The Black Migrant Trail of Tragedies

The Black Migrant Trail of Tragedies

Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean who make the dangerous trek across the Americas to the US face racist policies and practices everywhere they go.


Julliana Essengue arrived in Tapachula, Mexico, from São Paulo, Brazil, in March 2020. She was broke but determined to reach the United States. After nearly two months traversing rain forests, borders, and rivers by bus, car, boat, and foot, she needed money. At first, Essengue and her travel companions squatted. “We slept on the floor for two weeks in a hallway,” she told me. “There were Africans, Haitians—everybody was sleeping on the floor.”

In Tapachula, near the Guatemala border, the United States operates what is effectively an open-air immigration prison by forcing migrants to wait to be granted refugee status in Mexico. When Essengue presented her documents to Mexican immigration officials, the conditions were grim. “Some people, they were sleeping in front of the immigration [building] in tents,” she said, “because they did not have money to rent a house.”

Essengue began working on a mango plantation, where she collected and selected fruit to be packaged and sent to the United States. She called it “horrible,” shaking her head as the memories returned. In addition to the intense sun, she faced discrimination in pay; Black workers like her would get less. “They’ll tell you that they will pay you this, and when the time reaches to pay, they will not pay you the amount,” she said.

Essengue resigned herself to staying in Tapachula for however long it took to wait for the necessary documents. But when she realized she was pregnant, reaching the safety of the US before the birth of her child took on a new urgency.

For many years, most published images of migrants making the journey across the Americas were of brown-skinned people of diverse Central American origins, but the reality is far more varied. Essengue is Cameroonian, one of the many thousands of Black migrants from Africa and the Caribbean whose plight across the Americas has been invisible for years. An immigration lawyer who introduced me to Essengue called their path to the US “the Black Immigrant Trail of Tears.” Out of respect for the Native American history from which that phrase is derived, I think of it as the Black Migrant Trail of Tragedies.

As of 2019, there were about 4.6 million Black immigrants in the United States, 88 percent of whom were born in African or Caribbean countries. Of the approximately 1 million migrants who arrive in the United States annually, less than 9 percent arrive from Africa and the Caribbean. US Customs and Border Protection, however, tracks only a limited number of nationalities in real time—none of which are African or Caribbean—at the southwestern land border, which means there is no data on exactly how many Black migrants from those regions are arriving at the southern border. But over the last year, the number is estimated to be in the thousands.

The migration stories of people like Essengue are characterized by anti-Blackness in policy and practice that persists from country to country. Working on plantations for less pay than their non-Black counterparts is just one example of the racism they endure. And even when they make it to the imagined promised land of the United States, the indignities don’t end.

Since 2020, Essengue has been romantically involved with a man, Emerson Dalmacy, from Haiti, one of the companions she met early in her journey. For the couple, there was no returning to Brazil—they had neither the money nor the desire. And as far as they were concerned, leaving for their home countries was out of the question, especially for Essengue, whose Black migration story begins in Cameroon in 2019.

Essengue is from the city of Kumba in an English-speaking region of Cameroon, a country that was largely controlled by France until 1960. But Great Britain had held a territory between French Cameroun and Nigeria known as British Cameroons. In 1961, when the United Nations held a referendum on whether British Cameroonians should join neighboring Nigeria or reunify with Cameroon, Northern British Cameroonians favored Nigeria, while Southern British Cameroonians favored reunification. Both groups got their wish, and the territory was split.

For Anglophone Cameroonians who have been alienated from the country’s political systems and want their own independent state—which wasn’t an option in the 1961 referendum—the area is known as Ambazonia. In October 2016 through 2017, English-speaking Cameroonians began protesting inequalities perpetuated by the state. The government responded with arrests and tear gas. By October 2017, separatists proclaimed Ambazonia an independent state, and the Cameroonian government declared war. The conflict, sometimes called the Anglophone Crisis or the Ambazonian War, has resulted in more than 4,000 civilian deaths and 700,000 people being displaced.

