As Trump Blocks Refugees, Africans Fleeing Violence Make the Treacherous Trip to the U.S. through Mexico
The hostel in Tapachula looked at first like any other border town flophouse. Dark back rooms with naked mattresses. Dust unspooling in the sunlit lobby. A bird cage under a dirty towel. A few tenants hung out over smartphones, skin slick in the thick air of southernmost Mexico. Then a young woman in a black hijab passed through.
“Salam alaikum,” she said, exchanging greetings with a Somali student who’d folded himself onto a small bench in the lobby. Her long skirt disappeared around the corner.
The student chose the pseudonym Ahmed Ali Hassan, the Somali equivalent of anonymity, and kept his voice low. He was 24, and the hostel’s other guests were mostly young African men like him.
Another Somali sat down next to Hassan, warning that my colleague and I could be spies. The month before, American voters had elected Donald Trump, who campaigned on suspicion of refugees and Somalis in particular. Now they had their own.
The Somali turned to me: “Do you know Sarah Palin?”
I said I didn’t, and he got up, unimpressed. “Check your luck,” he said over his shoulder. “She calls the shots now in Trump’s White House.”
“Maybe they are rich in the USA,” an Eritrean interjected. “They can help us.” Hassan shrugged.
Welcome to ” Mama Africa,” as the hostel has become known, thanks to the new clientele.
After serving Mexicans and Central Americans for years, the 24-room, $2.50-a-night hostel has reinvented itself in order to meet a surge of African migrants transiting Mexico. When I met Hassan there last December, most of the tenants hailed from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Last year, Mexican authorities recorded nearly 4,000 Africans entering the country, an almost 400 percent increase from 2014. This year, as of November, more than 1,800 Africans have arrived, including 84 Somalis. They are fleeing poverty, civil war, jihadi insurgency, and famine, and way stations in Mexico like Mama Africa are merely a pause along an unbelievable route to the most unlikely of destinations: the United States, under the new anti-immigrant regime of President Trump.
Trump’s policies may be exacerbating the global refugee crisis and unwittingly bringing it to his doorstep.
Trump’s latest travel ban – which the Supreme Court allowed to take effect last Monday – indefinitely bars most citizens from seven countries, including Somalia. And while refugees aren’t subject to the ban, the administration is making it harder than ever to ask for a safe haven in the United States. After a total halt to refugee admissions, the Trump administration announced it would resume resettling them, but made 11 countries subject to additional scrutiny, again including Somalia. Trump cut the number of refugees the United States will accept this year to 45,000, a historic low.
The administration’s cynical calculus is that it is less burdensome to “keep them over there.” Yet Trump’s policies may be exacerbating the global refugee crisis and unwittingly bringing it to his doorstep.
By slashing assistance to African countries with some of the largest refugee populations but stepping up counterterrorism strikes, Trump risks fueling the conflicts that compel people to migrate in the first place. And by cracking down on immigration, whether through travel bans or near-impossible requirements, he is simultaneously closing the few official avenues refugees have for resettlement. Like Hassan, many now believe their only chance at survival is to get themselves onto U.S. soil and claim asylum.
Bill Frelick, director at Human Rights Watch’s refugee program, told me the administration’s “short-sighted” approach “is going to be far more costly and potentially more destabilizing.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
As the United States and Europe resort to increasingly draconian deterrents to keep out migrants, African nations hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees are beginning to push them out. Meanwhile, South and Central American countries maintain some of the most relaxed immigration requirements in the world. The combined effect has busted open this migration route through the Americas to the United States.
It’s not without risk. When I met Hassan in Mama Africa, he walked us through his four-month exodus for hours, but declined to give his contact information. He did not want to be found again – not by me, not by immigration authorities, and not by those in Somalia who wanted him dead. Not when he’d made it this far, traversing 11 countries and entire continents. Not when only the last obstacle remained.
