African Migrants Journey to U.S. Border in Search of Asylum

The U.S.-Mexico border, pictured here from the air, is receiving more attention as Afircan migrants cross it to seek asylum in the U.S. WikiImages. CC0.

The U.S.-Mexico border, pictured here from the air, is receiving more attention as Afircan migrants cross it to seek asylum in the U.S. WikiImages. CC0.

African migrants, mostly from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are beginning to congregate at U.S. border cities, especially San Antonio, Texas and Portland, Maine, seeking asylum. 

Many are flying to South America and joining fellow migrants in traveling well-trodden paths across Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, since they have been proven to work. Europe has also recorded a sharp drop in the number of African migrants and refugees who have reached its border.

Migrants who do try to make the treacherous journey across the Meditteranean often never make it there. The EU began a regional disembarkation policy last June, which named Libya as the new center for processing refugee and asylum applications for those seeking to leave Africa for Europe. However, asylum-seekers stopped by the EU-trained and equipped Libyan Coast Guard are brought back to civil war-torn Libya. Roughly 700,000 refugees are in local detention centers, facing starvation, sexual violence, and torture, according to Foreign Policy. There is also the possibility of being captured by Libyan smugglers. Many people have either gone missing or died. Official numbers have not been released.

Niger is taking in refugees so they don’t need to stay in Libya while they wait to be fully resettled in a new host country, but is only accepting a limited number of people due to its own low poverty rate. The resettlement process can take anywhere from 8 to 12 months. Often, Africans are finding that it is easier to avoid the Mediterranean altogether, due to the trouble Libya’s smugglers and detention centers can cause. 12 countries have so far pledged to help resettle the refugees, though the U.S. is not one of them.

American border agents first started noticing the high numbers at the Del Rio border station in southern Texas last month. According to Time, the sheer number of people is overwhelming. “When we have 4,000 people in custody, we consider it high,” Customs and Border Patrol’s commissioner John Sanders said, according to the BBC. “If there’s 6,000 people in custody, we considered it a crisis. Right now, we have nearly 19,000 people in custody. So it’s just off the charts.”

According to NPR, one such refugee journey involved a family of six flying to Ecuador and traveling by foot across Central America to eventually end up in the border city of Portland, Maine. They were fleeing civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their destination was a makeshift border shelter—a converted sports arena—that was described as “paradise” by the father. Randy Capps, the director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said, "That journey through Central America and Mexico has been facilitated by these large migrant caravans, by more sophisticated and faster smuggling routes, and it's an easier journey from Guatemala onward than it has been in the past."

Once they get through the border station, migrants are brought to relief shelters. Staff have been bringing in Swahili and French translators. Portland city officials are hopeful for the future, seeing the migrants as a necessary part of the future workforce, especially since the city has an elderly population. Still, the influx has stressed the city in terms of space. The converted arena currently houses over 200 people.

Volunteers assist at the shelter, offering food and medical supplies and playing games with the children. Donations of both money and supplies have been pouring in. Maine governor Janet Mills has stated that she wants the state to help out, saying that Maine’s residents have a “proud tradition” of caring for their neighbors.




NOEMI ARELLANO-SUMMER is a journalist and writer living in Boston, MA. She is a voracious reader and has a fondness for history and art. She is currently at work on her first novel and wants to eventually take a trip across Europe.

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This Small Mexican Border Town Prizes its Human and Environmental Links with the US

Lucia Orosco holding her daughter, Arely, in Boquillas. Much of the embroidery created here reads ‘no el muro’ (no wall). Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Lucia Orosco holding her daughter, Arely, in Boquillas. Much of the embroidery created here reads ‘no el muro’ (no wall). Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

The tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen sits nestled between the Sierra del Carmen Mountains and the Rio Grande. Its Chihuahuan Desert location is strikingly beautiful, with green vegetation along the river, the brown soil of the surrounding desert and pink mountain cliffs creating splendid color contrasts.

I have been taking students to this magnificent landscape for 20 years – mostly to Big Bend National Park in Texas, just a mile north of Boquillas. My colleagues and I have also studied the ecological and economic value of this habitat, one of the most biodiverse and ecologically important desert regions in the world.

Recently I returned to study the ecotourism and conservation potential of Boquillas. In the process, I learned about a local vision for the border that is markedly different from the prevailing U.S. view.

