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 on TikTok a few weeks later.
By the time their paths crossed at the tidy one-story brick house in Cincinnati, they had encountered hundreds of other Mauritanians, nearly all of them following a new path surging in popularity among younger migrants from the West African nation, thanks largely to social media.
“Four months ago, it just went crazy,” said 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 hasn’t stopped ringing.”
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 foreign nationals to purchase a low-cost visa without proof of onward travel.
As word of the entry point spreads, travel agencies and paid influencers have taken to TikTok to promote the trip, selling packages of flights that leave from Mauritania, then connect through Turkey, Colombia and El Salvador, and wind up in Managua, Nicaragua. From there, the migrants, along with asylum seekers from other nations, are whisked north by bus with the help of smugglers.
“The American dream is still available,” promises a video on TikTok, one of dozens of similar posts from French-speaking “guides” that help Mauritanians make the trip. “Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today.”
“We wish you success. Nicaragua loves you very much,” a man working for a travel agency says in Spanish in another video.
The influx of Mauritanians has surprised officials in the U.S. It came without a triggering event — such as a natural disaster, coup or sudden economic collapse — suggesting 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 four months prior, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
The new arrivals likely now outnumber the estimated 8,000 foreign-born Mauritanians previously living in the U.S., about half of whom are in Ohio. Many arrived in the 1990s as refugees after the Arab-led military government began expelling Black citizens.
Some who left say they’re again fleeing state violence directed against Black Mauritanians. Racial tensions have increased since the May death of a young Black man, Oumar Diop, in police custody, with the government moving aggressively to crush protests and disconnect the country’s mobile internet.
The nation was one of the last to criminalize slavery, and the practice is widely believed to persist in parts of the country. Several Mauritanians who spoke to The Associated Press said police targeted them because of anti-slavery activism.
“Life is very difficult, especially for the Black Mauritanian population,” said Sow, 38, who described himself 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 via the new route to Cincinnati, where he’d heard a thriving Mauritanian community was helping new arrivals get on their feet.
Previously, applying for asylum in the U.S. meant flying to Brazil, then risking a dangerous trek through the dense jungle of the Darien Gap. The new route through Nicaragua bypasses that link.
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 U.N. 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 voyages to Europe that have killed tens of thousands in the past decade. Mauritanian and Spanish authorities have cracked down on boats crossing the Atlantic for Spain’s Canary Islands, and people are increasingly being intercepted after trekking to North Africa to try to cross the Mediterranean. Flying to Nicaragua is legal, and the rest of the trip is on land — attractive options for Mauritanians and others who want to leave Africa.
The new passage presents a rare opportunity to a generation yearning for a better life, said Bakary Tandia, a Mauritanian activist living in New York: “No matter what is your burning desire to come, if there is no route, you will not even think about it. The reality is: People are seeing a window of opportunity, that’s why they are rushing.”
Still, some who’ve followed the Nicaragua route say they were misled about potential dangers and the future awaiting them in the U.S. This month, a bus carrying migrants tumbled down a steep hillside in Mexico, killing 18 people, including one Mauritanian. Two other Mauritians were hospitalized.
Sall, a 23-year-old nurse, said she was robbed of her remaining money 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 very difficult.’ But it’s not true,” she said. “We confront so much pain along the way.”
Ibrahim Dia, a 38-year-old who owns a cleaning company in the Mauritanian city of Nouadhibou, said his brother left the country in June, following the Nicaragua trip he’d seen countless others take in recent months. But he was detained at the border and remains jailed at a Texas detention site, Dia said.
Many Mauritanians enter the U.S. in Yuma, Arizona. Some are dropped off on a Mexican highway by smugglers for a roughly two-hour walk through a knee-deep river and flat desert shrub and rocks. They surrender to Border Patrol agents in Yuma waiting under stadium lights where a wall built during Donald Trump’s presidency abruptly ends.
After a period of detention and screening that could last hours or days, they may enter the country to await a court date, a process that can take years. Others are kept in detention for weeks, or placed on a small number of flights deporting them back to Mauritania.
Human rights groups have called on the Biden administration to grant Temporary Protected Status to Mauritania, pointing to reports of abuse against Black residents who are deported after fleeing.
Those who can enter are often put in touch with a close-knit group of American and Mauritanian-born advocates who connect them to housing and help pay for flights across the U.S. Some head to Philadelphia, Denver, Dallas or New York, where an overwhelmed shelter system has left migrants — many from Mauritania and elsewhere in Africa — sleeping on the sidewalk
Ohio remains the most common destination. Several thousands have found their way to Cincinnati, settling in with the small but vibrant existing community. A group of volunteers, led by longtime resident Ball, help with paperwork and adjustments to the country. Some days, Ball makes multiple trips to the airport to pick up people coming from the border, bringing them to his home or a block of apartments rented out by the community.
On a recent Friday evening, 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 game played as the group discussed their pasts and futures.
Sall, the one-time nurse, said she wants to go back to school. She’s taken on an unofficial role as cook in the house she shares with others new to Ohio. She hopes to stay in Cincinnati with the community that’s embraced her and many others.
“The Mauritanian people gave me a big 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.