Senegalese migrants are using TikTok and WhatsApp to plan journeys from Nicaragua to the US: 'It's not something hidden'



Gueva Ba tried to reach Europe by boat 11 times from Morocco, failing each attempt. Then, in 2023, the former welder heard about a new route to the United States by flying to Nicaragua and making the rest of the journey illegally by land to Mexico’s northern border.

“In Senegal, it’s all over the streets — everyone’s talking about Nicaragua, Nicaragua, Nicaragua,” said Ba, who paid about 6 million CFA francs ($10,000) to get to Nicaragua in July with stops in Morocco, Spain and El Salvador. “It’s not something hidden.”

Ba, 40, was deported from the U.S. with 131 compatriots in September after two months in detention, but thousands of other Senegalese have gained a foothold in America. Many turn to savvy travel agents who know the route — touted on social media by those who’ve successfully settled in the U.S.

They are part of a surge in migration to the United States that is extraordinary for its size and scope, with more people from far-flung countries accounting for crossings at the border. And as with this route used by the Senegalese, more are figuring out plans, making payments, and seeking help via social networks, and apps like WhatsApp and TikTok.

Arrests for illegal crossings on the U.S. border with Mexico reached record highs in December. January saw a drop for the month, but arrests have topped 6.4 million since January 2021. And Mexicans account for only about 1 of 4 arrests, with the others coming from more than 100 countries.

U.S. authorities arrested Senegalese migrants 20,231 times for crossing the border illegally from July to December. That’s a 10-fold increase from 2,049 arrests during the same period of 2022, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Many cross in remote deserts of western Arizona, like Ba, and California.

Word of the Nicaragua route began spreading early last year in Dakar and took hold in May, said Abdoulaye Doucouré, who owns a travel agency that sold about 1,200 tickets from Dakar to Nicaragua in the last three months of 2023, for the equivalent of several thousand dollars each.

“People didn’t know about this route, but with social networks and the first migrants who took this route, the information quickly circulated among migrants,” he said.

Some are motivated by Senegal’s political turmoil — authorities delayed February’s presidential elections by 10 months — but the sudden draw seemed to hinge largely on social media posts and the spread of the route there.

Spikes attributed to social media have occurred in other West African nations, whose people have historically turned first to Europe to flee. Mauritanians have arrived at the U.S. border with Mexico in similarly large numbers, and migrants from Ghana and Gambia have come, too.

Many are eventually released in the U.S. to pursue asylum in immigrant courts that are backlogged for years with more than 3 million cases.

Passports from many African countries carry little weight in the Western Hemisphere, making the journey by land to the United States difficult to even begin. Senegalese can fly visa-free to only two countries in the Americas: Nicaragua and Bolivia, according to The Henley Passport Index. Nicaragua is much closer than Bolivia and avoids the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap in Panama.

As U.S. sanctions against Nicaragua’s repressive government have increased, the government of President Daniel Ortega has used migration to push back.

The Nicaraguan government went so far as to hire a Dubai-based firm to train Nicaraguan civil aviation to manage national immigration procedures for charter flight passengers. More than 500 charter flights landed from June to November, mostly from Haiti and Cuba, according to Manuel Orozco, director of the migration, remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

But migrants from farther afield, like Ba, also made their way to Nicaragua on a series of connecting commercial flights from Africa. In African capitals, migrants typically buy multileg tickets from travel agents connecting through Istanbul or Madrid, followed by stops in Bogota, Colombia, or San Salvador, El Salvador, before ultimately arriving in Managua, Nicaragua. From there, they meet smugglers offering to take them to the Honduran border, or arrange the trip all the way to the U.S.

The U.S. State Department has called on Nicaragua to “play a responsible role” in managing hemispheric migration, but that has yet to be seen. Nicaraguan first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo did not respond to a request for comment on the surge in extra-continental migration through her country.

In October, El Salvador began charging $1,130 for citizens of 57 largely African countries and India transiting the country’s airport. Authorities said most of those charged were on their way to Nicaragua aboard Avianca, a Colombian commercial carrier.

El Salvador’s fee caused airfares from Dakar to rise toward the end of 2023, said Serigne Faye, an agent at the Touba Express travel agency in Senegal’s capital. Some passengers instead fly through Bogota. Stopovers in Turkey are the most expensive.

While most asylum claims fail, the immigration court backlog means that people can remain in the U.S. for years, with eligibility for work permits. The asylum grant rate for Senegalese was 26% in the U.S. government’s budget year ended Sept. 30, compared with 14% for all nationalities, according to Justice Department figures.

Ousmane Anne, 34, left Senegal on Sept. 25 with a plane ticket to Nicaragua, purchased from a travel agency. His journey took a month — longer and costlier than anticipated. Mexico was treacherous, he said, describing his traveling group as frequently harassed, threatened and robbed by gangs.

Despite the enthusiasm back home, he said, he’d be hard-pressed to recommend the trip to anyone who doesn’t understand the risks. But he made it to New York, which has the largest Senegalese population of any U.S. metropolitan area, according to census data.

“I knew it would not be very easy to come here to the States, but the hope that I had was higher than all the obstacles and problems,” Anne said. “I knew the opportunities would be greater here.”

He recently attended a forum in Harlem, hosted by the Senegalese Association of America. He learned basics of U.S. law, heard some do’s and don’ts from police officers about the e-bikes and mopeds that are popular with migrants, and got tips on navigating the health care system.

Even if he came away with more questions than answers, Anne said, he remains hopeful.

Associated Press writers Philip Marcelo in New York, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, and Christopher Sherman and Maria Verza in Mexico City contributed.



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