Mexican jays range north into the U.S. through the Big Bend region and in southeastern Arizona.  NPS/Cookie Ballou

Mexican jays range north into the U.S. through the Big Bend region and in southeastern Arizona. NPS/Cookie Ballou

Here the Rio Grande forms the line between the United States and Mexico. The river is an ecological gathering place that draws humans and wildlife. For Boquillas residents, the idea of building a wall here is sacrilegious. As Lilia Falcon, manager of a local restaurant, said to me, “We have friends on both sides of the river, we want these interactions to continue.” Her husband, Bernardo Rogel, was more succinct: “We love both countries.”

View of Boquillas, Mexico. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

View of Boquillas, Mexico. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

A fragile ecotourism economy

Boquillas was originally a mining town, with local deposits of silver, lead and zinc that attracted prospectors. By the early 20th century, 2,000 people lived there and a thriving industry was exporting ore.

That boom turned to bust, and by the end of World War I the mines were closed. The town nearly disappeared in the 1960s, but in 1999 when I first visited there, it had about 200 residents. They made their living from cross-border tourism, with U.S. visitors to Big Bend National Park entering Mexico via a legal but unofficial border crossing.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, the United States closed all of these informal crossings. Overnight Boquillas lost its income source, ruining livelihoods and jeopardizing years of effort by residents and government officials to build cooperative border relations.

The nearest place to get supplies was now a 300-mile round trip over rough roads deep into rural Mexico. Just three miles away on the U.S. side, gas, food and services in Big Bend National Park’s Rio Grande Village campground were now inaccessible. Relatives who were citizens on opposite sides of the border were separated, 115 miles from the nearest legal crossing point.

After more than a decade of lobbying by residents, the U.S. government created a “remote” passport facility, where people crossing the border could present their documentation by phone to a border agent located in El Paso. Boquillas reopened and merchants and guides returned. In 2018 more than 11,000 visitors crossed over from the United States.

Crossing to Boquillas by rowboat from Big Bend National Park.  NPS / T. VandenBerg

Crossing to Boquillas by rowboat from Big Bend National Park. NPS / T. VandenBerg

Today Boquillas residents are working again to teach visitors about this part of Mexico, and ecotourism companies are expanding. People here envision a future for the border in which respect, cooperation and shared economic gain will create a prosperous and sustainable future for communities on both sides.

Welcoming visitors and valuing connections

It is obvious to me that people in Boquillas love their town and are hopeful about the future. “I want to show visitors the beauty of my home and to have a more prosperous life for my family,” Lacho Falcón, a local guide whose family owns the only grocery store in town, told me on my most recent visit as we hiked into Boquillas canyon, its massive vertical walls gleaming in soft morning light.

Lacho Falcón (second from left, rear) and his family in Boquillas. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Lacho Falcón (second from left, rear) and his family in Boquillas. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

I have heard that sentiment repeated many times as I have gotten to know more people in the town. Thanks to economic activity from tourism, “We have been able to buy a vehicle, improve our house, and most importantly, send our oldest daughter Wendy to college,” said Lucia Orosco. She sells crafts to help support her family, which includes husband Adrián, who manages the ferry crossing over the Rio Grande, and their three children.

Canoeing the Rio Grande is a favorite tourist activity. The river cuts through spectacular canyons, supports abundant wildlife and provides water for this thirsty land. I spoke with Ernesto Hernández Morales from Vera Cruz, Mexico and Mike Davidson from Terlingua, Texas about the river’s potential to unify their countries. As partners with Boquillas Adventures, a Mexican registered ecotourism company that focuses on natural and historic interpretation, they are working to expand sustainable tourism opportunities in nearby protected areas, hiring local residents as guides.

“We see our work as more than a business,” said Hernández Morales. “It’s an opportunity to show Mexico and the U.S. working together for security and prosperity.” Davidson concurs: “It is our goal to provide our guests a high-quality, safe experience…and offer them a glimpse of daily reality on this part of the border.”

Ernesto Hernández Morales helps run Boquillas Adventures, an ecotourism company in the Boquillas region. Matthew Moran,  CC BY-ND

Ernesto Hernández Morales helps run Boquillas Adventures, an ecotourism company in the Boquillas region. Matthew Moran, CC BY-ND

Chalo Diaz, a local guide who takes visitors on river trips, is excited about his work. “Boquillas is a beautiful town where you can visit friendly people. Now that the border has reopened, we have improved it and are connected to the world,” he told me.

United ecologically, separated politically?

In 2011 Mexico and the United States signed a cooperative agreement to conserve the spectacular Chihuahuan Desert landscape. This initiative builds on proposals dating back nearly a century to create a cross-border international peace park.