“At this time, Donald Trump is president – he hates all Somali people,” Hassan told me matter-of-factly. “Because one Somali guy is terrorist, he doesn’t represent all Somalis.” Still, he was undeterred. “I have to reach, to make my dream come true.”
African migrants arrive at the border between Guatemala and Mexico during the summer of 2016. Most migrants fly from Africa to Brazil or Ecuador then travel by foot, boat, and bus to the United States. Photo: Encarni Pindado
In Somalia, Hassan spent his mornings watching his family’s small shop, and his afternoons studying project management at a nearby university. He described it as a “normal life,” but it soon ran aground on what he wryly called Somalia’s “special problem” – two wars. “One war, with the terrorists and the government, and the second war, by tribes and clans,” he said.
Since the collapse of Somalia’s government in Mogadishu in 1991, decades of sectarian conflict, armed militias, and inept governance have led to the label of ” failed state.” Constant outside meddling, in particular by the United States, has exacerbated the instability, according to Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
On November 3, the U.S. military bombed Islamic State fighters in Somalia for the first time, after a decade of counterterrorism strikes aimed at the militant group Shabab. Trump has loosened Obama-era restrictions to allow offensives in Somalia and greater risk of civilian casualties. But the head of U.S. Africa Command reportedly delayed flexing his new authorities due to militants mixing in with civilians displaced by famine. In October, attacks in Mogadishu attributed to Shabab killed some 400 people.
As for Hassan, he’d fallen in love with a girl he met in his family’s shop, though she was from the largest tribe, and he was from the smallest. They eloped after her relatives rejected his marriage offer. They were forced to return when they ran out of money. Her brother broke his own hand beating her, and her relatives demanded Hassan’s family hand him over.
He fled, and a week later, they killed his brother instead.
“My brother died to save me,” Hassan said without looking up, tears falling into his hands. “I am responsible.”
They may have killed Hassan, too, had he not known another way out: The migration route that winds up through the Western Hemisphere from South to North America. From Africa to Brazil, then Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala, to reach Mexico. Last stop, the U.S. border.
Those from the Horn of Africa, like Hassan, have paved this path of more than 27,000 miles through word-of-mouth, social media, and payment to smugglers. The route isn’t new, but Mexican authorities have seen the number of migrants from Africa grow from a trickle to just under 10,000 over the past five years, with Somalis accounting for about a quarter. This year alone, Africans are on pace to top 2,000.
Mexican authorities have seen the number of migrants from Africa grow from a trickle to just under 10,000 over the past five years.
Those numbers may pale in comparison to the Mediterranean Sea crossing to Europe. But if they can only get there, Mexico may be the one place in the world right now where it’s easier to be a refugee from Africa.
Instead of dutifully serving as the United States’s last line of defense, this year, Mexican officials have provided 98 percent of African arrivals with ” transit visas,” or papers that permit them to continue north, compared to only 2 percent of nearly 70,000 Central American arrivals.
Legal obligations make it more difficult for U.S. immigration authorities to turn migrants out if they claim asylum upon reaching U.S. soil, and migrants know this. By last September, when Hassan needed to get out of Somalia, fast, he was well-aware of the big-haired American who called for a “shutdown of Muslims,” but also that the surest way to make it to the United States was to get to Mexico and present himself at the border.
Bringing little more than the phone numbers of a few Somalis who’d made it, Hassan crossed into neighboring Kenya. There, he linked up with Somali middlemen who took his passport to secure documents for South America.
When Hassan boarded a flight from Kenya to Brazil, he’d heard the journey could be deadly, but he also knew he’d be with other Somalis. Relaxed visa requirements in South America have lured African migrants by the thousands, particularly to Brazil and Ecuador, whose standards are among the most lax.
The risks for any migrant making their way through the Americas are well-documented: Death. Extortion. Rape. But on top of these, African migrants share the acute vulnerabilities of lacking documentation, not speaking the language, and carrying more cash. By the time I met Hassan in Mexico in December, he had spent roughly $10,000.
Hassan and other migrants hid money in their socks, shoes, pockets, bags, underwear, and mouths. He still lost much of it after being robbed repeatedly.
