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World

Many Asylum-Seekers In Mexico Are From Far Beyond Central America

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Mexico and the U.S. are working together to slow down the number of people seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border. Most of these people come from Central America, a region wracked by violence and poverty. But many of the migrants caught in this U.S.-Mexico dragnet come from much farther away. James Fredrick brings us a story from southern Mexico.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: I first met Fortune Amo back in June outside the Siglo XXI immigrant detention center in Tapachula near Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. He sounded upset and frantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FORTUNE AMO: I'm suffering a lot of my life, but I'm looking at my life. I need to go to a good life.

FREDRICK: This 25-year-old Congolese refugee was surrounded by hundreds of others from Congo, Cameroon, Angola and Haiti. They were all trying to find a way to get documentation from the migration agency as deportations were on the rise in Mexico. Most of these people were sleeping here on the street.

This week, I caught up with Amo again in Tapachula, and he was totally different. After being detained for a few days by migration authorities, he was given a 30-day visa to travel through Mexico. He was staying in a house on a street filled with black migrants.

AMO: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: Mexicans in this neighborhood offered up spare bedrooms since all the migrant shelters in town are full. Amo is living with an older Mexican woman who let him stay for free as long as he looks after a shop while she's gone and helps her communicate with the other migrants. Our conversation bounces from English to Portuguese, a language he's more comfortable in because growing up, Amo's family often fled to Portuguese-speaking Angola when violence erupted in the Congo.

AMO: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: He says, "Mexicans have been very kind. This woman lets me stay here until I have the opportunity to go north again."

AMO: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: He says, "I want to go to the United States or Canada to realize my dream of a new life. He dreams of finishing his information technology degree and working in tech." He says he'll continue his journey in a few days. So far this year, Mexican government figures show 15% of the migrants detained in the crackdown come from beyond Central America, including more than a thousand from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a thousand from Cameroon and more than 2,000 from Haiti. Many of them are now stuck here in a very foreign land in southern Mexico. A few blocks from Amo, I come across a little hole in the wall with a little hand-painted sign that reads, welcome to African restaurant.

MAGALY NOEL: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: The restaurant's three cooks are all Haitian women, including 28-year-old Magaly Noel. Speaking in Spanish she learned crossing into the Dominican Republic as a child, Noel tells me the restaurant has become a popular spot for migrants tired of eating tortillas and spicy food. But even a walk to the restaurant is risky.

NOEL: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: She says lots of migrants around here are scared to walk around the street, thinking they might get picked up in a raid like thousands of other migrants have. But Noel, her husband and her 1-year-old son all got temporary visas to be in Mexico, so their plan to go to the U.S. is on hold for now.

NOEL: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: She says, "right now, migration in both the U.S. and Mexico is sending lots of Haitians back home. But eventually, this will all calm down." If that happens, her family will think again about going to the U.S. But most are still trying to make it north.

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FREDRICK: A few days after seeing him, Amo sent me a voice message. He had made it to the U.S.-Mexico border. He's in Ciudad Acuna, across the river from Del Rio, Texas. He put his name on a wait list for asylum seekers and is sure he'll be in the U.S. soon.

AMO: (Foreign language spoken).

FREDRICK: He says, "any moment now, I could cross into the United States."

For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Tapachula, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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