Essengue was only 21 when the protests began, and she did not participate. “I’m not in a political group, so I was just looking at what was happening,” she told me.

In 2019, Essengue, then a mother of two young boys, worked as a tailor. So when the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), a nonviolent political organization that seeks independence for the Anglophone regions, asked her to sew some of their paraphernalia, she thought of it as a business transaction. But, she said, “when I got finished with the material, that is when I saw the military coming to my shop.”

Military officials accused her of being a member of the SCNC. She tried to explain that she was simply sewing materials for money and had no political motive. “When the military comes to you, they don’t give you the opportunity to say anything,” she said. “They beat me at the shop and put me inside their truck.”

The details of what happened next are painful and, in some respects, still uncertain. Essengue remembers arriving at a camp. She was there for almost a week, she said, and during that time she saw many people die: “They were shooting…. There was a lot of blood through death. A lot, a lot of blood.”

Sometime during that week, an official accosted Essengue and ordered her to have sex with him. “I said no,” she told me. “When I refused, he forced me, and he slept with me. And later, his colleagues came and did the same thing. They raped me. There were two policemen that took me in another room and slept with me there. From there, I don’t know what was happening with me. I was feeling sick. All my body was paining me.”

She recalls seeing her uncle at the camp—he had found it while searching for her, hoping to explain to the officials that she was naive, not political. Essengue isn’t sure how many days passed after she was raped before the military released her. Her uncle paid 500,000 Central African CFA francs, the equivalent of about $830 then, to free her. She was told to leave Cameroon. If she didn’t, the military officials said, she might end up being taken to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. “At that time,” she explained, “they were taking people to Yaoundé, and people were not coming back.”

Essengue returned home with her uncle, initially to receive medical attention from a neighbor who was a pharmacist. Then, with help from the pharmacist and her uncle, she departed from Cameroon by bus, leaving her two children behind, entrusted to her mother’s care. Essengue crossed into Equatorial Guinea. Although she had her passport, she did not enter the country legally, instead following instructions from her neighbor to stay with a contact. But this meant she could not find work and was afraid to leave the contact’s compound. Immigration authorities were scouring the country for Cameroonians like her.

Essengue couldn’t keep living like that, and her uncle and neighbor in Cameroon again helped, purchasing a plane ticket to São Paulo for her in late October 2019. With Brazil’s implementation of a relatively progressive migration law in 2017 and its strong diplomatic relations throughout Africa, the country became a viable option for asylum seekers from across the continent. Essengue, however, spoke no Portuguese, didn’t know anybody there, and had no idea where she could stay.

On the flight to Brazil, Essengue connected with a fellow passenger. “I saw one African guy from Sierra Leone. So he told me that he had been in Brazil, and I explained to him that I’m coming to Brazil, and I don’t know anybody,” she said. “He told me that there’s a Catholic Church that is receiving people.”

Once they arrived in São Paulo, the man offered to share his cab ride, which Essengue gratefully accepted. She was received by the organizers of a church-sponsored shelter that offers food and sex-segregated lodging for migrants for up to three months. But as the weeks went by, Essengue was unable to find work. As she tells it, as soon as the residents of São Paulo realized that she didn’t speak Portuguese, they would ignore her. As her three-month deadline at the shelter drew closer, she worried about remaining in Brazil. “My head was heavy. Where am I going if I don’t have enough money to rent a house?” she said. “Other ladies were saying they want to travel, that when you go to America, you find peace, and there they speak English.”

Essengue was excited by how other migrants described the United States. She contacted her uncle and told him she wanted to try to make the journey. He and a circle of friends raised all the money they could, and with that, in January 2020, Essengue left for the US with some of the women she’d met at the shelter. They were not certain of the routes or their documentation or whether they had enough money. As far as Essengue was concerned, though, getting to the US was her best chance of survival. “I was just going,” she said. “God was with me.”

