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The American Dream, through Latin America

Faced with tighter border controls in Europe, African migrants are viewing Latin America as the gateway to the American Dream. But in a long journey marked by violence, corruption, and paperwork, many are left in the morass that surrounds border crossings

Alex McAnarney
15 August 2012

Some fly directly to Guatemala or Mexico. Others are smuggled in by cargo ship and dropped off at seaports along the Argentine and Brazilian coast and make the overland trip to the United States. Hela, a 32 year old mother from Eritrea, is one of them. “The situation in Eritrea is no good,” she says, “I left. The man who helped me was expensive, my boy was expensive. We got to Venezuela and I gave him all my money, almost $4,000. I stayed there for six months working at a bar to make more money to provide for my one year old son Yaphet and pay for the trip.”

Fed up with economic hardship and violent repression following a 2002 government decree categorizing Islamic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Catholic faiths as the only state-recognized religions, Hela, an Evangelical, left Eritrea in October 2011. With her one year old son Yaphet in tow, she boarded a freighter in the Gulf of Aden that took them to South Africa. Once there, they made arrangements with a man known for helping Eritrean migrants to get on a Venezuela-bound plane. In November 2011, Hela began the second leg of her journey, through Latin America. The trek spanned six countries and nearly 2400 miles by bus and by foot. Miraculously, without incident or injury, they arrived at the Albergue Belen Migrant Shelter in Tapachula on June 17, 2012. But with New York City as her final destination, she still had 3,083 miles to go.

Hela’s story is increasingly commonplace among the migrant safe houses and detention centres along the Mexico-Guatemala border, which have logged a significant decrease of Caribbean and Central American migration to the United States (due to the 2008 financial crisis) but an increase of African migrants. Before 2004, no record of Africans migrating through Mexico existed. By 2009, one detention centre in Tapachula alone registered 600 Africans. By the end of 2010, the National Institute for Migration recorded (in Spanish) an estimated 282,000 living in Mexican territory.

The majority of African migrants come from high-conflict areas of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea. Most are educated adults ranging between the ages of 20-45.  Legally, Mexico offers individuals escaping from areas of violent conflict a “salvoconducto”, a 30 day document that guarantees safe passage through Mexican territory, without risk of deportation. But arriving there is only half the battle. Smugglers are known to ask for rates ranging from $20,000 to $30,000. Hela herself had to pay $4,000 to make it to Latin American shores.

After a trans-continental roller-coaster involving migration agents, police, and smugglers, Hela eagerly awaited the safe passage document which would facilitate her trip to New York at the migrant shelter in Tapachula. But despite governmental protection, she would need to make some money before continuing her journey.

As they compensate for their travel losses, African migrants are becoming fixtures on the migrant rosters and residential landscapes of Tapachula, a rain-soaked border town 12 miles west of the Mexico-Guatemala border. Along the diesel choked sidewalks of the central plaza, African men and women walk around with cheap cell phones, looking for work as they wait for the right paperwork and money transfers from family members. At Sunday mass at Albergue Belen, a group of men from Cameroon pray from the back pews with the rest of the community. According to this blog (in Spanish), screen printed T-shirts bearing Mexico+Africa stamped across a red heart are printed by local travel agencies that manage refugee flights to northern Mexico. Yaphet, who was only one year old when his journey started, is now two years old and gives emotive outbursts in Spanish as he plays with other children in the shelter, sometimes understanding the Mexican and Salvadoran women who coo at him in Spanish better than the Tigrinya his mother speaks.

While it appears that a community is slowly taking root, Hela said her time in Tapachula was limited.

“I didn’t ask for help. That man [in Venezuela] took my money. I need money when I get to New York,” said Hela as she waited for representatives of the UN Agency for Refugees (ACNUR) in Tapachula to pick her up from the shelter so she could provide a statement to support her request for refugee status. “I might need to work here, but we should go to the United States. We will. It’s better for him, there is good education and opportunity. It’s too late for me. But not for him.”

This article is part of a series based on a research trip taken to Tapachula, Chiapas during June 2012. It was originally published on Alex's blog.

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