The New York Times
May 21, 2023
Our journalists trekked with Afghan migrants as they traveled from South America to the United States.
Taiba was being hunted by the men she had put behind bars.
The death threats came as the Americans withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban marched across her country, she said. In the chaos, cell doors were flung open, freeing the rapists and abusers she had helped send to prison.
“We will find you,” the callers growled. “We will kill you.”
Taiba’s entire life had been shaped by the American vision of a democratic Afghanistan: She had studied law, worked with the Americans to fight violence against women and ultimately became a top government official for women’s rights, gathering testimony that put abusers away.
But after saving so many women’s lives, she was suddenly trying to save her own.
She and her husband, Ali, pleaded for help from a half-dozen nations — many of which they’d worked with — and found an American refugee program they might be eligible for. Taiba said she sent off her information, but never heard back.
“They left us behind,” she said of the Americans. “Sometimes I think maybe God left all Afghans behind.”
For months, Taiba kept trying to make it to America any way she could — even by foot. She and her husband fled with their 2-year-old son, first to Pakistan, then to South America, joining the vast human tide of desperation pressing north toward the United States.
Like thousands of Afghans who have taken this same, unfathomable route to escape the Taliban and their country’s economic collapse in the last 17 months, they trudged through the jungle, slept on the forest floor amid fire ants and snakes, hid their money in their food to fool thieves and crossed the sliver of land connecting North and South America — the treacherous Darién Gap.
Now, after more than 16,000 miles, Taiba and her family had finally reached it: the American border.
In the darkness, Taiba crawled into a drainage tunnel under a highway. When she emerged, she saw two enormous steel fences, the last barriers between her old life and what she hoped would be a new one. A smuggler flung a ladder over the first wall.
Taiba gripped the rungs and began to climb into the country that had helped define her. She knew the Americans were turning away asylum seekers. A single thought consumed her.
Once she got in, would they let her stay?
‘The failure is happening right now.’
Frantic parents breached airport gates with suitcases and children in hand. Panicked crowds climbed jet wings and clung to the sides of departing American planes. A few tried to hang on, lost their grip and fell from the skies.
It was August 2021, and the Taliban had swept into Kabul just as American troops pulled out, ending a 20-year occupation that left Afghanistan in the hands of the very militants Washington had ousted.
The images seemed a tragic coda to America’s longest war. But for countless Afghans, the frenetic days of the U.S. withdrawal were only the beginning of a long, harrowing search for safety.
The new Taliban administration turned back decades of civil liberties, particularly for women. Afghans who had supported the West were terrified of being persecuted, and a careening economy pushed millions near starvation. Many Afghans fled to Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, often finding only short-term visas or worse — beatings, detention and deportation.
Thousands tried for Europe, climbing into cargo trucks or taking flimsy boats across the Mediterranean Sea. At least 1,250 Afghan migrants have died trying to find refuge since the American withdrawal, the United Nations says.
Many others set their sights even farther: the United States.
More than 3,600 Afghans have traveled the same agonizing route as Taiba since the beginning of 2022, according to tallies in Panama, one of the most perilous sections of the journey. Many of them had partnered with the West for years — lawyers, human rights advocates, members of the Afghan government or security forces. They packed up their children, parents or entire families, sold their apartments and borrowed enormous sums to pay for the passage, convinced there was nothing left for them back home.
Their journeys represent the collision of two of President Biden’s biggest policy crises: the hasty American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the record number of migrants crossing the U.S. border.
Now, the fallout from a faraway war that many Americans thought was over is landing at the president’s doorstep: Afghan men, women and children climbing over border walls under the cover of night, desperate to join a nation that, they feel, left them behind.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan is not just a failure “in the rearview mirror,” said Francis Hoang, a former U.S. Army captain who runs an organization to help Afghans immigrate, called Allied Airlift 21.
“The failure is happening right now,” he said.
The Afghans wend through about a dozen countries, for months or longer. Nearly all are robbed or extorted; some are kidnapped or jailed. Others are fought over by rival smugglers or sent back to countries they already passed through. Parents and children are torn apart by the authorities. Babies have been born along the way.
The Times traveled with a group of 54 Afghans through one of the hardest parts of the journey, the notorious Darién Gap, and interviewed nearly 100 people making the trek. Many spoke English, had entwined their lives with the Western mission in Afghanistan and hoped that, as American allies, they would be received with open arms.
