LAREDO, Texas – Congolese in Nuevo Laredo. Cubans in Ciudad Juarez. Haitians in Tijuana.
Encouraged by Mexico’s lax immigration rules and held up by President Donald Trump’s border policies, refugees from countries other than Central America and Mexico are streaming to the U.S.-Mexican border at a rising clip, often to be kept in asylum limbo.
In Nuevo Laredo, across the border from this South Texas city, more than 1,500 Central and West African refugees have massed at the border, trying to seek asylum but stuck while U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents slowly process only a handful of migrants a day, said Mike Smith, a Methodist pastor who runs a migrant shelter in Laredo. Some have been there for more than two months, he said.
“They don’t speak the language, they don’t have money, they’re not very well-received in Mexico,” Smith said. “They’re in limbo.”
Large caravans of Central Americans – from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – arriving at the border have dominated headlines in recent months, but asylum seekers from an array of other countries have steadily arrived, posing a more complex challenge to immigration officials on both sides of the border.
Last week, Border Patrol agents from the Del Rio Sector in Texas apprehended a group of 37 immigrants from the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including families and small children, as they attempted to cross into the USA.
Since the beginning of fiscal year 2019, which began Oct. 1, 2018, agents across the U.S.-Mexican border have apprehended more than 27,000 people from 37 countries other than Mexico, according to Border Patrol statistics. Del Rio Sector’s apprehensions of non-Mexican migrants this year has increased by nearly 500% over the same period in fiscal year 2018.
“We are continuing to see a rise in apprehensions of immigrants from countries not normally encountered in our area,” Del Rio Sector Chief Patrol Agent Raul Ortiz said in a statement. “Groups of family units from around the world are traveling thousands of miles just to enter the United States illegally to exploit our immigration laws.”
The first recent surges of Central Americans arrived at the U.S. border around 2014, said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston.
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Cubans came next in large numbers about three years later when the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which allowed them to remain in the country legally if they reached U.S. soil, was revoked by President Barack Obama in January 2017.
Last year, more than 3,000 Haitians flocked to Tijuana in hopes of reaching the USA, said Payan, who travels frequently to border cities on research trips. As their asylum proceedings dragged out, many chose to stay in the Mexican border city, creating a Haitian colony.
Much of Trump’s immigration policy relies on Mexico restricting who crosses its borders and dealing with those who enter illegally. Last week, Trump threatened to raise tariffs on Mexican goods if the country doesn’t better police its borders.
Mexican immigration officials struggle with migrants from faraway countries, Payan said.
“What do you do with non-Central Americans? You can’t put them on a bus to Africa,” Payan said. “You have to really deal with them and really invest. That’s expensive for Mexico. And it’s not sustainable.”
For years, migrants escaping war and hardship from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola and other African countries have streamed to the Nuevo Laredo crossing to try to enter the USA, Smith said. Unlike other migrants, the Africans rarely cross between ports of entry, choosing instead to abide by U.S. and Mexican law and wait their turn at the border, he said.
Thousands of migrants flocked to Brazil to work in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Smith said. After the Olympics, many of them headed to the USA. The Congolese often speak broken Portuguese, a little French and some Spanish, Smith said. He has struggled to find interpreters who speak Lingala, their native tongue.
Unlike migrants from Central America and Mexico, the African migrants rarely have a contact in the USA waiting to sponsor them, Smith said. Central Americans stay at his shelter for a few days before connecting with friends or families; the African migrants are usually there for a week or more, he said.
When the Africans heard about caravans of Central American migrants headed to the USA, many of them rushed to the border in hopes of getting there first – only to be stuck in limbo, Smith said.
“They’re getting the worst end of the stick,” Smith said.
Across the bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Kilema Nzengo, 35, spends her afternoons sitting on a street corner near the border crossing with a plastic cup in hand, begging for change. Nzengo said she left her native Democratic Republic of the Congo this year to escape gunbattles in her village. She pulled back a pant leg to show the scar where, she said, a bullet tore through her right knee.
She came to the U.S.-Mexican border with her 9-year-old daughter, Priscilla, traveling from Africa to Ecuador up through the jungles of Colombia, through Central America and finally across Mexico to Nuevo Laredo.
Out of money and with very limited language skills, she said she’s waited to speak to U.S. immigration officials for more than a month. Under Trump’s new rules, border agents use a process known as “metering,” where only a handful of migrants are allowed to cross at a time, further slowing the process.
“We are suffering,” Nzengo said. “They tell us to wait and write down our names. But nothing happens.”
Sister Rosemary Welsh, who runs Casa de Misericordia, a Laredo-based shelter for abused migrant women, often visits migrants at U.S. immigration detention centers in Laredo. For months, she visited an Angolan woman who had been locked up for more than a year, she said. The woman had seen her family massacred in front of her and had a strong asylum case but struggled to get her case heard, Welsh said. She only recently bonded out.
“It’s just more complex for them to try to work through the process,” Welsh said. “Getting people to support them, getting people to take their cases, it’s all more difficult.”
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.
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