Cuba & Africa: The Changing Migration Mosaic In Juárez

People from Cameroon and Uganda enter a church in Juárez. They are waiting in Juárez for an initial interview with US authorities in El Paso, Texas. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

Juárez, Chihuahua—–The city of Juárez, Mexico across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been a migrant gateway to the US. In a May 17 2019 statement to Mexican media, Mexican authorities said at least 14,500 hundred people have come to Juárez in recent months to wait to apply for asylum in the United States. A large share of the migrant flow is coming from Central America and Mexico. Juárez however has now become a destination for people fleeing any number of conflicts and oppression around the world. That includes people from Africa and Cuba.

“As soon as they get my story they will believe me and I’ll make it there. So I have a lot of faith. That’s my power,” said Florant, from Cameroon.

Florant, who like his friends asked that his last name not be published for fear of retribution against families at home–is staying in Juárez and hoping to request US asylum from there. Asylum seekers like Florant are waiting to make what’s called a “credible fear” claim to US authorities. It’s the first step in the asylum process. Tamra, from Uganda, says she’s bracing herself for that interview.

She said it will be difficult to recount what she claims happened to her. “Painful, very painful. That is why I cannot even share my story,” she said.

When they arrive in Juárez, migrants seeking US asylum give their names to Mexican authorities. Each person gets a number on a list. The US then asks Mexico to send over a given number of people identified by those numbers for an initial hearing in El Paso.

Musika from Uganda, said he is now on that list. He said he and two friends had tried to present themselves to US authorities on the Paso del Norte Int’l Bridge as soon as they arrived in Juárez three weeks ago. But the Ugandans were sent back. “We had to go back and wait for another time,” he said.

Everyone in the group lamented having to leave their families and friends in Africa. Human Rights Watch says Cameroon is in crisis, with killings by separatists being met by a gov’t scorched earth policy. Uganda is plagued by civil unrest.

John is from Kampala, the Ugandan capital. There’s no way to verify his story but he said he’d been psychologically scarred after soldiers took him away from what he says was a peaceful, anti-gov’t demonstration.

“I was personally detained for eight days. I didn’t know where they’d taken me. I was stepped on, beaten,” he said. Some of the people in this group had flown from Nairobi, Kenya to Brazil and then headed north through Colombia and Central America on a journey that in two cases took several months. Some described a rough trip. Musika described an attack by members of what he said were a street gang in Mexico City. “Because of these gang things, getting us because we are black and we don’t know Spanish, pulling guns on us,” he recounted.

The Africans said they’d heard Juárez is a violent place but said they felt safe here. Shelter director Juan Fierro García said the wait for a first asylum interview is now several months long. He said that, and the feeling that the border could possibly be sealed completely, is causing tension. “People want to cross legally,’ he said. But Fierro said things changed in late March, when President Donald Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico. “Some people just left the next day and crossed illegally,” he said.

Juan Fierro García joins migrants from across the Americas and Africa in prayer. Fierro runs the El Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Juárez. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

Although Africans are now part of the migrant mosaic, an analysis by the libertarian Cato Institute says, in recent months,  Cubans, Guatemalans and Hondurans are now the top three nationalities requesting asylum. One Cuban man who said he’d been a dissident in Cuba, 52-year-old Pedro Luis Tamayo, said even if his application is rejected, he would not enter the US illegally.

Honest people “don’t slip in the back yard or the window,” he said. “They go legally, through the front door.”

A few feet away, Michael from Uganda said he had received his number two days before.

“Twelve thousand six hundred and thirty one,” he said.

That means at least a two month wait. In a statement to Mexican media May 18, Mexican authorities said approximately 9700 hundred people have had an initial interview in the US. The shelter director, Fierro, said no one will be asked to leave his shelter, but given the numbers of migrants arriving here, he said others may not be able to get in.

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