The weekend before Christmas, Rebecca Alemayehu was volunteering in Tijuana, helping migrants who planned to seek asylum in the United States – something she’d done often.
Up until that weekend, most of the migrants Alemayehu had worked with in Tijuana were Central American or Mexican. But as Alemayehu was walking into the offices of Al Otro Lado that day – the organization with which she was volunteering – she noticed two Eritrean men standing nearby. Alemayehu, whose family is Habesha from Ethiopia, made eye contact with the men. They bowed their heads toward each other – a greeting.
It turned out the men spoke some Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia that many Eritreans also speak or understand, as the countries neighbor one another.
The men explained they had been waiting in Tijuana for weeks. There was a large group of them in a hotel in Tijuana, he told her. He went to get the others and they came back to the offices.
That’s when Alemayehu began to realize just how many Eritreans were in Tijuana. She met about 25 that day and was told that there were probably around 100 in the city at the time.
But the Eritreans – and many black asylum-seekers, particularly those from Africa – remain under the radar in Tijuana.
They haven’t tapped into many of the resources available to Central American and Mexican migrants for a variety of reasons, including language and other cultural barriers. They also encounter unique hurdles when navigating the asylum process in the United States.
“When you think of migration and the border, you’re thinking Central Americans,” Alemayehu said. “You don’t think of black migrants.”
Instead of staying at shelters for migrants in Tijuana, they often pool their money to live in hotels – many of them in dangerous parts of the city, where they stay several people to a room.
Central Americans still remain the highest numbers, by far, of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. But the share of migrants from other countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, has been growing. They now make up just under 10 percent of total migrant detentions in Mexico. The number of Africans overall has fluctuated over the past five years, but migrants from Eritrea, Cameroon, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo made up the highest proportions in 2019. So far this year, there have been 1,044 detentions of African migrants in Mexico.
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Since that weekend, Alemayehu has been trying to find Eritrean asylum-seekers in Tijuana. She’s been gathering community support online to help them with food and shelter, traveling around the United States to press their asylum cases and working with other organizations to try and get them legal counsel while they’re in Mexico. She and several other attorneys and advocates, including groups like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the Haitian Bridge Alliance, are trying to marshal resources for and shed light on black migrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
The number of Haitians arriving in Tijuana was much larger in 2015 and 2016 than the number of African migrants has ever been, said Guerline Jozef of Haitian Bridge Alliance. Some Haitians decided to stay in Tijuana, rather than go to the United States, and start lives there. Now there is some infrastructure for Haitian migrants in Tijuana – churches, a shelter and a community where they can seek help. African migrants have no such community to turn to because their numbers have always been smaller and because most haven’t chosen to put down roots in Tijuana.
Cameroonians have been able to access the Haitian community to some extent because like the Haitians, they speak French. Some have signed up for Spanish classes at places like Espacio Migrante in Tijuana that work with Haitian and other migrants, while they wait to seek asylum in the United States. But most Eritreans speak Tigrinya – and sometimes other languages, like Amharic – that aren’t as widely spoken.
“Their guard is up,” Alemayehu said. “They’ve been through a lot already – they’ve seen people die on the journey. They’ve been robbed at gunpoint, raped. On top of that, they’re thinking, ‘There’s no one who speaks my language or looks like me.’”
Jozef and Alemayehu are trying to bridge some of those cultural gaps to bring all the black migrants into a community in Tijuana. It’s been difficult to build trust between the advocates and asylum-seekers, but their trips to Tijuana every few weeks have started to pay off.
“When it comes to the black migrants, there is no spotlight on their ordeal,” Jozef said. “We have to literally go find them, which is very disconcerting and heartbreaking. We have a community of black migrants since 2015 who have never been a central focus of the immigrant justice movement. There is a lack of narrative. Therefore, there are no services for them.”
Trapped in Tijuana
Kidane Tesfagabriel often gets calls from Eritreans in Mexico.
Tesfagabriel is an Eritrean who came to San Diego as a refugee in the 1980s. He began working with a local immigration attorney, Nanya Thompson, as a translator about two years ago after she took on one of his cousin’s asylum cases.
Word spread that he helped Eritreans at the border, translating and visiting them in detention. He would get calls to pick people up from detention. They would spend a night or so at his house before getting on a bus or plane to meet family elsewhere in the country. When he got desperate calls from some young Eritreans who were homeless in Tijuana, sleeping on the street near the border while they waited for their turn to request asylum, he would bring them blankets and money.
Long waits to request asylum in Tijuana began a few years ago, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers began taking in a limited number of people each day, citing capacity issues.
In April 2018, as a Central American caravan arrived, an unofficial system sprung up in which migrants write their names in a notebook, which dictates the order in which they can request asylum in the U.S. Each morning, numbers are called from the notebook, which is managed by migrants in El Chaparral – the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro West Port of Entry border crossing – and whoever’s numbers are called can request asylum that day.
Several weeks ago, Tesfagabriel got a call from a young Eritrean man in Tijuana. He was with a group of about 10 other men in a hotel. They were running out of money and still appeared to have a weeks-long wait before it would be their turn to request asylum. Someone had given them Tesfagabriel’s phone number.
Tesfagabriel and I went to meet the men that weekend.
Some of them had been there for a month, some for two weeks.
