As he crept toward the border from the Mexican side, Merab thought he was in for a long and perilous journey. But he stepped onto U.S. soil before he knew it. A policeman from the western Georgian city of Kutaisi, Merab could not believe that breaking and entering into America could be so easy.
“Everyone spoke of the dangers so much that I thought I’d be dodging bullets while crossing a moat with crocodiles or something like that, but it was very easy, at least in my case,” said Merab, chatting with Eurasianet on WhatsApp (the names of migrants in this story have been changed for their protection).
“We just waded across the river, which was knee-deep at most,” he went on. “There was a crack in the fence, and we simply slipped through.”
His wife followed three months later and the couple reunited in California this summer. They are among the scores of Georgians who have used the Mexican border to enter the U.S. illegally over the past two years.
As countless stories of human suffering attest, crossing the border poses grave risks. Hundreds of migrants die every year, mostly from desert heat and drowning. Some Georgians say they were robbed and abused by the smugglers, but many others had little trouble.
“I arrived in the fall of 2021,” said Nelly, a former government employee. “It was scary, but my girls [her three friends] had done it, so they explained to me how it works.”
Eurasianet pieced together the following after interviewing eight Georgians who successfully made it to the U.S. by illegally crossing the Mexican border.
It’s an elaborate, international operation and even some travel agencies appear to be involved.
With fake employment letters from EU countries, often Poland, these agents fix the applicants with EU work visas that allow them to travel visa-free to Mexico as tourists. The fee, which is split between participants of the scheme in Georgia, Poland and Mexico, ranges from $10,000 to $25,000. To cut the middleman and his commission, some migrants apply for Mexican visas directly, but since there is no Mexican embassy in Georgia, the EU-Mexico-U.S. route appears to be the most popular.
Nelly flew to Cancun from Barcelona and then crossed into the U.S. with the help of Mexican smugglers.
After the migrants enter the U.S., they usually turn themselves in to American officials and end up in detention. They then apply for asylum and a lengthy review of their cases begins. To get out of detention centers, they find sponsors – American citizens willing to help, often for a fee.
Today every Georgian seems to know at least one person who has taken this path over the past two years. Still, Georgians were a drop in the sea of nearly 2.4 million people apprehended at America’s southern border last year – including Uzbekistanis and other citizens of post-Soviet nations. Of this number, only 238 were Georgian, U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Eurasianet. This is a spike; before 2021, most years saw only a handful of Georgians apprehended.
And the growing number is stoking fears that the nation of 3.7 million is hemorrhaging citizens. Emigration rates were high in Georgia even before Mexico was discovered as a backdoor to the U.S. Some 23 percent (861,000 people) of Georgia’s population emigrated between 2010 and 2020, according to a study by PMCG, a consultancy in Tbilisi.
Helping spur interest in the Mexican route is the backlog for U.S. visa appointments at the American embassy in Tbilisi. Currently applicants are being told they will have to wait until 2024 for an interview.
Poverty and unemployment are seen as driving the exodus, but hopelessness is also a factor. Of the eight migrants, all said Georgia has lost momentum. Commitment to build a liberal democracy, a robust economy and to integrate with the West have become empty election slogans, several said.
Merab claims that he was repeatedly reprimanded by his superiors for criticizing the ruling party on Facebook. “So my boss’s main job was to sit on his butt and scroll Facebook to make sure none of us post something that could get him in trouble,” he said. “He even threatened to cut my bonus pay if I keep complaining about the government.”
Another policeman (three out of the eight migrants were former police officers) also spoke of his frustration with the authorities.
“I arrested a man for firing a gun at a restaurant, but he was released because he was a Georgian Dream [ruling party] activist. I arrested a drunk priest for beating up a prostitute, but my superiors showed up and told me to let him go because priests are untouchable,” a former Tbilisi policeman and recent émigré to the U.S. said.
“This kept happening and I was losing all incentive to do my job,” he went on. “Once I saw a street fight and I did not even bother to pull over. Nobody is interested in making this country a better place, so why should I?”
Nelly, whose former job as a low-ranking official gave her insight into how the government works, blames political paralysis.
“They [the government] throw some sops to people during elections to make sure they vote the ‘right way.’ People are so poor that they go along with that,” she said. “There is no incentive to make things better, the government just wants to keep things the way they are. The opposition is just plain crazy, they are only good at screaming on TV or in the streets, so we are stuck in a quagmire. I had to find my own way out.”
A corporate lawyer, Dato was earning a decent living in Tbilisi, but as a closeted gay man he was getting frustrated with the unrelenting, state-condoned homophobia around him. “I was silly enough to believe that things were going to change, that we would become a progressive European society, that one day I’d be able to get on Tinder and go on a date without being terrified of what might happen,” he said.
The brazen, church-backed mob attack on LGBTQ rights activists and journalists in Tbilisi last year dashed his hopes forever. “The worst part of it was when the prime minister came out and spoke against holding [LGBTQ] rallies, so the government that I voted for sided with the church and with the violent mob,” he said. “It was at that point that I knew I had to leave at any cost. I don’t care if I end up washing dishes here [in the U.S.]. We live once and I don’t want to spend my entire life in fear.”