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Kyrgyz Families Take Illegal Route Through Mexico In Pursuit Of 'American Dream'

Migrants cross the Rio Grande river into the United States at Eagle Pass, Texas, in May.
Migrants cross the Rio Grande river into the United States at Eagle Pass, Texas, in May.

Aisalkyn and her family made 17 attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border before they succeeded this summer.

The family from Kyrgyzstan paid thousands of dollars to human traffickers to smuggle them to Mexico, from where they illegally entered the United States.

Aisalkyn, who did not want to give her full name, said the family "drove through a ditch" and "crawled under a fence" in the middle of the night to cross the U.S. border.

She and her family are among the hundreds of illegal migrants from Kyrgyzstan who try to reach the United States via Mexico every year to secure a better life.

The migrants pay various travel agencies and people smugglers to take them to Mexico, in a perilous journey that can take months. Some of the migrants end up in jails in Mexico while others die during the arduous journey, according to members of the Kyrgyz diaspora in the United States.

Even after entering the United States, many still face the risk of deportation or end up living there illegally. Their immigration hearings can take years, and there is no guarantee they will be granted asylum.

Despite the risks involved, the number of Central Asian migrants attempting to enter the United States has shown no signs of abating.

The exact number of Kyrgyz migrants who have entered the United States from Mexico is unknown because many of them, including Aisalkyn, hold Russian passports. They often start their journeys in Russia, paying private Russian companies to take them to Mexico via several countries.

"We flew from [the Russian city of] Sochi to Istanbul, then to Cancun in Mexico, then went to Tijuana and Mexicali," Aisalkyn said. "In Tijuana, [the traffickers] demanded $2,000 per adult and $800 per child to help us cross the [U.S.] border. We tried many times. We tried by foot and twice by car. On our 17th failed attempt, Border Patrol officers seized our vehicle."

Aisalkyn and her family spent several days at a U.S. detention facility before being released pending an immigration hearing.

Aisalkyn's journey has been relatively short and easy in comparison to some other Kyrgyz migrants who ended up in Mexican prisons for months, were robbed or beaten, or even lost their lives while trying to reach the United States, says Zhakshylyk Murat, the coordinator of a Kyrgyz diaspora group in Chicago.

Zhakshylyk Murat
Zhakshylyk Murat

Murat said only several dozen Kyrgyz lived in Chicago when he first arrived in the city in 2008. That figure is now nearly 10,000, including almost 2,000 children who were born in Chicago, he says. "Over the past two years, I have met many Kyrgyz people who had come here via Mexico. Many of them approached us for help. We can provide moral support, but we can't offer financial help," Murat said.

According to Murat, a wave of Kyrgyz students arrived in the United States between 2008 and 2015. Most of them did not return home after their student visas expired. He said this led to the cancellation of many U.S. education programs for Kyrgyz students. It also became more difficult for Kyrgyz students to get U.S. visas, he said.

Unrealistic Expectations

Murat urges Kyrgyz citizens to use only legal avenues for moving to United States, including applying for a Green Card. He also warned them about having unrealistic expectations about economic opportunities in the United States.

Murat, who also owns a transport company, says many Kyrgyz are tempted by "incorrect information spread by some bloggers" that you can earn $25,000 to $30,000 a month as a commercial truck driver in the United States. In Kyrgyzstan, an average driver earns around $60 to $120 a month, Murat adds.

"In reality, truck drivers in the United States can make about $10,000 a month after expenses such as fuel, lease, and insurance are paid. But there are unforeseen expenses. For example, the vehicle can break down or other accidents can happen," Murat explained. "Besides, the trucking business has slowed down here recently due to inflation."

A group of migrants wait along a road after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in La Joya, Texas, in May.
A group of migrants wait along a road after turning themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in La Joya, Texas, in May.

Poverty, corruption, and a lack of opportunities in Kyrgyzstan, one of the poorest countries in Central Asia, have forced some to search for a better life abroad. According to official figures, some 1.2 million Kyrgyz -- out of a population of around 6.7 million -- are working abroad.

The vast majority of them work in Russia, a major destination for Central Asian migrant workers.

According to Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry, around 26,000 Kyrgyz live in the United States. But it is unclear if that figure includes Kyrgyz nationals who entered the United States with Russian passports and those who live there illegally.

The Kyrgyz government has repeatedly warned its citizens not to risk their lives by attempting to illegally reach the United States or other foreign countries.

Most of the migrants trying to enter the United States from Mexico are from Central and South America. But in recent years, an increasing number of people from Africa and Asia are also choosing this dangerous route.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by Kanymgul Elkeeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service
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    Kanymgul Elkeeva

    Kanymgul Elkeeva is a Bishkek-based correspondent for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service who joined the company in 2009. She has covered a wide range of topics including human rights, migration, and social issues and won awards from international organizations for her reporting. She studied journalism at Bishkek Humanitarian University.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.