CINCINNATI (AP) — Aissata Sall was scrolling through WhatsApp in May when she first learned about the new route to the United States. For Ibrahima Sow, the discovery came a few weeks later on TikTok.
By the time their paths crossed at the neat one-story brick house in Cincinnati, they’d encountered hundreds of other Mauritanians, nearly all of whom were following a new path that was becoming wildly popular among younger migrants from the West African country, thanks in large part to social media .
“Four months ago it just went crazy,” says Oumar Ball, who arrived in Cincinnati from Mauritania in 1997 and recently opened his home to Sow, Sall and more than a dozen other new migrants. “My phone won’t stop.”
The spike in migration was made possible by the discovery this year of a new route through Nicaragua, where relaxed entry requirements allow Mauritanians and a handful of other foreigners to purchase a cheap visa without proof of onward travel.
As news of the access point spreads, travel agents and paid influencers have taken to TikTok to promote the trip, selling packages of flights departing from Mauritania, then passing through Turkey, Colombia and El Salvador to Managua, Nicaragua. From there, the migrants, together with asylum seekers from other countries, are taken by bus to the north with the help of smugglers.
“The American dream is still available,” promises a video on TikTok, one of dozens of similar posts by French-speaking “guides” helping Mauritanians make the journey. “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.”
“We wish you good luck. Nicaragua loves you very much,” says a man who works for a travel agency in Spanish in another video.
The influx of Mauritanians has taken US officials by surprise. It came without a triggering event — such as a natural disaster, coup or sudden economic collapse — indicating the growing power of social media to reshape migration patterns: From March to June, more than 8,500 Mauritanians arrived in the country by crossing the border illegally. from Mexico, up from just 1,000 in the previous four months, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection.
The number of newcomers now likely exceeds the estimated 8,000 foreign-born Mauritanians who previously lived in the US, about half of them in Ohio. Many arrived as refugees in the 1990s after the Arab-led military government began expelling black citizens.
Some who left say they are once again fleeing state violence against black Mauritanians. Racial tensions have risen since the death of a young black man, Oumar Diop, in police custody in May, with the government taking aggressive action to quell protests and shut down the country’s mobile internet.
The country was one of the last to criminalize slavery, and the practice is widely believed to continue in parts of the country. Several Mauritanians who spoke to The Associated Press said police attacked them for anti-slavery activism.
“Life is very difficult, especially for the black Mauritanian population,” said Sow, 38, who described herself as an activist in the country. “The authorities became threatening and repressive.”
It became difficult to fight, he said, and his life was threatened. So he fled the new route to Cincinnati, where he’d heard that a thriving Mauritanian community helped newcomers get started.
Previously, seeking asylum in the US meant flying to Brazil and then embarking on a perilous journey through the dense jungle of the Darien Gap. The new route through Nicaragua bypasses that connection.
The trip can cost $8,000 to $10,000, a hefty sum that some families manage by selling land or livestock. With economic growth over the past decade, Mauritania has moved into the lower ranks of middle-income countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency, but the poverty rate remains high, with 28.2% living below the poverty line.
The Nicaragua route also allows migrants to avoid the boat trips to Europe that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people over the past decade. Mauritanian and Spanish authorities have cracked down on boats crossing the Atlantic to Spain’s Canary Islands, and people are increasingly being intercepted after migrating to North Africa to try and cross the Mediterranean. Flying into Nicaragua is legal and the rest of the journey is overland – attractive options for Mauritanians and others looking to leave Africa.
The new passage offers a rare opportunity for a generation yearning for a better life, said Bakary Tandia, a Mauritanian activist living in New York: “Whatever your burning desire to come, if there is no route, you will not think about it. The reality is: people see an opportunity, so they hurry.”
Yet some who have taken the Nicaragua route say they have been misled about potential dangers and the future that awaits them in the US. This month, a bus carrying migrants tumbled off a steep hill in Mexico, killing 18 people, including a Mauritanian. Two other Mauritians were hospitalized.
Sall, a 23-year-old nurse, said she was robbed of her remaining cash on a bus in Mexico by men dressed as police officers. After crossing the border, she was hospitalized with dehydration.
“On WhatsApp they say, ‘Oh, it’s not that hard.’ But it’s not true,” she said. “We face so much pain along the way.”
Ibrahim Dia, a 38-year-old owner of a cleaning company in the Mauritanian city of Nouadhibou, said his brother left the country in June after the Nicaragua trip he had seen countless others take in recent months. But he was detained at the border and remains held in a Texas detention center, Dia said.
Many Mauritanians enter the US in Yuma, Arizona. Some are dropped off on a Mexican highway by smugglers for a walk of about two hours through a knee-deep river and flat desert bushes and rocks. They surrender to Border Patrol agents in Yuma who wait under stadium lights where a wall built during Donald Trump’s presidency ends abruptly.
After a period of detention and screening that can last hours or days, they are allowed to enter the country to await trial, a process that can take years. Others are held for weeks or placed on a small number of flights to be deported back to Mauritania.
Human rights groups have called on the Biden administration to grant Mauritania temporary protected status, citing reports of abuse against black residents being deported after fleeing.
Those who can get in are often put in touch with a tight-knit group of American and Mauritanian-born lawyers who connect them with housing and help pay for flights across the U.S. Some go to Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas, or New York, where an overwhelmed The reception system means that migrants – many from Mauritania and elsewhere in Africa – sleep on the doorstep
Ohio remains the most common destination. Several thousand have made their way to Cincinnati and settled in the small but vibrant existing community. A group of volunteers, led by long-time resident Ball, helps with paperwork and land adjustments. On some days, Ball makes multiple trips to the airport to pick up people coming in from the border and take them to his home or a community-rented apartment complex.
On a recent Friday night, more than a dozen Mauritanians carpooled to a nearby mosque to pray. After the service, they piled into the living room of another friend’s house for dinner: steaming bowls of lamb and couscous served on the floor, with cans of Coca-Cola. A Women’s World Cup match was played as the group discussed their past and future.
Sall, the former nurse, said she wants to go back to school. She has taken on an unofficial role as a cook in the home she shares with others new to Ohio. She hopes to stay in Cincinnati with the community that embraces her and many others.
“The Mauritanian people gave me a warm welcome,” she said. “And they gave me hope.”
Offernhartz reported from New York; Brito from Barcelona, Spain. AP journalist Elliot Spagat contributed from San Diego.