The young men from Guinea had decided it was time to leave their impoverished homeland in West Africa. But instead of seeking a new life in Europe, where so many African migrants have settled, they set out for what has become a far safer bet of late: the United States.
“Getting into the United States is certain compared to European countries, and so I came,” said Sekuba Keita, 30, who was at a migrant center in San Diego on a recent afternoon after an odyssey that took him by plane to Turkey, Colombia, El Salvador and Nicaragua, then by land to the Mexico-U.S. border.
Mr. Keita, who spoke in French, was at a cellphone charging station at the center among dozens more Africans, from Angola, Mauritania, Senegal and elsewhere, who had made the same calculus.
While migrants from African nations still represent a small share of the people crossing the southern border, their numbers have been surging, as smuggling networks in the Americas open new markets and capitalize on intensifying anti-immigrant sentiment in some corners of Europe.
Historically, the number of migrants from Africa’s 54 countries has been so low that U.S. authorities classified them as “other,” a category that has grown exponentially, driven recently, officials say, by fast-rising numbers from the continent.
According to government data obtained by The Times, the number of Africans apprehended at the southern border jumped to 58,462 in the fiscal year 2023 from 13,406 in 2022. The top African countries in 2023 were Mauritania, at 15,263; Senegal, at 13,526; and Angola and Guinea, which each had more than 4,000.
Nonprofits that work on the border said that the trend has continued, with the absolute number and share of migrants from Africa climbing in recent months as potential destinations in Europe narrow.
“You have countries that are less and less welcoming,” said Camille Le Coz, a senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute Europe. “When new routes open up, people are going to migrate because economic opportunities at home are insufficient.”
A record number of people are on the move worldwide, according to the United Nations, fleeing climate change, authoritarian states and economic instability.
The swelling number of migrants from Africa has exacerbated the crisis at the Mexico-U.S. border, as they join legions of migrants from Central and South America, as well as from China, India and other nations in making their way north.
Nearly 2.5 million migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2023 fiscal year, and about 300,000 migrants were processed by the U.S. Border Patrol in December, the most of any month, stretching resources to the limit. Most people will apply for asylum, which allows them to remain in the United States until the outcome of their cases, issued years down the road.
President Biden is facing pressure from Republicans in Washington and from some mayors and governors to stanch the flow of migrants into the country and into cities and towns struggling to absorb the new arrivals.
For decades, Congress has failed to reach a consensus on comprehensive changes to the immigration system, and that has compounded the challenges of responding to the surge.
Now, Republicans in Congress have demanded the Biden administration accelerate deportations and restrict asylum in exchange for support for wartime aid to Ukraine and Israel, and talks on that are expected to resume next week when lawmakers return to Washington.
The surge of migrants from African nations can be noticeable even before they arrive in the Americas. After a flight from Senegal landed in Morocco on a recent morning, an airport employee called for anyone headed to the Nicaraguan capital Managua. A few dozen Senegalese travelers followed her.
The Nicaraguan government, led by longtime president Daniel Ortega, does not restrict entry of Africans, and by starting their overland journey there, migrants are spared the perilous trek through the Darien Gap, a dense jungle between Colombia and Panama.
The African migrants continue through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico until they arrive at the southern U.S. border. Between January and September, nearly 28,000 Africans passed through Honduras, a sixfold increase over the corresponding period in 2022, according to the Honduran government. Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania are among the top 10 countries of those migrants; only a couple dozen people from each of those countries traveled through Honduras in 2020.
While the United States has ramped up deportation flights, it has had to keep releasing many more people into the country because immigration detention centers are full and families cannot be locked up for extended periods. It is also extremely difficult to deport people to countries in Asia and Africa, because of the long distance and lack of consent from many nations.
Across the Atlantic, immigration has stirred concern in many countries. Right-leaning candidates with anti-immigration platforms prevailed in a few national elections last year, most recently in the Netherlands. France, Germany and Spain have struck deals with Tunisia and Morocco to intercept migrants who transit through them. And on Dec. 20, the European Union signed a pact to facilitate the deportation of asylum seekers and limit migration to the bloc.
Migrants heading to the United States share tips and success stories on social media, and smugglers masquerading as travel guides tout their services. Friends and relatives relay that they obtain U.S. work authorization after filing asylum claims. And while the migrants are unlikely to win their cases, it typically takes years for a decision because of a massive backlog in immigration court.
“In the past, migrating across the U.S. border was very mysterious to people,” said John Modlin, the chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which has been seeing large numbers of Africans crossing in remote areas.
“The greatest danger right now is the global reach of the smuggling organizations,” aided by social media, he said in a recent interview.
The route from West Africa and through Central America emerged a few years ago, according to Aly Tandian, a professor specializing in migration studies at the University Gaston Berger in Senegal. But departures soared in 2023 as more migrants began flying through Morocco and Turkey en route to Nicaragua.
“I saw people had made it to the United States,” Ousman Camara, 27, a college student from Mauritania now in the United States, said in an interview. “Morocco controls the seas, making it harder to reach Europe.”
Mr. Camara said that he no longer felt safe in Mauritania, where human rights groups have documented widespread abuses against Black minorities, and that he planned to apply for asylum in the United States.
He borrowed about $8,000 from a friend to make the journey, which Mr. Camara said he would repay once he has steady work in the United States.
Unlike many of the migrants from countries in the Americas, many migrants from Africa and Asia had families or friends who could help pay for the air travel to Nicaragua.
Mr. Keita, from Guinea, said that he had sold his small laundry-detergent factory in Kankanto afford the trip. “Working here, I will be able to better myself and provide for us,” he said.
Mohammed Aram, 33, of Sudan, where civil war broke out in April, said that the United States was the best place to start a new life. “Entry to Europe is difficult,” said Mr. Aram, who planned to go to Chicago.
More than a dozen migrants interviewed for this article said that they had surrendered at the border to U.S. agents, who bused them to a processing facility. There, the migrants spent two or three nights waiting their turn to provide personal information to authorities. They were released with documents that indicated they were in deportation proceedings and must go to court on a specific date in the city where they reported they will live.
Finally, the migrants were released to the San Diego center, where they received meals and assistance contacting friends or relatives around the country who typically paid for airline tickets to their U.S. destination.
Having made it to the United States, many expressed optimism about making fresh starts in cities across the country. But some who traveled to the United States said that social media posts had omitted mention of the danger they might encounter on their journeys, especially through Central America and Mexico.
Paulo Kando, 20, and M’bome Joao, 22, from Angola, an oil-rich nation on the West African coast, said that bandits had robbed their cellphones and all their money at the Guatemala-Mexico border. They got jobs piling charcoal into carts to earn some pesos in Mexico. By the time they reached California, they had nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Now they were stranded in San Diego. An Angolan friend in Portland, Ore., had promised to receive them but was not answering his phone, and they could not afford the bus fare to get there. They knew no one else in the United States, they said. Still, they did not regret coming.
Mr. Kando, speaking in his native Portuguese, said his goal had not changed. “We’re trusting in God that a miracle will happen,” he said, “and we will reach Portland.”
Elian Peltier contributed reporting from Casablanca, Morocco.