Jean came to the United States like many immigrants that are making the news. He crossed the Mexican border. His story however starts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), one of the poorest countries in Africa, a Central African country with a population of around 80 million.
He left with his wife and children in 2016 to find a better life and escape violence in his country; the same reasons most immigrants say they come to America. The family flew to South Africa, then Brazil, stayed there for a while. They then went to Argentina, then Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and then Columbia. They never settled in any of these countries. From Columbia they traveled through the jungles to Panama, then to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and they finally crossed the southern Mexican border into Tapachula in 2019.
When Jean and his family left the DRC the “objective was to get to a country where we could be protected and start our lives again,” he said when he was interviewed by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
In each country, Jean hoped, “we would eventually arrive somewhere where we would be considered as human beings. But we were never considered as human beings anywhere in Latin America—especially not in Mexico.”
That experience is typical for Blacks at the Mexican-U.S. border who are often beaten, robbed, denied health care, food and basic services. BAJI conducted interviews with experts, service providers in Mexico, and Mexican immigration lawyers from March to July 2020. Their findings are in a report, “There is a Target on Us: The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on African Migrants at Mexico’s Southern Border.”
African immigrants at the Mexican border are coming from five predominant countries, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ghana, and Somalia.
“Africans travel to Brazil sometimes from Angola to Brazil because they spoke Portuguese. Once they got to Brazil, they would work their way across to Venezuela then to the northern part of South America. From there they would get to the Mexican border,” Abdul Akbar Muhammad, international representative for the Nation of Islam told The Final Call.
“I know brothers who have done this. I’ve talked to them. I asked, ‘How did you leave Ghana and end up in Mexico, crossing the border?’ For many they were able to get visas easily from Brazil to attend or participate in the World Cup. The Brazilian embassy in Ghana gave a lot of visas and the people had no intentions of coming back after the World Cup,” he added.
Europe has made it increasingly hard for Africans to immigrate there. In 2016, the European Union signed agreements with Turkey and Libya making it more difficult for migrants to enter Greece or Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. These agreements externalize Europe’s immigration enforcement outside its borders, thereby preventing Africans from safely migrating to the continent.
Since 2014, when the UN’s migration agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM), began keeping track, more than 21,500 people have died or disappeared attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Since January of this year almost 300 have perished. The actual number is higher since some deaths are never officially recorded.
The Mediterranean is not the only grave site for African immigrants. Statistics show that thousands more have died in the Sahara Desert and in Libya. Without an official count, the IOM estimates the number may be twice as high as the deaths in the Mediterranean.
Africans now see the best route to America is through South America. “The Africans arrive in Brazil and then travel through the South American countries until they get to Mexico. From Mexico they pay people to bring them across the border. They have been left out of the picture and not basically mentioned. However, many of them are there. This has been the latest way that they have been getting into America,” said Mr. Muhammad. The desire of many is to earn money in America to send to their families back home where jobs are limited, he noted.
African migration to the Americas has been on the rise since the end of the 20th century. In 2010, a significant number of Africans immigrated to or were resettled in the United States under the diversity visa program, family reunification, or refugee resettlement.
African migration by way of Mexico has largely been transitory and undocumented according to BAJI’s report. It found several sources had recorded Africans migrating north through the Americas since the beginning of the 21st century: Ghanaians and Ethiopians since the year 2000; 84 Somalis as early as 2001; and 85 Eritreans since the early 2000s.
In 2007, Mexico started including African migrants in its annual reports. Since then, there has been a constant increase in the number of African migrants at the Mexican border. In 2014, Mexico registered 785 detentions of African nationals. By 2019, the number increased to over 7,000.
Africans arrive in Mexico via Tapachula—a city near the Mexico-Guatemala border. For several years they were issued “exit permits” by Mexican immigration officials. These documents allowed them to continue North to seek asylum in the United States. These permits stopped in mid-2019 when Mexico enacted stricter immigration policies because of pressure from the Trump administration.
Haitians face discrimination too.“There has been a systematic effort to demonize Haitians by negative brush strokes such as they are worshipers of sorcery and voodoo. This campaign of demonizing Haitians has continued from the time that we declared our independence by defeating our slave masters and the French. Haiti is always associated with natural disasters, death and instability,” Haitian attorney Yusef Makhandal told The Final Call.
The problem for Blacks at the border is so severe that members of the Congressional Black Caucus including Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Yvette Clarke (D-NY) visited Tijuana, Mexico, with Rep. Juan Vargaa (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus whose California district includes the border, on a fact-finding mission in November 2019.
When they returned, they conducted a Congressional Field Hearing hosted by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations.
“African and Caribbean immigrants who immigrate to the United States of America are treated as if they are invisible,” Rep. Bass, then chairwoman of the 55-member CBC told the media.
Nana Gyamfi, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration testified at the 2019 hearing. “After the meeting at the border, even representative Juan Vargas recommended that Black asylum seekers not be required to stay on the other side of the border at all. Based upon the anti-Blackness, the experience, the lack of language access, as you can imagine the Black folks that are there do not speak Spanish.
Many, especially from the Horn of Africa speak Amharic,” she told The Final Call in a recent telephone interview. Her concerns are that now only a few years after that visit to the border under the Trump administration, under the current Biden administration, the CBC has gone silent about Blacks at the border, said Atty. Gyamfi.The Final Call reached out to Rep. Bass but received no response by presstime.
“There’s still a desire to give this administration some room and to not really attack this administration or hold a mirror up to this administration on things, especially where the administration already feels uncomfortable,” said Atty. Gyamfi.
“I think that the fact that the administration has made it clear that this border issue is one that they’re very sensitive about has meant that you don’t hear as many Black voices being raised, from congressional level around it. I think that having Vice President Kamal Harris be in charge of the border, it’s going to have people be even less willing to speak up because now they’ve put a Black woman in charge of the border.”
The CBC seemed not to want to attack or challenge other Blacks when they are responsible or are in high positions, she argued.
“But as an attack, what we should be attacking is anti-Blackness, which is racism, which is police violence and the use of violence by law enforcement, and surveillance by law enforcement. Those are the things that really need to be dismantled, addressed and the conditions of Black asylum seekers at the border. Give us that opportunity,” she said. “I’m afraid that at the highest levels of government that Black folks in those positions are missing this moment.”
—Nisa Islam Muhammad, Staff Writer