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U.S. Southern Border Cities Brace For Surge Of African Migrants


Who are the asylum-seekers crossing from Mexico into the U.S.? You probably think it's people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and that is right. But for years, migrants from Africa have also come through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. Now they're coming in unprecedented numbers, and U.S. cities are getting ready. Colleen Bridger is a city official in San Antonio.

COLLEEN BRIDGER: We are expecting more migrants from Central Africa. So we're keeping our French speakers on standby in case we need them. We're rallying once again to try to get some more funds to be able to buy tickets when folks get here and don't have a way to get their ticket to their final destination.

KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn is on the line from Mexico City. Carrie, this is really extraordinary. If you just picture a globe, what is the journey like from Central Africa all the way to Central America?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Oh, it's incredible. And for so many, it's just harrowing. Many come by boat. They also come in flights into South America. They come into boats into Brazil, flights, too, into Ecuador. And then they just start that trek northward through Colombia and into Panama. And that's a - just a treacherous stretch. That stretch between Colombia and Panama, it is a hundred-plus-mile stretch known as the Darien Gap. And there are no roads. It is a mesh of mountains, jungles and swamps that are now rampant with drug traffickers, smugglers and just bands of robbers. And you talk to migrants who walk that hundred miles. And they tell you of chilling, horrific stories of robberies, rapes and people just dropping dead from the physical strain of the trip. And I've been on the Panama side of the border when people are coming out of the gap. And their legs and their feet are swollen. They're bitten. They're bloody. And they're just stressed, exhausted and traumatized. And then you're just in Panama. You still have the huge swath of journey in front of you through the rest of Central America and into Mexico and navigating that situation in Mexico with its own bands of smugglers or organized crime gangs and corrupt authorities.

KING: How is Mexico handling these people?

KAHN: Clearly, they're struggling with the influx of not only the Central Americans but the Africans and Cubans and Haitians. But the Africans are tough because of the language. Many come from English-speaking regions of Africa, but many speak Portuguese. And there's a lot of racism here in Mexico. And just - Mexico doesn't have the resources to deal with all these migrants. In the last year, if you look at figures on government websites, there were just two deportations of Africans from Mexico.

KING: Two.

KAHN: Mexico can't afford to be sending Africans back on planes. And the figures that I could get from Mexican officials show a big increase in just the first four months of this year. There were 2,000 Africans detained. But it's unclear where they're being released to, where they're going. Immigration officials didn't respond to my questions yesterday. So the numbers of Africans coming through Mexico - it's still just a fraction of the Central Americans detained and deported. But it's a large increase.

KING: I know that you and our other colleagues have talked to some of the African migrants. What are they telling you about why they're making this journey? And have they given you hints as to why more of them are coming?

KAHN: It's political strife, violence, poverty, same issues that we're hearing a lot going from Northern Africa into Europe. Maybe the migration crackdown in North Africa has changed some of the smuggling routes. It's unclear. There's hundreds of Africans in the border city of Tapachula and our colleague James Fredrick spoke to one. He's 24-year-old man from Cameroon Furtoon Amori (ph). Let's hear what he had to say.

FURTOON AMORI: I'm suffering a lot of my life. But I'm working with (ph) my life. I need to go to good life.

KAHN: He's a bit hard to hear because he's in this immigration facility jammed-packed. But he says he's suffering so much, but he's confident God will help him get to the U.S. and apply for asylum.

KING: NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City - Carrie, thanks so much.

KAHN: You're welcome. 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