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Black Immigrants Are Facing Rampant Racism In Mexico While Waiting For US Asylum: "We Have No Choice"

“We have to go through it. It is something we experience every day, and we are used to it.”

Posted on March 27, 2021, at 11:13 a.m. ET

Guillermo Arias / Getty Images

A man who is part of a group of asylum-seekers, mostly from African countries, checks his phone in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 9, 2019.

When Laure fled Cameroon in 2019, she never expected to be sleeping on the streets of Tijuana, eating from trash cans and, more than a year later, still fighting near-constant racism while trying to gain asylum in the US.

During those initial weeks, she said she came to understand her cold new reality when she was unable to find employment despite having a nursing certification.

“She asked for my papers, my diploma. I gave it to her. Maybe 30 minutes later, she called me and said, ‘We have no work for a stranger,’” Laure said. “If somebody lives in your country and has documents, how are they a stranger? I told her, ‘You want to say that I am Black, that I have a Black color.’”

President Joe Biden has signed a series of executive orders to start rolling back the Trump administration’s legacy of racist policies designed to stop immigration altogether. But so far, much of his focus has been on easing access for Mexican and Central American immigrants, leaving people like Laure stranded in Mexico. There, people like her typically face police violence, racism from locals, and a language barrier while they wait for their asylum cases to be processed.

Espacio Migrante is an immigration rights nonprofit that splits its time working between Mexico and California. The group estimates that there are 3,000 to 5,000 Black immigrants in Tijuana, where, in addition to racism and discrimination from locals, they face higher rates of police mistreatment, said Paulina Olvera Cáñez, the director of Espacio Migrante.

Isaac Guzman / Getty Images

African immigrants protest outside a detention center demanding that Mexican authorities speed up humanitarian visas that would enable them to cross Mexico on their way to the US in 2019.

“Black migrants get noticed immediately, so they get stopped by the police a lot more,” Cáñez told BuzzFeed News. “And when the police stop them, they may ask for money in exchange for not turning them over to immigration, or they might just mistreat them. They face greater discrimination not just because of the language, but also because of racism in Mexico.”

Laure, who asked BuzzFeed News to use only her middle name out of fear of the circumstances that caused her to flee Cameroon, also said she had to deal with rampant bigotry specifically directed at Black women on account of their race and gender. She says she was repeatedly told by employers and local residents that the only way a Black woman could make money in Mexico was sex work.

“Many times I would pass in the road, and every time the Mexican guys say, ‘Cuánto, cuánto, cuánto.’ I didn’t know what this ‘cuánto’ meant. I think maybe it was a greeting, because I didn’t know Spanish. So I say, ‘Hola, hola!’” Laure said.

It took another African friend to tell her what she thought was an innocent greeting was actually them asking her how much she would sell her body for.

“I was very sad. I thought they liked me, that they were greeting me,” Laure said.

H, a Ghanaian immigrant also waiting in Tijuana, said he fled home in 2018 after he filed a police report about a rape he witnessed and gang members labeled him an informant, putting his life in jeopardy. He asked to be identified by his first initial out of fear for his safety in Tijuana, where he said there’s not much recourse to the everyday racism he faces, even from supposedly neutral parties.

“We have no choice. We have to go through it. It is something we experience every day, and we are used to it,” he said. “Wherever we go, even the UN works with the local government and what the local government does is what the UN will do.”

Jose Cabezas / Reuters

Federal police officers talk with an African immigrant as she waits to be admitted outside of Siglo XXI migration facility in Tapachula, Mexico, in 2019.

Meanwhile, border closures and Trump-era immigration restrictions have forced more immigrants to seek other forms of entry that have been problematic for years.

Metering, for example, is an informal system both H and Laure encountered as African immigrants in which names are written down in tattered notebooks held together with duct tape. People are then admitted into the US from other ports of entry in the order their names were listed.

Although metering gained popularity during the Trump administration, it was first used in February 2016 in response to a backlog caused by a surge of Haitian immigrants. But it has long been criticized as discriminatory, racist, and unstructured.

“I never wanted to cross illegally. I wanted to do it the legal way,” H said. “My name was written down, number 3,000 or something, and I waited and waited and waited until the pandemic came. And after that, they kept saying three months, five months, and now it’s been almost a year since the pandemic started.”

The Biden administration faces one of its toughest challenges yet in unraveling the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including a recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children at the southern border that has brought bipartisan criticism for not more forcefully dissuading people from attempting the journey.

And yet, change cannot seem to come fast enough for immigrants like H. After a year of waiting at the border, he’s ended up in a situation that he describes as not much better than where he started. When gunshots ring out in his neighborhood most nights, he shelters in place with his six housemates to avoid becoming collateral damage.

A map showing H's journey from Accra, Ghana, in 2018 through South and Central America to Tijuana, Mexico, in February 2020
Ben King / BuzzFeed News

“I know nobody is after me here. There [in Ghana], somebody's after me. Here, I know if I avoid getting involved with bad people and stay indoors all the time, I can be safe,” H said. “But for asylum, I have lost all hope. There is no money to go anywhere. There’s no job. But this is the only way. This is what we call home, for now.”

Laure said her journey from Cameroon to Mexico spanned months and involved just one cross-continental plane ride, with the rest of the distance covered by bus or on foot. In between stops, she did odd jobs to save enough money to continue traveling.

“I never thought I’d ever feel that unsafe. I would never advise this trip to anybody. I left everything. I had no money. I am a poor woman. I am divorced,” said Laure, who left three children behind to escape Cameroon.

A map showing Laure's journey from Cameroon in October 2018 to Nigeria to South America and ultimately to Tijuana, Mexico, in January 2020
Ben King / BuzzFeed News

Laure’s journey involved traversing the Darien Gap, a perilous strip of wilderness between Panama and Colombia. Thousands of miles later, she reached the Mexican border city of Tapachula, where she said immigration officers discriminated against her on the basis of her race.

“When you arrive at immigration, they treat you like a pig. They prefer to have Central Americans. Nobody gives you any attention,” Laure said. “In immigration, the Central Americans have a line, the Africans have another line.”

She remained in the Tapachula facility — which she described as “prison” — for eight months before making it to Tijuana, where she is today.

Now Laure and H are stuck in a life-threatening limbo while much of the media coverage and policy around immigration during Biden’s administration has focused on people who aren’t Black. The end of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and the Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACAs), for example, announced in January, explicitly affects Mexican and Central American immigrants, leaving thousands of people like Laure and H in the shadows.

“It is a step in the right direction. But it’s not a policy that is a solution for all the migrants that have been waiting in a corner for so long,” said Cáñez of Espacio Migrante. “So we don’t just want an end to MPP, but to the practice of making asylum-seekers wait in Mexico in general, because that is not safe.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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