Then Essengue met Dalmacy, 43, who had been living in Brazil, first from 2013 to 2016 and then again from 2017. Dalmacy planned to live in the United States for a second time. After he made it across the border in 2016, he said he filled out some paperwork and was allowed to stay in the US—with conditions. According to Dalmacy, he was given a GPS ankle monitor to wear for three months and told to check in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tampa, Fla., every month. But 11 months later, during one of his ICE visits, an officer informed Dalmacy of a letter he was supposed to have received to see a judge. Dalmacy said he never received the letter, and after that he was detained.

Dalmacy did not have a lawyer, and ICE deported him shortly thereafter. Remaining in Haiti, however, was out of the question. “The gangs nowadays invade people’s houses and shoot people,” he told me. “And that happens every day in Haiti. It is the gangs that hold power.”

A few months after his deportation, Dalmacy returned to Brazil. Unlike Essengue, he speaks Portuguese, and with approximately 85,000 Haitians migrating to Brazil between 2010 and 2017, he also had a community. Still, he had family in the United States, and as the economic boom that brought Haitians to Brazil in the early 2010s came to an end, anti-Haitian sentiment rose. Dalmacy said he also felt unsafe due to street violence and imagined he could find a safer life in the United States.

Dalmacy and Essengue don’t know precisely what first drew them to each other. She is 17 years younger than him. Though he’s fluent in Creole, Spanish, and Portuguese, his French is limited and he speaks little English. Essengue is fluent in English, Cameroonian Pidgin, and French—the language they use to communicate, though in a form only the two of them fully grasp.

The pair met at the Brazil-Peru border after law enforcement stopped the vehicle they were in. Following that encounter, Dalmacy, Essengue, and a few others traveled by bus from Peru to Ecuador. By the time they arrived in Colombia, Essengue had run out of cash, but Dalmacy came to her aid. To continue their trek, they each paid $40 for passage across a river and waited three days by its bank for the waves to calm before crossing. Despite this prudent decision, they did not avoid danger. When they were on the water, the boat nearly capsized. “‘I’m going to die. They will not see my body anymore,’” Essengue said she thought to herself. “The water at that place, I don’t know if it’s black or blue.”

Essengue said the turmoil lasted 10 minutes, during which time everybody prayed. Had the waves been larger that day, she added, they would have sunk. When they made it across, they were still in Colombia, with a jungle and mountains ahead. Essengue did not know it at the time, but she was about to travel through the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama—one of the world’s most treacherous journeys, with crocodiles in the rivers and bandits on the ground.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have made the dangerous trip since 2010. According to a March 2021 report from Duke University, three-quarters of these migrants are from Cuba and Haiti, with increasing numbers coming from the Indian subcontinent and African countries, notably Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon.

Even without knowing about the Darién Gap’s dangers, Essengue was instinctively afraid. “We were going and going to where there was no end,” she said. “When I saw that it was frightful and dangerous, I was thinking, ‘I want to go back, but am I going back alone?’”

Essengue said they crossed waters so dark they couldn’t see the bottom. They had to step from rock to rock across the river, holding on to trees for balance, each person moving in a slow follow-the-leader system. They trekked for days before they saw Panamanian military personnel and realized they had arrived in the country. The soldiers, who entered the area by helicopter, gave them rice and warned that thieves from Colombia often crossed into the Panama side to target migrants. “They said the Colombian guys come there, rape people, shoot people, take people’s money,” she said.

Shortly after that meeting, Essengue’s group came across Colombian men who fit the Panamanian soldiers’ description. “They did not rape us, I thank God,” she said. “Instead, when they saw us, they were afraid.”

Because Dalmacy and two other men in their group were tall, Essengue believes the suspected bandits thought they were part of the Panamanian military. The group informed the Colombian men they were migrants looking for help with their route, but they didn’t receive any guidance.

