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Record number of African migrants reach US-Mexico border

Monday, June 17, 2019

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PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Undaunted by a dangerous journey over thousands of miles, people fleeing economic hardship and human rights abuses in African countries are heading to the US-Mexico border in unprecedented numbers, surprising Border Patrol agents more accustomed to Spanish-speaking migrants.

Officials in Texas and even Maine are scrambling to absorb the sharp increase in African migrants. They are heading to America after flying across the Atlantic Ocean to South America, and then embarking on an often harrowing overland journey.

In recent weeks, agents in the Border Patrol's Del Rio sector stopped more than 500 African migrants found walking in separate groups along the arid land after splashing across the Rio Grande, children in tow.

That is more than double the total of 211 African migrants who were detained by Border Patrol along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometre) US-Mexico border in the 2018 fiscal year.

“We are continuing to see a rise in apprehensions of immigrants from countries not normally encountered in our area,” said Raul Ortiz, head of the US Border Patrol's Del Rio sector.

The immigrants in Texas were mostly from the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola. Cameroonians have also been travelling up through Mexico and into the US in larger numbers, and seeking asylum at ports of entry.

One recent Saturday in Tijuana there were 90 Cameroonians lined up to get on a waiting list to request asylum that has swelled to about 7,500 names. Also on the waiting list are Ethiopians, Eritreans, Mauritanians, Sudanese, and Congolese.

Cameroonians generally fly to Ecuador because no visa is required and take about four months to reach Tijuana. They walk for days in Panama through dense jungle, where they are often robbed and held in government-run camps. They leave from Cameroon's English-speaking south with horrifying stories of rape, murder and torture committed since late 2016 by soldiers of the country's French-speaking majority, which holds power.

A few days after the big group of African immigrants were apprehended in Texas, federal officials dropped off dozens of them in San Antonio. Officials in the Texas city sent out a plea for French-speaking volunteers for translating work, “and most importantly, making our guests feel welcome”.

Many were taken to Portland, Maine, — about as far as one can get from the Mexican border and still be in the continental United States. Word has spread among migrants that the city of 67,000 is a welcoming place. Somali refugees were resettled in Portland in the 1990s.

A total of 170 asylum seekers arrived in recent days. Hundreds more are expected in an influx that City Manager Jon Jennings called unprecedented. With one shelter already full, a basketball venue called the Portland Exposition Building Expo was converted into an emergency shelter.

Portland officials tweeted last Thursday that rumours some of the migrants are carrying the Ebola virus “are patently false” and said that as asylum seekers they are in the United States legally.

Last Thursday afternoon, families in the Expo chatted in French and Portuguese as children kicked a soccer ball near rows of cots.

One of the men, 26-year-old Prince Pombo, described himself as a pro-democracy activist and said he had fled his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, because of political oppression. He went to neighbouring Angola, then flew to Brazil. There, he met a local woman and they had a baby they named Heaven. Now 16-months-old, she giggled as she played with her mother in the Expo. Pombo said his journey from Congo to America took three years.

More migrants are on the way. Mexico is on pace to triple the number of African immigrants it is processing this year, up from 2,100 in 2017.


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