One Escape Route
Most migrants from Afghanistan set out for the U.S. border after flying to Brazil. This is one of the many routes Afghans have taken on their trek, winding through about a dozen countries, with the trip lasting for months or longer.
He then played a surveillance video of people he identified as members of the Taliban, beating his brothers as they searched for him. He had applied for a special U.S. visa, he said, but because he had worked for the Afghan government, not directly for the Americans, he wasn’t eligible.
Ali and Nazanin, a pair of doctors in their 20s who had recently married, were risking the journey, too. Like Taiba and her family, they are Hazara, an ethnic minority massacred by the Taliban during their first regime in the 1990s, and believed they could never be safe under the new government.
“I am thinking about my future child,” said Ali.
Two grandfathers, one who said he had worked for the toppled Afghan government, traveled with their families, 17 people in all. Mohammad Sharif, who said he was a former Afghan police officer, and his wife, Rahima, came too, carrying their infant son, born two months before in Brazil.
Nearly all of them asked to be identified only by their first names, to protect relatives back in Afghanistan.
Mozhgan, 20, was the most talkative. She had been in the 11th grade when the Taliban entered Kabul and she could no longer go to school.
The American presence had opened the world for her. She spoke multiple languages, including English, Hindi and bits of Chinese. She watched Marvel movies and listened to BTS, the Korean pop group whose music had turned her from what she called a “shy, sad, corner girl” into a confident, inquisitive woman.
She dreamed of being a fashion designer or a reporter, like the women in American movies. Her sister, Samira, 16, thought about being an astronaut. Under the Taliban, which have barred women from most public spaces, those lives were now impossible.
“Like being on a road with no destination,” Mozhgan called it.
Their family, also Hazara, considered legal paths to the United States, Mozhgan said, but determined they would “take years.”
Then a bomb went off at their brother’s school in Kabul, most likely an attack by Islamic State militants challenging the Taliban, and her father decided to flee.
Thousands of despairing migrants have made the daunting jungle crossing from South America to the United States for years.
But before the Americans left Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, Afghans were hardly ever among them. Officials in Panama say that only about 100 Afghans in total crossed the jungle from 2010 to 2019.
Now, hundreds of Afghans are risking it every month, officials say, part of a historic crush of people pouring through the Darién, the only way from South America to the United States by land.
The Darién is a roadless, mountainous tangle, considered a last resort for decades, with notorious hardships: rivers that sweep away bodies, hills that cause heart attacks, mud that nearly swallows children, bandits who rob, kidnap, assault and kill.
But with the economic and political havoc of recent years, including the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, interest in the Darién has exploded — along with relentless advertising on TikTok, Facebook and WhatsApp by smugglers and migrants alike, sometimes presenting the route like a family outing that almost anyone can manage.
“Safe. 100 percent trustworthy. Special packages with transport, lodging and food,” reads one Facebook post showing people holding hands as they stroll toward a fluttering American flag. “Guaranteed.”
Fewer than 11,000 people crossed the jungle each year, on average, from 2010 to 2020. But this year, officials say, as many as 400,000 are expected to make the journey, nearly all of them headed to the United States.
And while most are from Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador, the route has increasingly become a United Nations of migration, with a growing number from China, India, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere.
Mr. Biden is trying hard to shut it down. In April, he and his allies in the region announced a 60-day campaign intended to end the illicit movement of people through the Darién. His administration has also imposed new rules that are expected to make it harder for all asylum seekers, including Afghans, to enter the United States.
Many of the Afghans on the journey knew Mr. Biden was clamping down on immigration, but said they were coming anyway — no matter the hardship.
“If 10 times I am sent back,” said Ali, the doctor, “10 times I will return.”
‘Are we going to survive?’
A village formed in Terminal B of São Paulo-Guarulhos airport: Afghans sleeping under wool blankets strung like tents across luggage carts.
It was December 2022, and most of them had arrived in Brazil days before, even weeks, carrying the last of their belongings and only a vague idea of what to do next.
They could stay in Brazil, even work. But few spoke Portuguese, and the nation’s minimum wage was only about $250 a month. Most had large families — five, 10 or 20 people — to support back home. Many had borrowed their relatives’ last savings to make it this far, and if they didn’t pay it back, their families would go hungry.
“The only hope in the family is me,” said Haroon, 27, an engineer who had recently arrived in Brazil.
So, many of the Afghans soon took off, their minds fixed on the United States.
They crossed Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, passed liked batons from smuggler to smuggler.
