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African Migrants Stuck In Mexico Plan To March Toward U.S.


More than a thousand African migrants, many of whom have risked their lives to try to get to the United States, have been stuck in limbo in southern Mexico. They want to be able to travel north to the U.S. safely. They're threatening to go en masse if they don't get Mexican travel documents, but Mexico is under pressure from the Trump administration to stem the tide of migrants. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For nearly two months, hundreds of African migrants have been camped out in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. They've pitched dozens of tents in front of the main Mexican immigration detention facility here.


KAHN: Kids kick around a tattered, flat soccer ball in a concrete plaza in front of the facility while women listening to music squat under a canvas tent and cook rice and soup on small charcoal cookers.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

KAHN: Once the afternoon rains come, the camp daily turns into a muddy mess. Despite the terrible conditions, the migrants from countries including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola say they won't leave until they're guaranteed passage through Mexico. They fear if they set out in small groups without proper documentation, they'll be arrested or sent back to Guatemala. Immigration authorities here had been issuing African migrants travel documents until this summer. They stopped under pressure from the Trump administration.

Henry, a migrant from Cameroon who won't give his last name out of fear of retribution, says he had to flee his village as soldiers attacked them last October. He says he got separated from his family and spent months looking for them, sneaking back into Cameroon from neighboring Nigeria several times.

HENRY: I was traumatized because I kept thinking, they are dead. Are they alive? Are they dead?

KAHN: He finally decided he had to flee for good and caught a plane to Ecuador. It took him several months walking through the jungle, taking buses and paying off corrupt officials in seven different countries before arriving in Mexico.

HENRY: That was when the greatest problem started here. It was the worst.

KAHN: He says Africans can't find work here in Mexico's poorest state. He says there are no jobs, and racism against blacks is terrible. He was told he could only apply for asylum, something he says he won't do. Luis Garcia Villagran, a human rights activist, has taken on the Africans' cause and says under Mexican law, the migrants have a right to a humanitarian visa or residency.

LUIS GARCIA VILLAGRAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "If immigration officials don't start legalizing these people, if they don't start giving them documents, then we will begin to march en masse from here on Tuesday," he says. The migrants say they feel safer in a large group. Activist Villagran says there are more than 4,000 Africans stuck in the city and says a mass march of migrants through Mexico will quickly recall images of last spring's migrant caravans, which caught the ire of President Trump - something Mexican authorities want to avoid.

Mexican immigration officials denied NPR's request for an interview. In a press release today, they say they will begin providing documents to the Africans but didn't say what brought about the change in policy. For the Africans, though, it's unclear what fate awaits them even if they do make it to the U.S. southern border. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that migrants could be denied asylum if they hadn't requested protection in a country they first passed through.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.