The motel is painted pistachio green, trimmed with reddish brown. Enter, and an eager clerk emerges from his living quarters behind the desk. A shy, dark-eyed child clings to his leg.
"May I help? he asks. He closes the door behind him, blocking a steamy aroma of curry coming from the kitchen and stifling a stream of shrill chatter from two women and another child. His name, he says, is "Mr Patel."
The place is East Windsor, N.J. It could just as easily be Scottsdale, Ariz., Richmond, Va., San Francisco, Calif., or even Kansas City, Kan. Mr. Patel is one of thousands from India, many sharing the same "caste name," Patel, who have begun to corner the market on small motels (under 50 units) in this country in the past six years.
They are the men from Gujurat, a state that was the western half of the State of Bombay until it was renamed in 1960. The Gujarati, known worldwide for their skill as merchants, are some 20 million strong in their native land. One of the wealthier castes in India, they are now becoming a strong economic force in the United States.
As recent immigrants, the Gujarati have become to motels what Greeks have been to diners. They have virtually taken over the industry in some areas and have made deep inroads in others.
Though the U.S. Department of Justice is "actively investigating" the influx of Gujarati, questioning the source of their money and the means by which they get visas, the Indians keep coming. And one of the things that attracts them is American real estate, particularly motels.
"Americans real estate is one of the best bargains in the world today," says M.D. Neil, president of Interstate Motel Brokers, USA, a franchised brokerage with headquarters in Scottsdale. "The Indians are smart merchants and they know that."
Indian motel ownership is a trend that started simultaneously on both coasts, swept the Sun Belt and is now filling in the rest of the map.
In California, Los Angeles motel broker George E. Brown sighs at the mention of Indians. "They've been in our hair for years," he said. "They answer every ad. I get at least a dozen calls from Indians every day."
Of the 5,500 smaller motels in California, at least 1,000 are owned by Indians. Around San Francisco, he says, they have bought "over 90 percent of the 'mom and pop' motels."
"In fact," he said, "the trend has peaked-now the Indians are selling out to Chinese and Taiwanese. They're getting into 7-Elevens and drive-in dairies."
Many who sell are taking their money and heading south, he said, to Arizona, Texas and Florida.
The Indians are taking over all the motels in some towns in New Mexico, according to Neil of Interstate Motel Brokers. "In Roswell, for instance there are about 20 motels," he said. "Indians bought 'em all up."
They like Arizona too, he said. "I've sold at least 50 motels to Indians," said Neil. "They now own about 25 percent of the market and are moving into the bigger motels like Holiday Inn and Ramada," which sell for $1 to $2 million each.
The Gujarati colony in Houston, estimated at 400 families, many of them in the motel business, is thought to be the largest in the world outside of India, according to Agehanand Bharati, a professor of South Asian studies at Syracuse University.
In the East, estimates of Indian ownership of small motels range up to 80 per cent in New Jersey. That figure comes from Sam Silk, an Atlantic City real estate broker "specializing in Indians."
The Southern states will be next, most brokers agree. In Richmond, motel broker Linwood Rice says the trend has already begun.
Rice has sold at least 10 fairly large properties to Indians in the past two years, most in the Hampton Roads region. "The down payments ranged from $40,000 to $100,000, so the prices were four to five times that," he said.
A Newport News broker who asked that his name not be used said Indians now own about 25 percent of the 1,135 smaller (100 units and under) motels in Virginia and the 1,200 in North Carolina. In Newport News itself, which has 23 under-100 motels, Indians own eight.
The trend started 18 months ago, the broker said. He said he had frequently "been burned" by Indians who side-step brokers by getting financial information on properties and then sending a friend to buy them, thus avoiding paying a commission.
"I don't like' em," said the broker. "They haggle, they maneuver, they do things not customary in this country."
Other Virginia brokers said the Washington area has not yet seen a heavy influx of Indians because there are few small motels here.
An Interstate Motel Broker affiliate in Florida, Diane Gilmore, said the trend seems to have barely begun there. "We get inquiries from Indians," she said, "but most of our sellers are reluctant to sell to foreigners."
