On September 4, the Kyrgyz branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azattyk released a documentary about Central Asians’ migration to the US through Latin American countries. In the summer of 2023, a team of journalists traveled to Mexico and the US to follow a group of people from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan and explore their along and dangerous journey to fulfilling their dreams in the US. The documentary explains why people decide to move from their home countries, what routes they take, and what difficulties and dangers they face during their travels. There is no accurate data on how many Central Asians have left to the US, but it is clear that their number is inreasing rapidly.
Here is the documentary about Central Asian migrating to the US via Latin America.
To the United States via Central America and Mexico
Central Asians started traveling through Latin America to the US four or five years ago. Their numbers have steadily grown since then, and have increased significantly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia is home to several millions of migrants workers from Central Asia, many of whom acquire Russian citizenship to bypass bureaucracy and discrimination. Since the start of the war, Russian authorities have recruited Central Asians for the war.
Due to the war, many Russians have sought asylum in Europe and the US, citing the threat of military mobilization and other forms of political repression. Those who went to the US through Mexico documented their journeys on their social media accounts in great detail. Central Asians with Russian passports followed, seeking refugee status in the US. In the documentary, an unnamed Kyrgyz migrant in Chicago shared how he got to the US as a refugee. Previously, he had a Russian passport and lived in Moscow.
A strong case file is not the only thing that Russian citizenship provides to Central Asians. Russia and Mexico have a visa-free regime, meaning those with a Russian passport can fly directly to Mexico, without the need to use third countries for entry. This logistical and financial ease bestowed by a Russian passport has increased demand for one among Central Asians. The journalists contacted a person in Istanbul who promised to provide a fake Russian passport for USD 3,000. Mexican authorities are aware of this scheme as they have deported several Uzbekistanis who tried to enter the country with fake Russian passports.
Citizens of the five Central Asian states who do not have Russian passport have longer, more dangerous, and more expensive journeys to the US. They first travel to Istanbul, then to Madrid, and then to Bogota (Colombia), Panama, or Managua (Nicaragua), where they can enter without a visa. The next p hase of their journey continues by foot, boats, and cars and involves being smuggled across Honduras and Guatemala to the Mexican city of Tapachula.
Among the dangers of traveling this route are being robbed or taken hostage by cartels in transit countries, being attacked by wild animals, and drowning in the Caribbean Sea. A Kazakh migrant in the documentary shared a sad story of a Kyrgyz family of three who all drowned at night, while crossing the sea. A Kyrgyz migrant named Damir shared his story of being held hostage by the cartel for one day. He was released after his friends paid USD 1,000 ransom for him. His advice to those who want to travel to the US like him is: “Think twice.”
A similar sentiment was voiced by a 70-year old Uzbek migrant Rakhim Babajanov, who has been living in the Mexican town of Reynosa for several months. Out of money and with nowhere to live, trying not to cry, he said: “If I knew what awaited me on the road, I would not have come if they gave me gold.”
To wait for an appointment or climb over the border
Once in Mexico, Central Asian migrants have two options. The first one involves registering in the CBP1 mobile application and waiting for their appointment at one of the check points on the US–Mexico border. The application is used by those who wish to arrive in the US as refugees. The waiting period can take several months. Several migrants from Uzbekistan, waiting for their appointment in Reynosa near the US border, could not hold back their tears when they met the journalists and complained about being in despair after running out of their money and living on the street.
The second option involves crossing the border with the help of coyotes, individuals who help migrants enter the US illegally. Although more risky, this option is still popular among Central Asians, given the ambiguity and long waiting period associated with receiving refugee status. Its biggest downside is the risk of deportation and subsequent ban on entering the US for the next five years.
An Uzbek migrant who crossed the border illegally by climbing over the wall shared in the documentary that he had unsuccessfully applied for a US visa nine times. Many others have similar stories of receiving several rejections to their US visa applications. Another Uzbek migrant who chose this method shared that 90 percent of all Central Asians already in the US crossed the border illegally. However, not all of them are successful. In December 2021, four Uzbek nationals were arrested whilst trying to cross to the US from Mexico.
Central Asian nationals also have a weaker case file compared to those with a Russian passport, meaning they may not have faced similar political repressions in their home countries. In fact, only one of the migrants in the documentary (from Kazakhstan) cited political repression for leaving his home country. Several Uzbek migrants have cited criminal prosecution of homosexuality in Uzbekistan as their reason for seeking refugee in the US.
Others, the absolute majority, dream of getting rich and providing better life opportunities to their kids by moving to the US. An Uzbek political refugee revealed in the documentary that many Central Asian migrants buy their case file to present to the US border authorities while asking asylum. These case files cost USD 2,000 and can be sold to several people.
Experts in the documentary agree that a solution to this migration crisis is official labor quotas, which the US could provide to Central Asian countries. However, such matters are absent on the cooperation agenda between the region and the US. Another possible solution is establishing diplomatic presence in transit countries. Kyrgyzstan is currently considering opening an embassy in Mexico.
Here is an Instagram post with Kyrgyzstan’s Ambassador in the US talking about the ongoing discussions about opening a Kyrgyz embassy in Mexico.
View this post on Instagram
It is apparent that the existing risks and threats, even potential death, are not capable of slowing down this migration. Getting to the US remains an ultimate and idealized dream for many Central Asians, despite the fact that some are disillusioned upon their arrival and return home. That is what the documentary shows clearly. Perhaps more such initiatives are needed to help Central Asians make better weighted decisions and set realistic expectations with regards to moving to the US.