VOA's Ramon Taylor contributed to this report.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — It took Julia and her two daughters five years to get from Kasaï, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to a cot on the floor of a migrant shelter in San Antonio, Texas.
First, it was four years in Angola. She saved money, she says, by working as a hairdresser.
They flew to Ecuador. Took a bus and boat to Colombia. They spent 14 days crossing through Panama’s Darien Gap, lost part of the time in the dense jungle. Three weeks in Panama, then three more in Costa Rica while Julia recuperated from an illness. Then Nicaragua. Honduras. Guatemala.
Finally, after a month of waiting in Acuña, on the U.S.-Mexico border, they stuck their feet in the sandy dirt along the southern bank of the Rio Grande. They were alone, and didn’t know how to swim.
“We prayed first, then we got into the water,” Julia recalled. “My daughter was crying.”
“‘Mom, I can’t…’” Julia remembers her pleading in chest-high water.
Halfway across, she says, U.S. soldiers — possibly border agents — shouted to them: “‘Come, give us your hands.’“
“I did,” Julia recalls, “and they took us out.”
More families from afar
Historically, the majority of people caught crossing into the southwest U.S. without authorization were single Mexican adults. In fiscal 2009, Mexicans accounted for 91.63% of border apprehensions, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
But demographics of migrants and asylum-seekers crossing into the U.S. from Mexico are shifting in two significant ways: In the last decade, nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras began migrating in greater numbers. In the same period, the number of Mexicans dropped.
Then, in the last year, families became the top source of Southwest border migration. The Border Patrol apprehended 432,838 adults and children traveling in family units from October 2018 through July 2019, a 456% increase over the same period the previous fiscal year.
To the surprise of longtime border agents, while the overwhelming majority of these families continue to be from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, a small but growing proportion are from countries outside the Americas, nearly twice as much as two years ago.
By the end of July this year, CBP data shows the agency had apprehended 63,470 people from countries other than those four, making up 8.35% of total apprehensions. In fiscal 2017, they were 4.3% of the total apprehended population.
CBP does not release the breakdown of where detained migrants come from until after the end of the fiscal year in September. But anecdotes and preliminary data show an increasingly diverse group of migrants and asylum-seekers, including more than 1,600 African nationals from 36 countries, apprehended in one border sector alone.
They are unprecedented numbers.
Allen Vowell, an acting deputy patrol agent in charge with the U.S. Border Patrol in Eagle Pass, Texas, said the recent demographic changes are unlike any he has seen in two decades of working on the border.
“I would say until this year, Africans — personally I’ve probably only seen a handful in over 20 years,” Vowell said.
From Oct. 1, 2018, to Aug. 22, 2019, Del Rio sector agents apprehended 51,394 people, including 1,681 nationals of African countries. They are largely, like Julia, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola or Cameroon, according to sector officials.
The arrival of sub-Saharan nationals — often Congolese, according to Del Rio Sector officials — posed new challenges. A lot of border agents are bilingual in English and Spanish. But when apprehending a group that primarily spoke French and Portuguese, the agents had to scramble for interpreters.
While many migrants from the Northern Triangle have relatives in the U.S. as a point of contact or a destination, those from Africa are less likely to have those relationships.
That means they are more likely to stay in migrant shelters in the U.S. or in Mexico for longer, waiting to figure out their next steps until their immigration court hearing.
There is the political tumult in Venezuela, leading to the exodus of millions of people scattered throughout the region.
The end of the “wet foot dry foot” policy with Cuba that allowed migrants who reached the shores of Florida to remain, Cubans who want to leave the island for the U.S. to take a more circuitous route.
And then, to the surprise of Border Patrol agents, there arrived the large groups of sub-Saharan Africans, crossing through the Del Rio sector in Texas.
The migrant trail goes beyond Africa.
Ten years ago, CBP detained 99 Indians on the Southwest border. In 2018, it was 8,997.
Similarly, Bangladeshi migrants didn’t figure into the top 20 countries among those apprehended at the border a decade ago. In 2019, there were 1,198.
This week, a Bangladeshi man living in Mexico pleaded guilty to human smuggling charges.
There are also the regional conflicts and tensions in Latin America and the Caribbean that are leading to a bigger number of migrants within the hemisphere arriving at the U.S-Mexico border, like Venezuela and Nicaragua. Haitians and Cubans continue to take the more circuitous route through Central America and up to the U.S., rather than travel by boat to Florida, where they risk being stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard before setting foot on land.
Son’s death sends family on a dangerous journey
Julia says she got tunnel vision after her teenage son was killed in DRC, en route to school one day in 2014 for reasons she still does not know or understand.
She only knows that she received a call from the morgue. A truck dropped his body off there.
He was 17. His name was George.
She can’t go back to DRC, she says. It’s just not safe.
“There, while you sleep, the thieves will come through the roof. They demand money, and if you don’t have money, they’ll rape your daughter,” she said.
“When he died in 2014, I made up my mind that I would not stay.”
They want to get to Buffalo, New York. They don’t have family in the U.S., Julia says, but some people they met on the road were headed there. Word was, there was work, at least.
She had an immigration court hearing scheduled for the first week of August. She was still at the San Antonio shelter, two days before.
They didn’t now how far from Texas it was, or how cold New York gets in winter. They weren’t worried about those things now. They just needed the bus fare to get there, and they had nothing left. No money. No phone.
Ketsia, now 15, speaks Spanish, English and Italian with ease. Jemima, 9, is the best French speaker in the family. They didn’t fight while they’ve been on the road for the last five months, from Ecuador to San Antonio. Not much, at least, they giggle.
“She’s strong. Very strong,” Ketsia says of her mother, in Spanish. “I saw a lot of women who left their kids behind in the jungle. She’s courageous. This path we’re on, isn’t for everyone. If you’re not strong, it’s very difficult.”
“My dream is to arrive there, to New York. To get a job. To put the girls in school,” Julia responds.
“I suffered a lot already,” she says, something she repeats without going into more detail. She has a tendency to stare off, lose herself in thought when the conversation nears the darker parts of their family history.
“I don’t want my children to go through the same,” she says. “We suffered a lot. I don’t want that anymore for my children.”
The shelter where they stayed does not track migrants after they’ve left, and for privacy and safety reasons, shelters do not share whether individuals are staying with them.
Attempts by VOA to locate Julia, Ketsia and Jemima in the weeks following the interview were unsuccessful.