Unexpected visitors: Africans crossing the southern US border as illegal immigrants

It wasn’t that long ago when most of the Africans who were in the United States illegally were visa overstays, that is, people who had entered the country legally for tourism, business or education, and then stayed on past the expiry of their visas.

In the last few years, however, a new class of illegal African migrants to the US has emerged: those who, together with millions of others from South America and the rest of the world, have crossed into the country through its southern border.

In 2022, according to US government data as reported by the New York Times, 13,406 migrants from Africa were apprehended at the border. Last year, their number jumped to 58,462. There’s no reason to believe that these statistics represent the full picture, nor that they will abate in the near future.

For context, Africans who have crossed into America through the border now likely outnumber their visa-overstaying counterparts. As of 2019, Nigerian overstayers, by far the most numerous of any African nationality, numbered 30,000. No other African nationality topped 3,000. Most were in the tens or hundreds.

Importantly, these are cumulative numbers, rather than violations for that year alone. Additionally, the pandemic and its aftermath depressed legal travel from Africa to the US, which means the numbers are unlikely to have increased meaningfully. In short, before the border-crossing boom of the last few years, the total number of Africans who were in the US illegally was likely well under 60,000.

This isn’t surprising. A giant ocean separates the United States from Africa; airline tickets between the two are prohibitively expensive for most Africans; and it’s always been quite difficult for Africans to obtain American visas in the first place.

Besides, even though surveys have shown that most African migrants would prefer to go to the US than to Europe, the latter, being much closer, has always been eminently more accessible. Clearly, something major has changed recently.

Of course, in the grand scheme of America’s illegal immigration crisis – over two million migrants illegally crossed the southern border in 2023 alone – the African contribution is miniscule. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable that it exists at all.

Yet it makes sense. A confluence of new circumstances has made the route through America’s southern border attractive enough to a specific cohort of Africans who wish to migrate, can afford the flight (even if with difficulty), but would otherwise have trouble obtaining an American visa to, assumedly, later violate.

The first link in the chain consists of travel agencies in several African countries, especially Mauritania, Senegal, Angola and Guinea. Having caught onto the viability of the route, these agencies purchase and resell bulk flight packages – most of them on Turkish Airlines and connecting through Istanbul – to Colombia, and on via El Salvador to Nicaragua or Honduras.

The second link in the set of incentives that lubricates the route. Last year, Colombia suspended transit visa requirements for several African countries in a bid to stimulate tourism; this change closed the gap to Guatemala, which has no entry restrictions for Africans but receives no direct flights from the continent. The country is now a crucial bridge to the northern parts of central America and into Mexico.

Smugglers and traffickers, the third link in the chain, take over once the migrants are on the ground, and quickly whisk them by bus to the doorstep of America. This link has always existed, and is a well-oiled operation, but it has never been so easily accessible from the old continent.

The last link in the chain, which is arguably the most important one, is America’s ridiculously porous southern border. Given that it costs the typical African migrant up to US$10,000 – which is the equivalent of up to five times the per capita GDP of the countries from which most of them come – to get to the US this way, it’s highly unlikely that any of them would even start out on the journey if their odds of successfully entering the US and staying there were dicey.

America is a honeypot without a lid. Its dysfunctional immigration politics has left its southern border wide open to all comers, including those from much farther afield than before. Meanwhile, the man in charge is more concerned about how using the term “illegal” to describe border violators makes him look, than doing something about the border crisis.




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But that’s beside the point. Though there’s something to be said about America’s great misfortune, its border crisis is a malaise of its own manufacture; and there’s very little any non-American can do about it. In fact, it would matter little, it would be of little consequence, from an African perspective, if it didn’t have the effect it’s now starting to have on the continent.

Of the migrants interviewed by the New York Times while in transit at Colombia’s main international transport, the majority were skilled professionals. There was a journalist, an engineer, a police officer and a hairdresser. Each of them could marshal the considerable sums of money needed to undertake the journey.

Which means they are exactly the kinds of people Africa cannot afford to lose. And none of them would have left at all if America’s border weren’t as porous as it is. They likely wouldn’t have considered the overland journey to Europe, since that takes forever and isn’t as dignified as the trip west, which is referred to in the business as the “Luxury Route.”

Sure, they all had reasons to leave. But there is no doubt that the primary reason they did leave was that America’s pathetic excuse for a border invited them. And so, to the many reasons they can think of for fixing the border, Americans would do well to add this compassionate one.

Otherwise, their country will soon empty Africa of all its professionals.

Are our American readers familiar with illegal African migrants? Tell us in the comments below.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: migrants crossing the border at Juarez /  Bigstock


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