In Peru, he said, taxis drivers promised to take them around immigration checkpoints, but instead held them up with knives. They then took them to the police – who charged $20 a person to let them continue.
“‘Otherwise we will kill you,'” Hassan said the police told them.
In Turbo, Colombia, around 40 men from a local gang showed up at his group’s hotel. One Somali who could speak a little Spanish translated: “‘Give them the money – they will shoot you now.'”
One man asked Hassan’s size, eyeing his sneakers – where he was hiding $3,000. They were too big, so the man left them.
In the Darién Gap, the nearly 20,000-square-mile mass of jungle and swamp dividing continents and crossing Colombia and Panama, Hassan said he began to see bodies.
“I can’t express some words what I saw there,” he said.
Ditched by their guide, Hassan’s group wandered lost for so long that his legs started swelling. When they at last reached a camp in Panama, authorities there had to cut his boots off.
Nicaragua, which has blocked migrants, was the closest Hassan came to dying. Smugglers herded a group of roughly 100 Indians, Pakistanis, Eritreans, and Somalis into a truck with no air. They’d paid about $1,200 a head.
The group tore two small holes in the side of the trailer, and took turns gasping for air. The drivers stopped only once, to tell their illicit cargo: “If they catch us for human trafficking, they will kill us.”
Hours later, the doors flew open, and the drivers yelled at them to run toward the woods, and the Honduran border. But at least one Eritrean and Indian, Hassan said, hadn’t made it.
He took a bus to Guatemala, then to the Suchiate River marking the border with Mexico. For a few dollars, countless people and palates of goods crisscross the international waters, guided by young men pushing long sticks through the mud like cheap gondoliers. Hassan crossed to Tapachula.
“They all believe [they are] going to die,” Hassan said. “All of us, every one.”
The details of Hassan’s story couldn’t be independently verified, but the outline aligns with what other migrants in Tapachula described to me, as well as many accounts collected by other journalists, human rights groups, and institutions, such as the United Nations.
“They all believe [they are] going to die,” Hassan said of the journey. “All of us, every one.”
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.”
“The country is adjusting to the reality that many of the people arriving are refugees, 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.
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.”
The new administration has met opposition to its early proposals to gut the budget for foreign aid and the State Department, which would decimate Africa operations. In September, the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee soundly rejected the plan.
Yarnell said he’s concerned by the administration’s blind faith in firepower.
“With Somalia, as with a lot of these places, the military isn’t a panacea.”
“With Somalia, as with a lot of these places,” he said, “the military isn’t a panacea.”
Bruton, of the Atlantic Council, said the Trump administration seems to be spearheading a global “militarization” of refugee policy, with other countries deciding to follow his dogma. Since Trump’s election, Kenya, for example, has renewed its threats to shutter the world’s largest refugee camp where Somalis have lived for decades, and vowed to appeal a February court decision blocking the move. In doing so, Kenyan officials point to the United States’s and Europe’s lead and demand more money for security.
“Trump’s solution seems to be ‘build a wall,'” Frelick told me. “But that also telegraphs to Somalia’s neighbors, and Syria’s neighbors, and Afghanistan’s neighbors: ‘We’re building our wall and pushing people back; you can build your wall, and do the same thing.'”
As for Hassan, I do not know whether he made it to his American dream. He hoped to join family in New York after turning himself in once he’d crossed the border.
But what his already epic journey makes clear is that Trump’s ad hoc immigration and national security strategy is proving counterproductive.
Many migrants bring with them indomitable resilience, born of the desperation that prompts a 24-year-old Somali student to defy an American president and seek out a new home more than 20,000 miles away.
In Mama Africa, after Hassan recounted his exodus across the world in minute detail, I remarked stupidly on his photographic memory.
“I’ll never, ever forget this journey,” he told me quietly. The threats he survived had cemented every detail in his mind, along with a bleak lesson: “There is no humanity.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported this project as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.