On a starless night in March, Taiba and her husband, Ali, waded toward a boat in Colombia with 50 other Afghans, headed for the Darién Gap. A haze blurred a full moon.
Their road map was nothing more than a terse, three-page PDF circulating around the world, sometimes on WhatsApp chains. Written in Persian, it offered advice on getting from Brazil all the way through Mexico, listing a few smuggler contacts and pithy travel tips.
In Colombia, “always remember to keep 10 dollars in your passport,” to pay off police officers who threaten arrest. In the jungle, “the first day is stressful.” In Mexico, “make sure to hide all your documents and money.”
Taiba and Ali’s son, a round-cheeked toddler who had just turned 3, was getting heavy, so they often strapped him to the back of a cousin, Jalil, 24, a kickboxing coach and an ideal bodyguard for the journey ahead.
Most of the Afghans had heard about the dangers of the Darién, and their smuggler offered them the so-called V.I.P. route — $420 a person, versus the more common $300 — that cut the trip to about four days, from as many as eight or nine.
As Taiba climbed into the boat, packing in with dozens of others like cargo, she tried to make sense of how much her life had changed in the last two years.
She and Ali had met as university students. He later worked as a translator for Spanish troops, he said, before taking a job with a United Nations contractor. Until the Taliban took over, they were happy — and in love with the Afghanistan they were helping to build. Then, as fighters swept into Kabul, Taiba raced to her office to burn documents, hoping to protect herself and other women, she said, before fleeing to another city.
For months, they pleaded with governments for help, until Uruguay agreed to take them in. But in Montevideo, the capital, they quickly decided that they couldn’t earn enough to support their families back home. Taiba argued for heading north.
Now, she was having regrets.
A boat captain barked at them to turn off their phones, so they could travel undetected by the police. The motor roared, and the 54 Afghans sped up the coast, crying, vomiting and praying. Many had never seen an ocean or sea.
“Are we going to drown?” Mozhgan wondered out loud. “Or are we going to survive?”
The next day, they entered the forest and trudged up three mountains, the last of which is known locally as La Llorona, the crying woman. They fell often, lanced their hands on spiked trees, dragged boots filled with mud and at times collapsed from exhaustion. The former policeman’s son cried constantly.
Near the top of La Llorona, Ahmad, 24, an engineer, began to break down.
“I am crazy to come here!” he yelled, banging his machete into the tree roots knotting the ground.
“No one cares about us!” he yelled. “We have important people left in Afghanistan and no one cares!”
In the final days of the American occupation in 2021, the Biden administration airlifted roughly 88,500 Afghans out of the country, an effort the American president called “extraordinary.”
“Only the United States had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it,” Mr. Biden told the American public afterward.
Fewer than 25,000 Afghans have received special visas or refugee status in the United States since the airlifts in 2021, government data shows. And the options are scarcer for people who didn’t work with the United States but might still be in danger.
Roughly 52,000 Afghans have applied for a program called humanitarian parole. As of mid-April, just 760 people had been approved.
By comparison, more than 300,000 Ukrainians arrived in the United States under various programs in just over a year.
“I don’t understand why the world has had their arms so open to Ukrainians and so closed to Afghans,” said Shawn VanDiver, the U.S. Navy veteran who started #AfghanEvac.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, said the administration was working to enhance an already robust resettlement program for Afghans. She called it “part of our long-term commitment to our Afghan allies.”
Many of the Afghans in the jungle said they didn’t feel that commitment.
“We did a lot of things for the American people,” said Niazi, the father who showed pictures of himself as a guard with President Obama. “But the American people just left us.”
A steep dirt hill signaled the Afghans’ last push through the wilderness. Finally, they had reached a camp constructed by an Indigenous group, the Emberá. Taiba stared slack-jawed at the generators, wooden platforms and women selling fried chicken and Coca-Cola.
In the morning, the Emberá led them to canoes and, for $25 a person, ferried them to a checkpoint in Panama, where officials counted them, took down their nationalities and sent them on their way north.
Mohammad Azim, 70, the other grandfather, rushed to the river to wash himself. Then, beneath a fence topped by barbed wire, he knelt to pray — thankful that he made it, apprehensive about the thousands of miles to go.
‘Everything is dark.’
The group of 54 splintered soon after.
Taiba and her family took a bus through Costa Rica, walked for hours until they found a car through Nicaragua, and were forced to pay bribes to the police in Honduras. In Guatemala, they hiked through more forest, then paid another smuggler to get them from a bus to a boat, across a river and into a truck, all the way to southern Mexico.
