TAPACHULA, Mexico – The matronly Mexican entrepreneur bustling to and fro in her seedy downtown restaurant is proud of the legacy embossed on the walls of her first eatery next door, but especially of the nickname – "Mama Africa" – that still has customers along a global underground railroad seeking her out when they hit town.
A tacked-up Eritrean dollar and a "Thank you Mama Africa" are among the inscribed memorabilia appreciating her cheap and often free food, floor space for sleeping, and reputed smuggling connections (a U.S.-Mexico operation recently netted a Bangladeshi human smuggler who Mama Africa said worked for her in the restaurant).
Names, nationalities, and dates of travel indisputably evidence a kind of U.S.-bound migration often denied in the United States among liberal no-borders activists but referred to among better-informed U.S. homeland security personnel as "extra-continentals" because their homelands span the globe. These are U.S. asylum hopefuls from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iran, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Bangladesh, Nepal, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and many other bloody hotspots.
There are more Africans coming now than I have ever seen before," Mama Africa said in mid-January as her restaurant filled with Bangladeshis, Haitians, and Nepalese.
That observation tracks with that of homeland security officials who worry about it in a very different way. U.S. authorities see this elevated human traffic as a unique national security threat because they can't easily determine if migrants are victims of atrocities and persecution, as they will almost all certainly claim at the U.S. border – or the perpetrators in homelands brimming with Islamic terrorists, atrocity-committing tribal militias, war criminals, government torturers, and mass rapists.
But, as I found during and after a 10-day reporting trip to the Mexico-Guatemala border for CIS, American officials high and low say extra-continental migrants are being waved right into the United States when they reach the border. They are exempt from the stew of new policies President Donald Trump has implemented mainly to push back Central Americans into Mexico or their homelands.
Extra-continental migrants are being waved right into the United States when they reach the border.
Senior and lower-ranking DHS officials confirm that President Trump's much-credited "Wait in Mexico" and "Safe Third Country" policies, requiring push-backs from the American border are not being applied to extra-continental migrants for unknown reasons.
Are extra-continentals being pushed back to Mexico or other countries to claim asylum as a deterrent, as are Central Americans, I asked one U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services officer in a border asylum office?
"Nope," the official confirmed. "We wave 'em all through, every last one of them."
Two senior DHS policy officials not authorized to speak on record confirmed the broad Trump policy exemption for extra-continentals and did not know, exactly, why.
U.S. Border Remains Open to Extra-Continentals and from Countries of Terror Concern
Mama Africa's observation about sky-high traffic in extra-continentals tracks with my own first report of a surge of at least 35,000 extra-continentals spotted by eye-witnesses last summer moving through the Darien Gap jungle passage between Colombia and Panama.
Much more recently, Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan confirmed the surge as "an increased issue."
"What we are seeing... is a change in the demographics," from Spanish-speaking migrants reaching the U.S. border, Morgan told the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in December. That's what we refer to as 'extra-continental,' other than Northern Triangle countries."
"Overall, those numbers relatively are fairly manageable," Morgan said. "But when you start combining it, and then again you start seeing it as an increased issue, we need to get out in front of it."
U.S. apprehension figures by nationality for 2019 have not yet been released, but, for instance, Mexican officials here report nearly 6,000 migrants from African countries in 2019, up from 460 in 2007.
One early 2019, phasing-out and legally contested policy called "metering," by which a few extra-continentals at a time last year were let over from Mexican camps, did delay some entries, to keep things orderly during the migration crisis.
But eventually, almost every non-Spanish-speaking extra-continental gets allowed in on their asylum claims and eventually released into the American interior to await distant backlogged asylum hearings, when they could be pushed back into Mexico to await their asylum adjudications there.
Failing to apply push-back policies to extra-continentals while they wait inside the country presents a profound missed opportunity for the United States to use new immigration-control tools to reduce risks that some of these migrants might be deployed terrorists, unreformed war criminals, or violent militia fighters with blood on their hands and predisposed to victimizing American citizens.
It is also true that many will be victims of such perpetrators, albeit whose asylum claims could have been lodged at many countries they had to transit on the way to the humming American economy. Among extra-continentals are those from some 35 countries where Islamic terrorist groups operate, known to homeland security as special interest aliens.