That night they made camp. But they heard strange noises and, fearing it was a wild animal, ran back the way they came, only to bump into the Colombians again. This time, for $10 a person, the Colombians let Essengue and her group sleep near them for safety. But when another migrant group showed up in the morning, the Colombians again demanded money, and when the new migrants refused to give them anything, the men began shooting at them. “We were afraid. We started running,” Essengue said. “We left them there.”

Essengue and her group spent a week walking in the forest. Although no one she traveled with was killed, Panamanian authorities say more than 50 people died in the Darién Gap in 2021, compared with an average of 20 to 30 in previous years.

The group finally reached a camp near a Panamanian military base. They stayed there for a week and a half, and then at two other camps for a total of about a month, before boarding a bus to Costa Rica, having obtained a laissez-passer—a travel permit issued under special circumstances, such as seeking asylum.

At the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they jumped a fence, only to run into immigration officials. The authorities in Nicaragua asked each of them to pay $150 before letting them go. Dalmacy again provided Essengue’s funds. Then the group left for Honduras, where coyotes guided them through the bush at night. Essengue said she remembers a constant movement of people and horses. “We were seeing horses coming and going, coming and going. I don’t know if it’s trafficking or what they are doing,” she said. “In that darkness, there are so many things happening.”

The coyotes arranged for a car to take Essengue and the group to the Honduras-Guatemala border, where Honduran immigration officials organized their transport to Guatemala.

The hardships the group faced were no accident. In a 2021 report coauthored by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and, a bipartisan group focused on immigration and criminal justice reform, Azadeh Erfani and Maria Garcia conclude that the migrant relationship between rich countries and poor countries is designed to keep those in the latter from seeking asylum in the former.’s Garcia pointed out that for Black migrants in particular, these policies prolong their trek, because they often must travel through many more poor countries and dangerous sites to get to safety. For migrants coming from either Africa or the Caribbean, racially prejudiced policies may keep them longer in each place they pass through before reaching their final destinations. “I think Guerline Jozef from Haitian Bridge Alliance has said this several times, but if you are a Black migrant, you can’t hide,” Garcia said. “And Black migrants are targeted because of the color of their skin.”

Fortunately for Essengue and her group, the informal and seemingly isolated connections that made up the network that was in place to transport them from Guatemala to Mexico accomplished their goal. In March 2020, the group reached Tapachula, Mexico, which was supposed to be their last major stop before the United States. But just as they arrived, the coronavirus hit.

The pandemic forced Essengue and Dalmacy to spend much longer in Tapachula than they had anticipated, the income from working on the plantation barely meeting their needs. As Essengue’s pregnancy progressed, she and Dalmacy became increasingly anxious to reach the United States, desperately hoping to avoid traveling with a baby. Meanwhile, the Trump administration was issuing sweeping denials for migrants at the border using Title 42, a section of US health law that grants the government the right to block entrance into the country during public health emergencies.

Title 42 coincided with another policy of which Essengue and Dalmacy were unaware: the Migrant Protection Protocols, sometimes referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in which certain asylum seekers who pass a credible-fear screening are forced to stay in Mexico to await their asylum hearing. (A credible-fear screening is an interview in which an asylum officer establishes whether an individual’s fear of persecution in their home country is legitimate.)

While there is some data collected on the national origin of asylum seekers, there are no government statistics on how race affects asylum determinations, and assumptions based on national origin alone would fail to identify migrants from minority racial groups in their home countries. The NIJC’s Erfani said the exclusion of statistics about race may be by design. “We’re lacking the data in part because the system is pretending to be color-blind and not tracking by race, when, in effect, we’re seeing that…people are being treated disparately on account of race,” she said.

