Like most immigrants, they come in search of a better life. Desperate to escape the poverty and misery of their home countries to the south, they scrape together the small fortune they'll have to pay to make the dangerous journey to the prosperous land up north.
Their passage to hope takes them through an ocean, not the dusty, cactus-dotted Texas landscape. But in many ways, the situation of African migrants who have recently flooded Spain's tiny Canary Islands parallels that of undocumented Mexicans seeking to enter the US.
And it has sparked a similar immigration debate across the Atlantic as Europe struggles to respond to the growing crowd knocking for admission at its southernmost door.
During the last week of May, the largest-yet group of African migrants - more than 1,500 - landed battered and exhausted in their rickety fishing boats at the Canaries. Responding to Spanish pleas for assistance in handling this human tide, the European Union's border security agency, Frontex, made the unprecedented decision to dispatch multinational patrols off the coastlines of Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal. But Spanish and European officials have found that here, as in the US, policing frontiers poses formidable problems.
"We had a tranquil period of about two weeks after the wave of immigrants arriving from Mauritania" in April, says Froilan Rodríguez, vice councilor for immigration in the Canaries. "But then the boats started coming again, this time from Senegal." The new trajectory took about a week and required larger boats that could withstand the longer journey. Still, Mr. Rodríguez estimates, 1 in 3 migrants "didn't make it."
As the mass of new arrivals threatened to overwhelm the resources of national police and local aid workers, Spanish deputy prime minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega flew to Brussels to ask the European Union to join her country's efforts to stem the growing humanitarian crisis.
On May 30, Frontex announced that eight countries would assist Spain in sending boats, planes, and rapid-response teams to patrol the waters off Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal. (A ninth country, Portugal, has since joined the effort.) "For the Canary Islands and Malta [which is also facing an influx of African migrants], Frontex is devoting 2.1 million euros of its 12.8-million-euro budget," says Michal Parzyszek, spokesman for the agency. "So it's clear that we understand the importance of these hot spots."
Next week, participating states will meet to hammer out the full details of the agreement, and the joint patrols should begin soon after. But some arrangements are already clear.
"In terms of technical assistance, Frontex is committed to helping assure the proper flow of information about illegal immigrants, to helping Europol with the identification of traffickers, and to helping the Spanish authorities with repatriations," says Mr. Parzyszek.
This last endeavor has already proved vexing for the EU and Spain. "The member states have had difficulty agreeing on which countries to include on their safe list," says a spokesman for the European Commission, referring to the list of nations to which migrants can legally be returned. "For political or human rights reasons, there are questions about places like Mali, for example, where female genital mutilation is still legal."
Successful deportations also depend upon the goodwill of the receiving country, a lesson Spain learned the hard way last week when it sent the first planeload of Senegalese migrants back home from the Canaries. Although the foreign ministers of Spain and Senegal had previously signed an accord that permitted the deportations, the Senegalese government paralyzed the process when the 91 migrants on board refused to disembark. Senegalese authorities blamed alleged Spanish abuse of the migrants for their decision - an allegation Spanish Ministry of the Interior spokesman David Fernández denies, adding that the two governments are still negotiating the deportations.
Critics of the Frontex policy suggest that policing the coast will not resolve the crisis. "Increased education and opportunities, social justice, ending dictatorships - that's the way to solve the problem," says Gonzalo Andrade, who heads a refugee center on the Canary Islands run by the Spanish Confederation for Refugee Asylum.
Indeed, even members of Frontex itself worry about the impact of their efforts. After Morocco cracked down on illegal immigration last year, migrants began departing for the Canaries from Mauritania. And once Spain began deporting those migrants back to Mauritania, the immigration began further south - from Senegal. "It's already visible that border patrols and law enforcement by themselves cannot solve the migrant problem," says Parzyszek. "The other actors, the [EU] member states, have to think further about what they can do."
In the meantime, aid workers worry about what the future holds. "I have a map of Africa on my wall, a topographical map with no frontiers marked," says Mr. Andrade. "On it, all I can see is that the Canaries are very small and the coastline of Africa is very big. Stop immigration in one place, and it will pop up in another. And that place will be further away, and more dangerous."