American black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and a host of smaller animals, as well as over 400 species of birds, move across this landscape. Studies show that conserving this region requires maintaining free movement for wildlife. Researchers warn that building a border wall through the area could threaten thousands of plant and animal species by preventing them from moving between patches of the best habitat.

Currently Boquillas is the only access point where people can cross between the protected areas in this region. This makes it critical to future conservation success. People in Boquillas believe that building a border wall would sever this connection, causing hardship and insecurity on both sides.

MATTHEW D. MORAN is a Professor of Biology at Hendrix College.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION.

For Native Americans, US-Mexico Border is an ‘Imaginary Line’

A steel wall along the U.S. border near Tecate, California, cuts across Mount Cuchame, a site sacred to the Kumeyaay people.  Reuters/Adrees Latif

A steel wall along the U.S. border near Tecate, California, cuts across Mount Cuchame, a site sacred to the Kumeyaay people. Reuters/Adrees Latif

Immigration restrictions were making life difficult for Native Americans who live along – and across – the U.S.-Mexico border even before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to build his border wall.

The traditional homelands of 36 federally recognized tribes – including the Kumeyaay, Pai, Cocopah, O’odham, Yaqui, Apache and Kickapoo peoples – were split in two by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and 1853 Gadsden Purchase, which carved modern-day California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas out of northern Mexico.

Today, tens of thousands of people belonging to U.S. Native tribes live in the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, Coahuila and Chihuahua, my research estimates. The Mexican government does not recognize indigenous peoples in Mexico as nations as the U.S. does, so there is no enrollment system there.

Still, many Native people in Mexico routinely cross the U.S.-Mexico border to participate in cultural events, visit religious sites, attend burials, go to school or visit family. Like other “non-resident aliens,” they must pass through rigorous security checkpoints, where they are subject to interrogation, inspection and rejection or delay.

Many Native Americans I’ve interviewed for anthropological research on indigenous activism call the U.S.-Mexico border “the imaginary line” – an invisible boundary created by colonial powers that claim sovereign indigenous territories as their own.

border wall would further separate Native peoples from friends, relatives and tribal resources that span the U.S.-Mexico border.

Homelands divided

Tribal members say that many Native Americans in the U.S. feel detached from their relatives in Mexico.

“The effect of a wall is already in us,” Mike Wilson, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, told me. “It already divides us.”

The Tohono O’odham are among the U.S. federal tribes fighting the government’s efforts to beef up existing security with a border wall. In late January, the Tohono O'odham, Pascua Yaqui and National Congress of Indian Americans met to create a proposal for facilitating indigenous border crossing.

The Tohono O'odham already know how life changes when traditional lands are physically partitioned.

Verlon Jose, vice-chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, at the border barrier that traverses the Tohono O'odham reservation in Chukut Kuk, Ariz., in 2017.  Reuters/Rick Wilking

Verlon Jose, vice-chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, at the border barrier that traverses the Tohono O'odham reservation in Chukut Kuk, Ariz., in 2017. Reuters/Rick Wilking

By U.S. law, enrolled Tohono O’odham members in Mexico are eligible to receive educational and medical services in Tohono O'odham lands in the U.S.

That has become difficult since 2006, when a steel vehicle barrier was built along most of the 62-mile stretch of U.S.-Mexico border that bisects the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Previously, to get to the U.S. side of Tohono O’odham territory, many tribe members would simply drive across their land. Now, they must travel long distances to official ports of entry.

One Tohono O'odham rancher told The New York Times in 2017 that he must travel several miles to draw water from a well 100 yards away from his home – but in Mexico.

And Pacific Standard magazine reported in February 2019 that three Tohono O'odham villages in Sonora, Mexico, had been cut off from their nearest food supply, which was in the U.S.

Native rights

Land is central to Native communities’ historic, spiritual and cultural identity.

Several international agreements – including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – confirm these communities’ innate rights to draw on cultural and natural resourcesacross international borders.

An 1894 map of indigenous North American languages shows how Native homelands span modern-day national borders. British Library

An 1894 map of indigenous North American languages shows how Native homelands span modern-day national borders.British Library

The United States offers few such protections.

Officially, various federal laws and treaties affirm the rights of federally recognized tribes to cross between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The Jay Treaty of 1794 grants indigenous peoples on the U.S.-Canada border the right to freely pass and repass the border. It also gives Canadian-born indigenous persons the right to live and work in the United States.

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 says that the U.S. will protect and preserve Native American religious rights, including “access to sacred sites” and “possession of sacred objects.” And the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act protects Native American human remains, burial sites and sacred objects.