As their limited opportunities in Brazil and the discrimination against them in Mexico demonstrated, poor Black migrants like Essengue and Dalmacy are at the bottom of a de facto migrant hierarchy. In their attempt to reach the United States—which is often still a safer haven than where the migrants came from—the couple would nonetheless be entering a country that has historically been hostile to Black migrants. While the nation’s own history of slavery casts its shadow, the origins of the United States’ anti-Black immigration policies can also be traced to Dalmacy’s home country of Haiti—more specifically, to the US response to the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when Haiti defeated the French to become the first free Black republic in the Americas.

Under President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), the government, fearing a similar slave revolt, refused to recognize Haiti, a position the US held until 1862. Jefferson also imposed a devastating embargo on the country from 1806 to 1808, which hindered Haiti’s ability to trade and pay its debts. France recognized Haiti in 1825, but only on the condition that Haiti pay for the losses France suffered during the revolution. Together, the United States and France all but ensured that Haiti would be impoverished for decades, if not centuries, to come. This contempt toward Haiti has characterized US-Haiti relations ever since. In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti and occupied the country until 1934. From 1957 to 1986, the US backed the autocratic regimes of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude. Between 1960 and 1988, about 125,000 Haitians fled the violence of the Duvaliers and the disintegration of the Haitian government for the US.

In contrast with how the United States treated refugees arriving from Cuba—such as offering them a straightforward path to permanent residency after a short period—Haitian asylum seekers were met with visa rejections, detention requiring a $500 bond for release, and mass work-authorization denials. These harsh immigration policies became known as the Haitian Program.

Two important cases, Haitian Refugee Center v. Civiletti (1980) and Jean v. Nelson (1985), overturned many of the discriminatory immigration practices against Haitians. But the victories were short-lived: Instead of criminalizing only Haitians, the US government began to target all immigrants. “The Reagan administration, after this ruling in Jean v. Nelson, says, ‘Well, then we’ll just expand it to everyone. There won’t be a Haitian detention program; it’ll be an all-excludable-aliens detention program,’” said historian Carl Lindskoog, the author of Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System. “And so that’s a really tragic story about how successful legal resistance actually leads to a proliferation of this system of injustice.”

Up to 15,000 migrants, most of them black Haitians, assembled this past September under a bridge in Del Rio, Tex., after crossing into the country from Mexico. Photojournalists captured images of US Border Patrol officers chasing them on horseback. Guerline Jozef, the executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, went to the border town to aid the migrants, and for her, the racialized experience of these migrants was obvious.

“As a Black woman, a Haitian American, I always think and I have asked the administration, ‘If the people who were under the bridge were coming from Norway, is this how they will have been treated?’” she told me in Del Rio, almost a week after the news broke.

By October 1, about 5,500 migrants in Del Rio were immediately deported to Haiti, while 8,000 fled back to Mexico. The rest were put in removal proceedings and sent to different cities, their fate eventually to be determined by an immigration judge. One of those cities was El Paso, where I met with Jean-Jacob Jeudy, a retired Haitian American US Army captain and a pastor at Walk by Faith International Missionary Church.

Since 2016, Jeudy has been providing food and using the church to temporarily shelter Black migrants. Almost every inch of the space was filled with migrants—84 in all, some of them children. He introduced me to two Haitian migrants: Dumas, 34, and Alfond, 29, whose last names are withheld here to protect their identity. Both still wore the navy-blue tops, masks, and ankle monitors mandated in immigration detention. The two men had been in Chile for four years and two years, respectively, after leaving Haiti and had made the journey to the United States with their wives and children. They said their experience during and after Del Rio was traumatizing.

“What has saddened me more in the prison, and which will never be removed from my mind, is that my child was still not doing well,” Alfond said, referring to his time in detention for three days after being processed in Del Rio. “As the baby was crying, I asked for some milk for the baby. One of the officers threw the bottle away and told me that the baby was too old to continue drinking milk. That has saddened me a lot. That’s the biggest humiliation that I have ever had in my life.”

