SIGLO XXI, LATIN America’s largest detention facility, is located blocks away from Mama Africa.
There, immigration authorities direct migrants to form two lines: one for Central Americans and one for everybody else. When I visited last December, that was mainly Cubans, Haitians, and Africans.
A Cuban couple sweated next to a stack of hard suitcases, while young Somali and Cameroonian men perched on planters, some sporting gold watches and white sneakers. Older Haitian men fiddled on cheap phones.
The scene underscored the complexities of a mass migration that many American politicians still paint as simply desperate Mexicans. While African migrants number far fewer than the Central Americans they journey alongside to the United States, their ranks have, in fact, grown far faster.
Mexico has had to adapt, Mark Manly, the U.N. refugee agency representative in Mexico, told me.
“The country is adjusting to the reality that many of the people arriving are refugees,” he said, “not all migrants in transit.”
When the couple hundred Africans showing up in Chiapas a decade ago grew to thousands, Mexican authorities had few diplomatic ties to their countries, and few resources to deport them back. So they began providing transit visas that gave them 20 days to get to the border – itself a potentially treacherous journey.
Word of this fast-track to the United States has spread and may be drawing more.
“We get migrants of all colors – blue, green,” joked Ignacio Alejandro Vila Chávez, a Mexican government lawyer representing migrants in Chiapas, who’s trained at U.S. Justice Department seminars. He said the African influx is one of the most significant changes he’s witnessed.
Bertrand Chofong, one of a group of three stylish Cameroonian migrants outside Siglo XXI, told me, “If I didn’t leave my country, I would be dead by now.”
Cameroonian security forces detained the 21-year-old nursing student amid deadly unrest between minority English speakers and a French-speaking majority. Upon release, he fled immediately to South Africa. From there, his path aligned exactly with Hassan’s.
Chofong was hoping to join his mother in Maryland. After he and his companions got transit visas from Siglo XXI, they’d take a bus straight to Tijuana. Smugglers had given them directions on how to get the rest of the way North.
Even if Africans like Hassan or Chofong to make it to the border, what happens next is unclear. While Mexico City will not necessarily deport them, Washington would certainly like to.
Trump boasts of his immigration crackdown as a success, particularly after the number of apprehensions and migrants deemed “inadmissible” by border agents dropped to their lowest level in nearly 50 years in fiscal 2017. At the same time, after an initial sharp drop after Trump’s inauguration, arrests and inadmissible cases at the U.S.-Mexico border have steadily increased since May, indicating people are still turning up at the border, in increasing numbers.
The administration has vowed to target “abuse” of asylum, and frontline immigration officers are reportedly turning away asylum-seekers. And while asylum applications in the U.S. have more than doubled in the past few years, Trump officials have at the same time lowered approval rates.
According to an analysis of the latest Homeland Security data, from January to September, immigration authorities have approved affirmative asylum requests 20 percent less on average compared to the Obama administration’s final year.
In fiscal year 2017, U.S. Border Patrol deemed 6,728 Africans at ports of entry, including 187 Somalis, “inadmissible,” refusing them admission to the country. The administration also deported more than 521 Somalis to Mogadishu, compared to 198 in fiscal year 2016. The Somali ambassador to the United States has protested this, saying it is still too dangerous, while some advocates have expressed concerns that Somali asylum-seekers are being coerced into signing letters saying they wish to go back.
U.S. border authorities are trying to deter asylum claims by requiring would-be refugees to wait in Mexico, said Frelick of Human Rights Watch.
“Which you would assume would require the consent of the Mexican government,” Frelick said, continuing, “This is not a cozy relationship at the moment.”
Mark Yarnell, a liaison to the U.N. and senior advocate at Refugees International, told me that “if safe and legal pathways aren’t there, [refugees] are going to link up with smugglers and take riskier options, and more people are going to die.”
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