Back in Uruguay, Taiba had shed her head scarf to blend in and cut her hair when it began to fall out. By now, she had lost 20 pounds and watched her child lose 15 percent of his body weight.
If the Americans didn’t take her, she thought, maybe she would just keep going — to Canada, where her husband had relatives and, she imagined, the government might be more welcoming.
Ali, the doctor who vowed to keep trying to make it to the United States even if he was “sent back” 10 times, proved prescient. Near the American border, he and his wife were stopped by the Mexican police, robbed and put on a bus across Mexico, back to the border with Guatemala.
They set out again from there, only to be apprehended for a second time and jailed for about a week.
News about other Afghans who tried to cross into the United States trickled in.
Milad, 29, a lawyer, climbed over the wall with his wife and children, ages 2 and 4. They were held in U.S. detention in Calexico, Calif., he said, and told they would be taken to a hotel. Instead, U.S. border officials put them in a white van with blacked out windows that dropped them on the street in Mexicali, Mexico, he said. His cousin Tamim, 27, a journalist, said he had a similar experience.
Ahmad Faheem Majeed, 28, a former Afghan Air Force intelligence officer who crossed into Texas in September 2022, was detained and charged with failing to enter at a designated checkpoint, a misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty and was held in U.S. custody for eight months, court records show.
“I helped these Americans,” he said from Eden Detention Center in Texas, sometimes near tears. “I am not understanding why they are not helping me.”
Mozhgan’s family made it to Mexico City, but was scared to continue without immigration paperwork issued by the Mexican government, which they thought would shield them from arrest. They waited in line for days before heading north.
Taiba and her family boarded a bus from Mexico City to the U.S. border.
“The pleasure of travel,” the motto on the bus said. It had been a year since they left Afghanistan.
A weariness set in, her hope nearly buried by exhaustion. Criminals and the police stopped the bus repeatedly to extort money. On the third night, they reached Tijuana, border lights twinkling in the distance. It was early April.
The next evening, a smuggler brought them to the drainage tunnel in the middle of the city. As they climbed the first border fence, they could see wildflowers and a highway on the other side.
Taiba lowered herself to the ground with anticipation, her feet landing on dirt.
They had made it — or so they thought.
They spent a cold night in an immigration netherworld, of sorts, trapped between two border fences. In the morning, U.S. Border Patrol officers swept them up. After so many thousands of miles, they said, their welcome was a detention center.
They had hoped to claim asylum then and there. Instead, U.S. officials handed them documents clarifying that each was an “alien present in the United States,” subject to deportation.
They could fight removal at a court hearing, set for June 30, 2025, on the other side of the country, in Boston.
To apply for asylum, they would have to navigate the process on their own, or find a lawyer. Until then, they couldn’t work.
A charity briefly put them in a hotel room, but the questions began to gnaw: How would they eat? Where could they live? Was this the American dream?
“Everything is dark,” said Taiba’s husband, Ali.
The others faced similar challenges.
Milad, the lawyer, tried the crossing again and made it, landing a kitchen job under the table. Ali and Nazanin, the doctors, finally got to the border and across it, then made their way to her brother’s home in Georgia. Niazi, the presidential guard, wound up in a shelter in San Diego, wondering how to get his three boys into classes — they had lost two years of schooling.
None of the families had a lawyer or a clear idea of how to survive, much less feed their families back home in Afghanistan. Most began writing desperate messages to migrant aid organizations, but the groups were overwhelmed, and the Afghans rarely heard back.
Mozhgan’s family faced a different terror: She had gone missing.
She had scaled the first border fence, then spent three nights between the walls. Finally, immigration officials carted her family to detention — but she and an older brother, both over 18, were treated as single adults and kept in custody, while the rest of the family was released in California.
Their children were released about a week later and reunited with the family.
Taiba kept moving. In early May, an aid group in New York offered a spot in a shelter and the family headed east, bound for more uncertainty. Without asylum, they faced a life in the shadows, like millions of other undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Her husband had always assumed the Darién would be the hardest part of the journey.
“But when I emerged from the jungle, we have seen, ‘No,’” he said. “The difficulties are forever.”
Federico Rios contributed reporting from Brazil, Mexico and the Darién Gap, and Ruhullah Khapalwak from Vancouver.
Julie Turkewitz is the Andes bureau chief, covering Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Suriname and Guyana. Before moving to South America, she was a national correspondent covering the American West.