The men also said they had no way to wash themselves or brush their teeth during their detention and that their entire journey through the Americas had been filled with similar treatment. When I asked whether they regretted attempting to come to the United States, Dumas said with little apparent emotion, “We are more obliged to be humiliated in the United States than elsewhere.”

It was the same sentiment Essengue and Dalmacy felt when they left Tapachula in October 2020, after having spent nearly eight months there. Essengue said she finally obtained documentation that would allow her to travel within Mexico and eventually present herself for asylum at the US border. From Tapachula, she took a flight to Mexico City. Dalmacy came with her but was hesitant to go to the US before the election. He hoped that if Joe Biden won the presidency, he would make it easier to declare asylum. They decided to separate: Dalmacy stayed in Mexico, giving Essengue his cousin’s contact information in Florida before they parted ways. Essengue took a bus to Ciudad Acuña, and with help from two Kenyan men, she crossed the Rio Grande.

After walking together for some time, they encountered US Border Patrol officers. “They asked us, ‘Where are you people going to?’” Essengue said. “We did not say anything. Then they took us to their camp.”

According to Essengue, the officers took her fingerprints and brought her and the men to a camp. They were given a Mylar blanket. Later, some officers took her to another camp, where she stayed for three days. Essengue said those 72 hours felt like two weeks, and she began to feel ill, even delusional: “You see only the light that is on the ceiling, but you don’t see the day.”

During her stay, she received some medical attention, and after being interviewed and exchanging documentation with the authorities, Essengue presented her asylum claim and was allowed into the US. At the border, she was met by members of an NGO, the name of which she doesn’t remember, although she recalled the name of the representative who aided her: Tiffany, who helped her travel by bus to the home of Dalmacy’s cousin in Florida.

On October 30, 2020, Essengue left the Border Patrol station where she’d been held. But when she arrived in Bradenton, Fla., in November, Dalmacy’s cousin was unable to house her, although he did put her up in a hotel. Uncertain of what would come next, Essengue called Tiffany, who sought help from the Florida Council of Churches. Trinity Lutheran Church, headed by the Rev. Bobbie Blackburn, heeded the call. The church community rented an Airbnb for Essengue before putting her in a cost-free maternity housing facility called Solve.

“It wasn’t what I had hoped, you know,” Blackburn said. “I naively thought that it would be a warm, loving, Christian kind of supportive community. Not so much, but she—bless her heart—she made the best of it.”

Blackburn indicated that Essengue had faced racist treatment from some of the women at Solve. The church provided her with material and legal support, but her future remained uncertain. Her asylum case would not be decided for some time, and she would need to find housing, earn a living, and provide for her future baby.

In January 2021, Essengue gave birth to a son, Jamerson. She calls him a “miracle baby,” because of everything she went through while she was pregnant.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, although the US election had gone the way Dalmacy hoped, he was still hesitant to apply for asylum. After Essengue gave birth, however, he attempted to cross. And in February, he was picked up by the Border Patrol. “As soon as I entered the border, I did ask for asylum,” Dalmacy said. “They did not give me the opportunity.”

If this was as clear-cut as Dalmacy explained it, then the authorities violated refugee law. Dalmacy spent almost a month in detention, before being deported back to Haiti.

But in early August, when Essengue and I made plans to finally meet in person after months of exchanges, she surprised me with some good news: Dalmacy was with her.

Bradenton is less than an hour’s drive south from Tampa. When I arrived at her apartment complex early on a Friday afternoon in September, Essengue was wearing green pants and an oversize red shirt as she greeted me at the door, baby Jamerson in her arms.

Essengue is about 5-foot-5, with arresting brown eyes. As she took off her mask on the big couch, we reassured each other that we had been vaccinated. She placed Jamerson in his playpen, and for the next three hours she relived her journey from Cameroon to the US.

