About 15 years ago I was shadowing a local journalist on Peru’s northern coast who was reporting on a group of 20 Chinese nationals local police found lost in the nearby desert. They’d arrived on a container ship that sailed from China to Lima and had paid traffickers to get them to Ecuador. From there they planned to fly to Panama and make their way to the U.S.-Mexico border. The fact that people were willing to cross an ocean in a shipping container and traverse parts of two continents on foot and by bus blew my mind. It doesn’t anymore.
I’ve spent the last four years running a humanitarian news project called El Migrante, which provides information about resources to migrants in Mexico. As part of the nonprofit Internews organization, we spend our days talking to people about what made them leave their homes, what their goals are, and what they need to know to help them stay safe and find stability. We share answers to their questions via WhatsApp, a printed newspaper and a radio show.
We’ve written about how to get medical care after losing an arm and a leg to the Beast, the freight train that runs from southern Mexico to the U.S. border and is known for mutilating those who slip; how to deal with local employers who discriminate against migrants; and about specific U.S. immigration policies.
We try to counter misinformation and disinformation that migrants often confront, connect them to verified information sources on such migration issues as legal rights, housing and public health. We reach about 40,000 migrants and Mexicans a month.
One lesson I’ve learned doing this work: The United States’ southern border isn’t just shared with Mexico — it’s shared with the world.
If there’s trouble anywhere on the globe, residents from that region will soon be arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. People fleeing human rights abuses, poverty and war say they see the U.S. as a place they can get work and be relatively safe. It’s also a place they can get to. For instance, many fly to a South American country such as Brazil that offers visas on arrival, and then make their way north to the Mexico border.
In the four months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, about 6,400 Russians and more than 1,000 Ukrainians were apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. According to one Reuters report, Ukrainians and Russians who have gained entry to the U.S. are sharing tips on YouTube and the Telegram messaging app that include how to fly to Mexico and buy a used car — and attempt to cross the border by driving.
Recently, a small encampment of around 30 Russian citizens began living on the street next to a border crossing in Tijuana. One of them, who gave the name Mark, spoke fairly good English, telling my colleague, “Even here, sleeping on the sidewalk, I feel safer than I would back in Russia.”
Because he feared a crackdown in Russia over dissent against its attack on Ukraine, Mark came home one day and told his wife she had 10 minutes to pack a bag because they were heading to the airport. They first flew to Germany, but wary of a backlash against Russians in Western Europe, they stayed in the airport and plotted their next move. They ultimately made their way to Cancun, where they got tourist visas on arrival. Mark didn’t tell us how they got to Tijuana, but another Russian migrant said traffickers in Cancun had offered to give them a ride north.
While working along the border, I’ve met migrants from Afghanistan, Syria, China, Eritrea and many more countries. In a Tijuana cafe known as a hub for migrants, I engaged with a group of eight Cameroonians. We muddled our way around Spanish, English and French long enough for them to communicate they’d fled religious persecution in Cameroon by flying to Brazil and walking through the treacherous Darien Gap jungle region that connects Colombia and Panama as they made their way to Mexico.
Migrants from Central America make up the primary audience for El Migrante, based on the frequency of their arrivals and the large numbers of people from those countries seeking asylum in the U.S. and, increasingly, in Mexico. Last year, Mexico detained more than 300,000 migrants and received a record 130,000 asylum applications.
We also reach Haitians, who weathered a presidential assassination, an earthquake and flooding from a tropical storm last year, and more than 60,000 applied for asylum in Mexico. Many end up in border towns such as Tijuana and Mexicali, and after long waits for their asylum cases to be heard, some decide to remain there. Lately, we’ve connected with more Mexican families, which have been heading to migrant shelters along the border as they flee violence in narco states such as Michoacan and Guerrero.
More than 82 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes, according to United Nations estimates, and the war in Ukraine is causing that number to grow. El Migrante has helped document the stories of some of the people behind these numbers. One migrant’s crops and house in Guatemala were washed away by tropical storms. A Haitian teenager dealing with debilitating hunger left for Ecuador. A young Maya mother fearing for her life escaped an abusive relationship. A man from the Democratic Republic of Congo fled armed conflict. A nurse in Nicaragua gave medical care to political protesters and wound up on a government watch list.
One of the first questions we received from a migrant was “please tell me how to get out of this maze.” Many say they never wanted to leave home, but they just couldn’t take the violence and poverty anymore. They want to pursue dreams and raise their families.
The U.S. needs an immigration system with a more humanitarian approach. Of course, every asylum seeker cannot be admitted, but their cases should be heard more quickly so they aren’t left living in often-dangerous conditions in Mexico along the border.
Too often, U.S. policies such as “Remain in Mexico” seem to be focused on finding ways to block migrant entry, which won’t deter migrants no matter how far away they live. People have a reason for traveling across the world through deadly terrain and under horrible conditions to a border they likely won’t be allowed to legally cross. They do it because it’s their last hope.
Jesse Hardman is a senior advisor at Internews and founder of the El Migrante project. @jesseahardman