he sent money to his family whenever they asked. As political tensions rose in Punjab, Singh was also saving to help pay for his younger brother’s imminent journey to the US; once settled here, he too hoped to become a truck driver.

Truck driving has become a popular line of work among Punjabi migrants at a time when the industry faces driver shortages. Raman Dhillon, who leads the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, estimates that about a third of truck drivers in California are Punjabi. Among those drivers, he believes that as many as 40% are undocumented and going through immigration proceedings.

Migrants from India constitute the largest population from outside the Americas to cross the US-Mexico border. An exodus out of Punjab began in the 1980s and 90s, at the height of forced disappearances, state-sanctioned violence and extrajudicial killings targeting Sikhs in India. In the decades since, migration has been fueled by the reverberations of intergenerational trauma, compounded by other factors, including continued political persecution, unprofitable farmland, bleak economic prospects and a drug epidemic. In California’s Punjabi trucking community, Singh finds an unlikely semblance of home. For him and his fellow migrants, a shared language and sense of apna-pan – kinship – provide a buffer against the loneliness and disorientation of labor in a new country.

Four years ago, on the night after he was released on bond from the Imperial regional detention facility in Calexico, Singh and I sat in the backseat of a car headed north through the boulder-covered mountain ranges of San Diego county. Earlier that day, we had met at the El Centro Gurdwara, 15 miles from the border, a Sikh house of worship where Singh had spent the day volunteering in the community kitchen and making tearful phone calls to family members, announcing the good news of his release.

Looking out with his forehead pressed against the fogged-up window, he realized he was seeing the stars for the first time in nearly five months. “This feels like a second life,” he turned to me and said, buoyant. Singh, who is tall and lanky, was wearing a dark turban and a long beard that flowed to his chest, articles of the Sikh faith he’d kept since boyhood. Strapped above his shoe was the bulky ankle monitor he’d wear for the next two months.

He stayed at his aunt’s home in Bakersfield and, over the next few months, he worked overtime at restaurants, truck repair shops, and picking vegetables on a farm, getting paid in cash under the table and making below minimum wage. Then, after his work permit arrived, he took truck-driving lessons and started working, initially for employers who underpaid him for the miles he drove. Eventually, he was able to find work that paid fair wages. “In jail, we say that we’ll be free of our tensions once we’re released,” he said. “But that’s when the real tensions begin.”

Near the end of this summer, his fiancée’s visa application was rejected, shattering the dreams that had sustained him for years. Days later, Singh’s truck broke down after an oil leak wrecked its transmission, forcing him to miss two weeks of work. Shortly after he resumed work, Singh had to check himself into an emergency room after he got sick from eating spoiled rotis. A day later, he was back on the road.

He prefers driving over staying at the house he now rents with six other Punjabi migrants. Driving tires him out enough so that he’s able to sleep well, and it keeps him on a steady track, helping him avoid the intrusive thoughts and worries that sometimes derail him at home. “When you live on the truck, you know that you’re going to drive, you’re going to deliver the load,” he said. “You know you just need to get through your miles.”

Life on the truck has changed him, emotionally and physically. Since becoming a driver, he’s shed his turban and cut his hair and beard for the first time in his life, a decision that initially made him feel strange – almost alien to himself. But living on the road for days at a time, often forced to forgo regular showers, he said he found it difficult to maintain those articles of his faith.

During WhatsApp video calls with his family, Singh listens to their stories while he calculates the timing of his stops and watches the road, his eyesight strained by hours of staring at dimly lit highways. Until his immigration case is approved, as he hopes it will be, Singh cannot leave the country to visit family elsewhere in the world, nor can he bring relatives to the US. As he looks ahead, the years it might take before he can get permanent papers seem to recede into an incomprehensible distance.

Given the record number of pending immigration court cases, migrants who find themselves caught in limbo cling to the chance to work despite the uncertain future they face. There is currently a backlog of 672,000 asylum cases in immigration court, and about 133,000 of those are in California. Nationwide, in fiscal year 2021, over 600,000 asylum seekers whose cases were pending applied for authorization to work as they wait.

At home in Bakersfield during a break between loads, Singh posted a video on social media including pictures of himself and family members, some of whom have died in the years since he left India. It was set to the new Punjabi song Challa Mud Ke Nahi Aaya, which roughly translates to “the beloved one never returned”.

Thousands of other videos set to the song have been posted on Instagram and TikTok by other Punjabi migrants, somber videos knitting together a kind of digital folklore, documenting suitcase-flanked family goodbyes and airplane takeoffs, hard-hatted selfies at construction sites and solitary photoshoots in front of trucks, showing vehicles parked in the shadow of rugged cliffs, or waiting in the rain for loads, or pointed toward long, narrow roads stretching beyond visibility. Inscribed on the videos are lists of years paired with flag emojis, temporally and spatially mapping the distance from home.

“When I hear that song,” Singh told me, “the emotions, the pain in my heart, it all comes out.”

Ravleen Kaur is a multimedia journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her reporting focuses on migration along the intersections of race, gender, power and policy