Essengue told me the church members had rented this apartment for her and ensured that all her needs are met, including counseling. She talked excitedly about the future: The church community has organized online classes for her to obtain a GED. She laughed at her wish to become a nurse despite being afraid of blood. She paused periodically to attend to Jamerson’s cries, but also because sometimes the enormity of what she went through overcomes her. She lit up when I asked about life in Cameroon before the conflict and turned solemn when she talked about her mother and the two children she left behind. “I pray, ‘Let them grant me the asylum to bring my children over,’ because Cameroon now is really horrible,” she said near the end of the conversation. “It’s not a place to stay anymore.”

Dalmacy arrived in the late afternoon. He is a tall man, much younger-looking than his 43 years. He sat down in a chair opposite Essengue and me. Since he doesn’t speak much English, and both his French and mine cannot be trusted for such a complex conversation, Essengue acted as translator. After his eventual deportation back to Haiti in February, he said, a near-death experience was the catalyst for his decision to flee the country again: “They had killed a gangbanger right next to me.”

Essengue turned to me and narrated the story as he told it to her. “Because the bullet hit the intended target, the person fell right in front of him. Can you imagine that kind of shock?” she said. “So he was traumatized again. He felt if he stayed in Haiti, he was going to die.”

Soon after the incident, Essengue said, she pushed Dalmacy to go to the Dominican Republic and obtain a travel document that would allow him to enter Mexico. With help from American immigration advocates in Mexico, he was allowed back in the country at the end of June. In August, the US Department of Homeland Security announced a new temporary protected status, or TPS, for Haitian nationals until February 3, 2023, covering those who’d arrived in the United States by July 29, 2021. Dalmacy just made the cut and is now navigating the application process and, thereafter, the one for asylum.

Neither Dalmacy nor Essengue has any guarantee of a long-term future in the US. Essengue told me she had a court date set for January that she was waiting to have rescheduled. In late January, US Citizenship and Immigration Services denied her application for a work authorization, though she said her lawyer will be reapplying. While asylum cases are supposed to be determined within 180 days, there is currently a backlog of over 667,000 cases. It could be months or years before she and Dalmacy obtain decisions.

Temporary protected status, which is afforded to citizens from 12 countries including Haiti, leaves many migrants unable to plan a future here beyond a limited period of time. Yet advocates like the Haitian Bridge Alliance keep pressing for an extension for Haitian migrants, while others, like the Cameroon Advocacy Network, are pushing the US government to grant it to Cameroonian nationals. Despite TPS’s uncertain duration, it could offer Cameroonian nationals who are already here, like Essengue and others arriving at the southern border, some protection.

“We have the elements of TPS, which has to do with temporary inhumane conditions that are happening [because] of human rights abuses,” Daniel Tse, who founded the Cameroon Advocacy Network, said. “Cameroon meets the criteria for this TPS…. How long do they want to evaluate the country? It’s not that this country doesn’t meet the criteria. It’s just that they don’t want to give it.”

Two days after meeting with Essengue and Dalmacy in their new home, I attended church with her and Jamerson. Much of the congregation at Trinity Lutheran was made up of older white adults, and many of them surrounded Essengue and Jamerson both before and after the 11 am service. I noticed, too, that the church bulletin invited congregants to “join Julliana Essengue’s team.”

It was the weekend of the 20th anniversary of September 11, and Blackburn’s sermon focused on “drawing our families’ circles bigger”—expanding whom we consider family. It would strike me later that throughout my reporting on this article, so many of the migrants’ stories involved depending on people they’d just met as if they were family.

For now, Essengue remains on this side of the border, and she feels like one of the lucky ones: The church community has expanded its sense of family to include her.

Other Black migrants have not been and will not be as fortunate. What will become of them? Their trail of tragedy may end as it began: as a nightmare, with them dying on the journey to safety or spending indefinite periods in detention. Many will be deported back to the nations and circumstances that prompted their migration to begin with, leaving them to decide once again whether to flee or stay where they are—to determine which choice is the better one for survival.

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