The problem in waving special interest aliens and other extra-continentals through the American border turnstile is the extent to which U.S. homeland security can very thoroughly vet them before they are released into the interior of the country to wait, in many cases, for years before their asylum hearings.
For instance, a Pakistani "special interest alien" who gave his name as Asef Khan said he was an engineering school graduate from Peshawar, that he flew to Brazil and then had himself smuggled north through Central America to southern Mexico. In an interview on a Tapachula street, he proved evasive about his background, offering only "I had some problems" with Pakistani authorities when he decided to go the U.S. border.
And quite unlike most extra-continental migrants I'd spoken to, Khan said he had evaded new Mexican requirements that he formally register with the government and apply for Mexican asylum. He was off-grid here, hoping to find a smuggler before the Mexicans forced him to surface in an official way.
"I'm waiting for something good to happen and then I'll go to America," Khan explained.
Should Khan ever reach the U.S. border, American intelligence officers should want to learn as much about Mr. Khan as possible before he is waived into the country on a probable asylum claim. From 2015 through 2018, Border Patrol apprehended about 900 Pakistanis at the U.S. border, CBP data shows.
Bangladeshis, which also are classified by homeland security as special interest aliens, were ubiquitous on the streets of Tapachula and in Mama Africa's restaurants. Border Patrol apprehended at least 1,200 Bangladeshis in 2018 alone and thousands over previous years.
Not much is publicly known about the extent of security and background vetting going on now. But some reporting already suggests that DHS intelligence officers do not put all Middle Easterners through enhanced vetting paces, or simply can't. Because some hail from countries, such as Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where record-keeping systems are either off-limits to Americans, or don't exist for Americans to check.
Releasing anyone from such a country based only on the migrant's unverified assertions about their personal histories becomes tantamount to gambling with public safety.
U.S. Practice Undermines Powerful Mexican Dragnet
Under President Donald Trump's tariff threats, in June 2019, Mexico deployed 6,000 National Guard troops to stop a mass migration through its territory of mainly Central Americans. Mexico began deporting anyone who didn't want to apply for Mexican asylum, and making those who did wait in southern Mexico, forced to comply and prevented from easily advancing north by those National Guard at interior roadblocks.
For the first few months, the Mexicans allowed non-Spanish-speaking migrants to continue north to the open U.S. border to claim asylum.
But no more. Now, Mexico's policies envelope all the extra-continental migrants, who can plainly see and hear that the American border is still open to them just beyond reach.
The result of unaligned Mexican and U.S. policies on extra-continental migrants is, is motivating some to hire expensive professional smugglers for trips that can end in quick returns back to Tapachula, a successful U.S. border entry in Laredo, Texas, for instance, or in catastrophe such as a fatal boat capsizing.
Mexico can't readily deport special interest aliens and Africans because home countries have to agree to take them, and Syria, Iran, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo don't keep diplomatic staffs on hand in Mexico.
But unlike the Americans evidently, at least the Mexicans are figuring it out as they go. Recently, in an "unprecedented" action, Mexican began repatriating Indians all the way to New Delhi by air.
There's some evidence that just Mexico's policy is starting to reduce the influx of extra-continentals, a harbinger of what might happen if the Americans boarded the same wagon.
Claudia Bresenio, head of the Mexican agency COMAR, which registers newly arrived migrants in Tapachula, the number of Africans dropped noticeably in December for the first time in a year.
"In December, it went down. Nigeria, Congolese, Cameroonians...," she said. "Because now Mexico is full of checkpoints."
One Cameroonian named Peter was emblematic of this trend. He said he paid $9,000 to be smuggled this far but then Mexican National Guard stopped his bus as it was going north, pulled him off, and put him in a detention center until he agreed to grudgingly apply for Mexican asylum.
With no money to go home, he said he had no choice.
"They say it takes six months to get the asylum," Peter told me in English. "I don't even want to be here one month!"
But what Peter said next shows why fewer Cameroonians appear to be coming now, with just Mexico stopping them. He is telling all of his friends and family back home:
"I tell them never to attempt to come here. This is another nightmare. I can't advise no one to come. If I knew I couldn't pass through, I wouldn't have come here."
One can only imagine the impact if the United States likewise closed its border to extra-continentals.
Todd Bensman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior national security fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies. He previously led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.