The Eritrean men told us – in Tigrinya translated to English by Tesfagabriel – that they’d been told the wait would be three weeks, but they felt that there was something off about how the numbers were being called and that their turn was being pushed back.
They were paying 300 pesos a night – roughly $15 – for their room, and were running low on money. They can’t work legally in Mexico. Some had family in the United States who would send them money every so often that they would pool.
“When one of us gets money, we share it, all of us,” said one of the men, who spoke a little English. Voice of San Diego is withholding the names of the men because of security issues in Tijuana and since they are seeking asylum in the United States.
The conditions in the hotel were bad, they said. But it was cheap.
The men were all between 21 and 34 years old. They were escaping mandatory military service in Eritrea.
Eritrea’s leader, who has been in power for decades, instituted compulsory military service in 1995. Everyone under the age of 50 is enlisted for an indefinite period, many living in vast barracks in the desert, where they earn little money and can be indiscriminately punished, including at times being tortured. The United Nations has said the indefinite military service amounts to mass enslavement.
Eritrea’s authoritarian government tortures, forcibly disappears and indefinitely detains its citizens, who lack an array of civil rights and freedoms, according to the State Department’s 2018 report on human rights in the country. Nearly half a million Eritreans have fled in recent years, according to the UN.
Most of the men said they escaped to Ethiopia or Sudan, then flew to Brazil and made the journey to Tijuana through Central America and Mexico, including the deadly, dense jungle in the Darien Gap of Panama.
As the men were telling their stories, Tesfagabriel began to cry. Many of them are his son’s age.
“Things are really, really bad in that country,” he told me after we left them. “It is really destroying the people.”
A week later, Tesfagabriel and Alemayehu returned to help the men. But the owners of the hotel told them the men had suddenly checked out the night before. It’s possible they left because they had been threatened or robbed and were fearful to remain there or that they had checked out to cross the border, Alemayehu said. Security concerns in Tijuana, a lack of money and the uncertainty of when asylum-seekers will be able to cross can keep migrants constantly in flux, often trying to keep a low profile.
They spent all day walking around Tijuana trying to find them.
They never did.
Tesfagabrial went to El Chaparral twice that week, hoping to run into them as they waited for their numbers to be called.
He never did.
Long Detentions and Tough Cases Await on the Other Side
Eritreans have a long history of seeking refuge in the United States. Roughly 25 percent of Eritrean asylum-seekers’ claims are denied, according to the Transactional Records Clearing House at Syracuse University. That’s a lower denial rate than other nationalities, like Mexicans, Hondurans or Guatemalans.
Japann Tesfay Yared is one of them. His denial illustrates some of the systemic barriers Eritreans have to overcome to gain asylum.
Tesfay Yared, who is now 22, arrived in Tijuana in August 2017. He fled Eritrea after being harassed and threatened by the government because they were looking for his father, who had left long ago. Tesfay Yared said he was jailed repeatedly, though he had no knowledge of his father’s whereabouts.
“If I go back to my country, they will kill me or they will put me in the jail for a long time,” he told me.
He spent one year and seven months in detention at the Otay Mesa Detention Center waiting for his case. He is now living with his half-sister in Ohio, who had come as a refugee.
Refugees at United Nations camps come to the United States through a separate process. There are caps on how many refugees the United States will take each year. There is no cap on asylum-seekers and they can come from anywhere in the world, but they need to set foot on U.S. soil and express fear of returning to their country.
Eritrea has refused to receive Eritreans deported from the U.S. and in September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would stop issuing a wide range of U.S. visas to Eritreans as a response.
Because of this, even though Tesfay Yared lost his case, the United States hasn’t yet deported him. He has an ankle monitor and regular check-ins with local Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.
“I’m not a criminal,” Tesfay Yared said of the ankle monitor. “I’m not a drug guy. I’m not a killer. It’s a very big shame. I can’t meet with people, my friends, my family.”
Thompson, who represented Tesfay Yared in his appeal, said judges have a lot of leeway and often don’t take into account cultural differences or the way people deal with trauma.
“Credibility is the No. 1 reason why people are denied,” Thompson said.
It often comes down to perceived inconsistencies in an asylum-seeker’s testimony or simply a perception of their demeanor while they’re recounting the circumstances that led them to flee, she said. That could mean someone doesn’t cry while telling a border official their story or that someone says their mom is a doctor when she’s actually a nurse because in their culture, there isn’t any meaningful distinction.
In early interviews, before he had an attorney, Tesfay Yared simply said he’d received threats. He later specified that they were death threats, but the immigration judge in his case viewed that as a discrepancy and used it to question the credibility of his case. Tesfay Yared represented himself while in detention and lost. His family then hired Thompson for the appeal, but lost that effort, too.
Identification issues also come up often with Eritreans. You can’t get an ID in Eritrea until you turn 18, and Tesfay Yared left before his 18th birthday.
His mother had also left the country, and Tesfay Yared tried to use her UN High Commission on Refugees documentation to prove his identity, but because of translation issues, her name is spelled slightly differently on her national identity card and the UNHCR record. Another discrepancy.
Alemayehu said in general, translators are also a reason why Eritreans and other African migrants lose their cases. Translators and attorneys who speak languages like Tigrinya or Amharic are rare.
“It’s a struggle,” Alemayhu said. “These cases shouldn’t be lost.”