United States law also requires that federally recognized sovereign tribal nations on the U.S.-Mexico border must be consulted in federal border enforcement planning.

In practice, however, the free passage of Native people who live across both the United States’ northern or southern border is curtailed by strict identification laws.

The United States requires anyone entering the country to present a passport or other U.S.-approved identification confirming their citizenship or authorization to enter. The Real ID Act of 2005 allows the Department of Homeland Security secretary to waive any U.S. law – including those protecting indigenous rights – that may impede border enforcement.

Several standard U.S. tribal identification documents – including Form I-872 American Indian Card and enhanced tribal photo identification cards – are approved travel documents that enable Native Americans to enter the U.S. at land ports of entry.

Arbitrary identity tests

Only the American Indian Card, which is issued exclusively to members of the Kickapoo tribes, recognizes indigenous people’s right to cross the border regardless of citizenship.

According to the Texas Band of Kickapoo Act of 1983, “all members of the Band” – including those who live in Mexico – are “entitled to freely pass and repass the borders of the United States and to live and work in the United States.”

The majority of indigenous Mexicans wishing to live or work in the United States, however, must apply for immigrant residence and work authorization like any other person born outside of the U.S. The relevant tribal governments in the U.S. may also work with Customs and Border Patrol to waive certain travel document requirements on a case-by-case basis for short-term visits of Native members from Mexico.

Since border patrol agents have expansive discretionary power to refuse or delay entries in the interest of national security, its officers sometimes make arbitrary requests to verify Native identity in these cases.

Such tests, my research shows, have included asking people to speak their indigenous language or – if the person is crossing to participate in a Native ceremony – to perform a traditional song or dance. Those who refuse these requests may be denied entry.

Border agents at both the Mexico and Canada borders have also reportedly mishandled or destroyed Native ceremonial or medicinal items they deem suspicious.

“Our relatives are all considered ‘aliens,’” said the Yaqui elder and activist José Matus. “[T]hey’re not aliens. … They’re indigenous to this land.”

“We’ve been here since time immemorial,” he added.

CHRISTINA LEZA is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colorado College.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION

The Border Restaurant That Makes Asylum Seekers Feel at Home

The Mexican border town of Tijuana is home to thousands of Haitians. Most are asylum-seekers, stuck in administrative limbo as they await potential entry to the United States. To help them feel more at-home, Fausta Rosalía—owner of a popular lunch spot—decided to switch up her traditional offerings of tacos and quesadillas to better serve the city’s new residents. Now, she’s cooking Haitian food in the hopes that a taste of home will make life a little bit easier for so many.

Americans and Mexicans Living at the Border are More Connected Than Divided

People cross the international border from Mexico to the U.S. in Nogales, Arizona. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

People cross the international border from Mexico to the U.S. in Nogales, Arizona. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In 2002, I began traveling the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border on both sides. From Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the border measures almost 2,000 miles.

What distinguished my journey was that I began traveling well before the idea of fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border entered public consciousness. Inadvertently, I became witness to the wall’s construction and its impact on the lives of border dwellers, which I reported in my book, “Why Walls Won’t Work.”

Shortly after 9/11, as I explain in the the book, the U.S. built 650 miles of walls and fences along of the 700-mile land boundary with Mexico. The 1,200-mile river boundary has few walls, but the Rio Grande/Río Bravo del Norte acts as a natural barrier and is supplemented by other methods of surveillance, including sound and motion detectors.

Nothing like it ever existed in the territory that is now the U.S.-Mexico boundary. It usurps cross-border connections that have origins in prehistoric times. Twin-city communities remain closely connected through work, family, schooling, leisure, commerce and culture. For them, the territory between the two nations is not a matter of sovereignty, difference and separation, but instead is the very foundation of their way of life.

The wall slices through borderland communities disrupting binational trade worth over US$400 billion every year as well as the lives of more than 10 million U.S. and Mexican citizens who reside in the borderland’s six major “twin cities” – San Diego-Tijuana, Calexico-Mexicali, the two Nogales, El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, Laredo-Nuevo Laredo and Brownsville-Matamoros. Adding a new wall, as President Trump proposes, could only worsen the situation without making any measurable impact on border security.

A third nation

During my travels, I started thinking of the space between the two countries as a kind of “third nation.” I confess, I’ve never heard anyone in a border city refer to their turf as a third nation. Locals have many other ways of describing their special connection across the line, like “twin cities” and “ciudades hermanas” (sister cities). Some even call themselves “transborder citizens” living in a “transfrontier metropolis.”

