Growing Numbers of African Migrants Detained in US and Hundreds More Wait in Mexico

By TASSC Advocacy and Outreach Program Manager, Andrea Barron  

When most Americans think of the migrants waiting to cross the southern border into the United States or who are being detained by ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement – they think of Central Americans. While most migrants seeking to enter the US are still from Central America, an increasing number of Africans, including many torture survivors, are entering the United States and requesting asylum. In Spring 2019, Border Control agents in Texas stopped over 500 African migrants who had just crossed the Rio Grande River separating the US from Mexico. This compares to just 211 Africans migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol along the entire 2,000 mile US-Mexico border in Fiscal Year 2018. Mexico will process three times as many African immigrants in 2019 as it did in 2017.

Africans are arriving from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mauritania, Angola, Burundi, Niger and Sudan. They take a plane or boat to Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia or another South American country, then travel by bus and foot through Panama to Mexico. What explains this dramatic increase? The major reason is that far fewer Africans are trying to reach Europe—they are terrified of being held prisoner in Libya, sold at a slave auction, or drowning in the Mediterranean. Eritreans are escaping from one of the world’s most repressive governments, which drafts high school students into an indefinite period of military conscription, called “mass enslavement” by the United Nations. Since 2016, an increasing number of Anglophone Cameroonians are fleeing persecution by the French-dominated government headed by longtime dictator Paul Biya. And people are fleeing the DRC because of ongoing multiple armed conflicts in Africa’s second largest country.

George (not his real name), a TASSC survivor from Cameroon, was detained for four months in Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego County, California. He was handcuffed and chained at the waist after crossing from Mexico into the United States. He said he was shocked when this happened to him: “I thought the United States stands for freedom and the rule of law, that is why I decided to seek protection here when my life was at risk in Cameroon.” Now George has to wear an ankle bracelet that allows ICE to monitor his movements until his immigration court date is held in 2023.  

“Hearing that I have to wait until 2023 made me feel broken,” this young man said.” I have already gone through so much, being imprisoned and tortured in Cameroon for 20 days, making the trip to Bolivia and then taking buses and walking for 15 days through the jungle in Panama, where criminals stole my bag with my passport, then detained for four months in California. It would be extremely dangerous for me to apply for a new passport at the Cameroonian Embassy in Washington since it was the Cameroonian government that tortured me without any due process or legal argument.”

Many of the African migrants have not even made it over the border. The Trump Administration has pressured Mexico to prevent all migrants—Central Americans, South Asians and Africans—from crossing the border with the US. Hundreds of Africans are waiting in Tijuana, near San Diego, or in Tapachula, close to Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Africans like George who are forced to wait in Mexico face particular challenges—they do not speak Spanish like the Central Americans.  George saw hundreds of Cameroonians—as many as 600 -- waiting in Mexico when he was there. Almost all were Anglophones, with a few Francophones whom the Cameroonian regime suspected of “collaborating” or at least sympathizing with the Anglophones. 

Organizations like TASSC, Freedom for Immigrants, which helps all migrants being held in 55 detention centers throughout the US, The America Team for Displaced Eritreans  have stepped up to assist Africans in detention. In July, TASSC Advocacy Program Manager Andrea Barron was interviewed by Radio Station KPBS  in San Diego, California, an NPR affiliate, about Anglophone Cameroonians escaping their country services TASSC offers to Cameroonians and other torture survivors. Here is the link to the interview.


TASSC has communicated with several survivors in detention—a Sudanese man held in the Adelanto facility in California, a journalist from Burundi and two Eritreans in the IAH Adult Detention Center in Livingston, Texas.  These Eritreans were among approximately 40,000 African refugees who sought refuge in Israel after 2000. Israel detained many of them in a desert prison but recently changed its tactics, seeking to “convince” them to “voluntarily deport themselves” to Uganda or Rwanda with a $3,500 “bonus.”  One of these Eritrean survivors “deported himself” to Uganda, the other to Rwanda.   They made their way to South America, crossed the southern border and ended up in Livingston.   

TASSC’s Executive Director Leonce Byimana says the organization will continue to monitor African survivors in detention and connect them with resources. “Many of these individuals are human rights defenders, whistleblowers and journalists seeking a safe space for themselves. In the past they were able to get visas to come to the United States, but this Administration is making it more difficult so they are embarking on a long and dangerous journey to the US and ending up in detention.”

TASSC International