Gilmore is not alone in her wariness. Kansas City motel broker Jack Myers says Indians are "a headache."
They bargain too hard." Their financial statements are inadequate, and sometimes they'll get information from you and then go to the owner and buy behind your back."
A New Jersey broker for a national chain who wished not to be identified said he "shuns Indians," despite the fact that he has nearly 20 of them on his client list. "They've got different business ethics," he said.
If those sound like ethnic slurs, the people who voice them have at least turned up enough evidence to attract the attention of the Justice Department.
A nationwide investigation of possible immigration law violations, specifically of falsifying visa eligibility, is being conducted by the Justice Department's immigrations investigation bureau and by the FBI, according to Lloyd Dewitt, an official with the visa services directorate in the State Department.
The investigation is believed to focus on the West Coast, but covers "many part of the country" including the Sun Belt states and the East Coast, he said.
The investigation is "very active," said Dewitt.
A motel broker in Arizona said he was questioned six months ago by a Phoenix FBI agent. "He wanted to know everything I knew about the Patels and where they get their money," said the broker.
The Phoenix FBI office confirmed that "the allegations concern interstate transportation of stolen travelers' checks."
The San Francisco FBI said that it had been working on the travelers' check investigation for at least four or five months. Asked if that investigation was concerned with an alleged "motel scheme" to get around immigration laws, an FBI agent said, "It's the same case. I can't say any more, but it's the same case."
The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service sets an annual limit of 290,000 immigrants from all countries, and 20,000 from any one. There are "preference" categories, or priorities for who gets to the top of the immigration list. There are also "non-preference" categories for admission.
Before 1976, the number of Indian immigrants in the "preference" categories was small enough to leave many places open for those in the "non-preference" category.
Since that was also a time when a $10,000 investment in an American business allowed a merchant to achieve non-preference status, it was a time when Indian motel investment began to flourish.
Indian immigration under the preference categories has picked up since 1976, shutting down the non-preference method of entering the United States. Indians in increasing numbers have tried for the preference categories instead, according to Dewitt at the State Department.
"They set up a motel as a corporation, themselves as the head of it, and then apply for immigration as the head of a business-a special high priority category," Dewitt said.
Before 1976, that tactic was not necessary. But about six years ago, Indians, mostly Gujarati, began leaving their country because of bad economic conditions and coming to the United States on temporary visas.
Typically, according to motel brokers and State Department officials, they would have enough cash with them to put a down payment of from $10,000 to $100,000 on a motel. They would then apply for a green card as a non-preference alien.
That is legal.
In some cases, however, officials charge, they then turned around and sold shares in that motel to as many as six more Indians, who would then also apply for green cards as non-preference aliens. Once they got permanent residence status, their relatives would be eligible for immigration "preferences."
Allegations also have been made that the motel shares were merely paper shares-that no money really changed hands.
In Arizona, Scottsdale Broker Neil says he knows of cases of an Indian buying a motel and reselling it to other Indians within a short period of time. "It may say on paper that money changes hands," he said, "but there's no way of verifying that."
The "paper sales" referred to by Neil, if they have happened, would violate both immigration laws and possibly Federal Reserve System banking regulations against falsifying financial statements.
Further, he said, "A lot of them are buying for their cousins back home. Their down payment may represent contributions from 100 relatives."
Such foreign investment is not illegal unless it is unreported. But, critics feel, it violates the intent of the immigration laws by granting residency to the owner who may really be just a front man for his backers. The law is supposed to guarantee that an immigrant has an income.
While Justice Department officials continued to investigate the "motel scheme," the Indians continue to buy motels. The number of Indian-owned motels in America, estimated at 20,000 five years ago, has grown to well over 100,000 according to Syracuse's Bharati.
Brokers across the country agree that the Indians have turned a sluggish market into a hot one.
Ten years ago, it took months, maybe a year to sell a motel, said Atlantic City broker Silk, who sells motels all over New Jersey.
"You give me 20 motel listings today," he said, "and I could sell 'em tomorrow to Indians." CAPTION:
Picture, Albert Patel (he shares the Indian caste name) operates a motel in New Jersey. Trenton Times