I’ve often been told by people who live binational lives that they forget which side of the border they’re on. But in my experience, the single most common expression of cross-border connection is when people assert that they have more in common with one another than with citizens of their countries.

Traditionally, the word “nation” refers to a group of people who voluntarily identify with others on the basis of shared history, geography, ethnicity, cultural tradition, language and alliances against external threat. The sentiment that unites them is commonly called nationalism. Both terms are imprecise – which is why experts sometimes refer to nations as imagined communities – but there can be no doubt about their appeal, potency and consequence. When a nation acquires the right to govern a territory, then the territory is considered a formal nation-state.

I define a third nation as a community of common interest carved out of two existing nation-states. Transcending geopolitical boundaries, it occupies an in-between space and fosters an identity that is distinct from each country. The alliance is not solely based on material connections such as trade, but also represents a kind of “mental map,” or cognitive awareness, shared by citizens.

I consider the U.S.-Mexico border to be a third nation, which has evolved out of several forms in the past. Historically, these include the 12th- and 13th-century Chichimeca region, which was located between the Anasazi people of the pre-U.S. Southwest and the southern Aztec heartland of Mesoamerica. It was also manifested along the northern edges of Nueva España (New Spain) which buffered the volatile indigenous southwestern tribes from the more regulated Spanish colonial heartland around Mexico City.

Today, the Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation is bisected by the U.S.-Mexico boundary between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. It possesses an enduring sense of identity, autonomous tribal institutions and laws, and formal territorial organizations that straddle the boundary line.

Imagining a territory as a third nation draws attention to the depth of integration between peoples on either side of the border. The other terms I mentioned (twin city, etc.) convey a sense of material connectivity and integration, but the “third nation” idea adds the weight of subjective attachment, tradition and shared outlook that transcends the line.

Borderland voices

A year ago, I was on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales, where an earlier prototype of the wall had appeared during the mid-1990s. A teenage student asked me what would happen if the walls came down, and I replied: “It will be like it was in the old days.” Hesitating, she asked: “What was it like in the old days?”

I realized then that her generation had lived most of their lives in the shadow of walls. Their parents remember a different time, when they crossed over the line without hindrance to graze animals or join a weekend softball game. They recall the times when crossing the border was as easy as crossing a street.

A woman walks toward the U.S. border port with Mexico in Nogales, Arizona. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A woman walks toward the U.S. border port with Mexico in Nogales, Arizona. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

These days, despite the wall, people continue to traverse the line legally in large numbers but only through official ports of entry. For instance, San Diego-Tijuana is the busiest port on the borderline, processing an average of 70,000 northbound vehicle passengers and 20,000 northbound pedestrians per day. Border crossers have become accustomed to delays imposed by the wall, and tune into media to factor them into their commutes. You might see agricultural workers driving at 4 a.m. from Mexicali, Mexico to fields in the Imperial Valley. Or, parents of Mexican children organizing early morning carpools to ferry their kids to school in Calexico, California using special passes that speed up the commute. They’ve learned how to cope.

But make no mistake: Border people want their former lives back. They insist that the damage caused by the walls be repaired. They ask that no more walls be constructed, and that the $25 billion it would cost to build more walls be diverted to increasing the number and capacity of official ports of entry. They ask for the right to manage their destinies without interference from outsiders.

A 2016 survey of residents in the twin cities confirmed that the borderland is increasingly becoming “one giant economically integrated, bicultural society.” An Arizona respondent emphasized the importance of maintaining connections across the line: “Our lifeline is across the border… Without Mexicans, we don’t exist. Our life is sucked away.” Another, this time from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in Tamaulipas state, expressed his concern this way: “If [they] build a wall, we will be alone.”

Interviews from the survey show that unlike many people in the U.S., border residents do not equate wall-building with national security. One man, originally from Mexico but now living in Texas, said that he was not opposed to more Border Patrol officers, nor the presence in Mexico of U.S. military helping in the drug war. But walls he resisted, because “A wall is a symbol of discrimination, racism, segregation, not a solution for security, or for reducing violence.”

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, captured a sentiment widely held by survey respondents: “It says something really beautiful that the border, two countries, two languages, two cultures, at this point become essentially one people.”

The third-nation citizens I meet are fiercely independent. They work hard. They have no choice but to shoulder the burdens of our nation’s obsession with immigration, drugs and national security. Yet their aspirations are no different from yours or mine, and now more than ever their voices deserve to be heard.

MICHAEL DEAR is a Professor Emeritus of City & Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE CONVERSATION