Nicaraguans join the mass of people migrating to the US

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Twice a week, local residents gather at a gas station on the western outskirts of Nicaragua’s capital, bearing the telltale signs of people on the move: laden backpacks, clothing and toiletries stuffed into plastic bags and heavy jackets in preparation for one cool journey far from the oppressive heat.

Nurses, doctors, students, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans bid a tearful goodbye while waiting for private charter buses for the first leg of an 1,800-mile journey. Ultimate destination: the United States.

Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti, has seen only a small portion of its population migrate north for generations. But rising inflation, falling wages and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government have drastically changed the calculus.

Now, for the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the small nation of 6.5 million people is playing a major role in bringing masses displaced by violence, oppression and poverty to the US southern border.

While attention this year has focused on the record numbers of Venezuelans and Cubans pouring into the United States, this lesser-known but notable wave of Nicaraguans is also contributing greatly to the migration crisis by sending money back to their families, and inadvertently , which provides an economic lifeline to a government under United States sanctions.

More than 180,000 Nicaraguans entered the United States this year through the end of November — about 60 times the number who entered the same period two years earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Tatiana González Chacón, 23, a baker, left the Bluefields region of eastern Nicaragua for Phoenix last month because her father, the leader of an opposition party whose charter was stripped, was accused of terrorism and had to flee to Costa Rica.

Nicaragua used to be “an enviable country, a place people wanted to go to,” she said. “Now it’s a place where their own people want to get out. Crossing that river into the United States is like breathing a different air.”

Earlier this month, a mother of three made her way from a bus stop in Managua, the capital, who asked not to be named. The trip cost her $2,000, and she still owed a debt to a smuggler for a previous failed attempt to reach the United States. Four brothers who recently inherited a farm that has quadrupled the cost of seed and fertilizer also boarded a bus heading north.

This year, arrests of undocumented migrants along the US southern border surpassed two million in a single year for the first time.

The Biden administration expects the number of arrivals to increase further should the US Supreme Court decide to overturn a public health measure known as Title 42, which allows migrants arriving at the border to be turned back. (Nicaraguans are largely exempt from Title 42 because the country doesn’t allow deportation flights and Mexico refuses to take them.)

In the past month alone, more than 34,000 Nicaraguans turned themselves in to U.S. immigration authorities—up from just over 1,000 for the entire year five years ago.

During the civil war in the 1980s, around 200,000 Nicaraguans left the country – over the entire decade.

Another significant influx of Nicaraguans has also arrived in Costa Rica and, along with those heading north, has resulted in about 10 percent of Nicaragua’s population migrating in the last four years, reflecting the widespread lack of trust in the President’s administration Daniel Ortega underlines.

For decades, migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were the dominant groups arriving at the US border. Nicaragua’s leaders often boasted that without the powerful gangs terrorizing surrounding countries, Nicaraguans felt relatively safe and did not have to flee.

The momentum began to shift in 2018. Mr. Ortega, a former left-wing revolutionary who led the nation during the civil war in the 1980s, won the presidency in 2006 after changes were made to the constitution that allowed candidates to win without an absolute majority.

Since then he has been re-elected three times, including last year, in a vote that left much of the international community and many right-wing groups behind over the anti-democratic moves of Mr. Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, who is his vice president.

The ruling couple have made institutional changes and struck deals with opponents that have allowed them to control the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission and the National Assembly. They’ve bought TV stations and made them more sympathetic to the government while taking their critics off the air.

In 2018, protests erupted over changes in social security rules that would have required workers to pay more and pensioners to receive less. But the demonstrations escalated into mass anti-government riots across the country that lasted for months and resulted in several hundred deaths.

The government’s response was brutal. Angry at roadblocks set up by protesters across Nicaragua, the government jailed opposition leaders and shut down political parties and civil society groups. Many political activists and journalists fled.

The exodus slowed during the pandemic but resumed last year after Mr. Ortega tightened his crackdown, shutting down research institutes, shutting down human rights organizations and arresting not only his political opponents but their families on fabricated charges, including planning a coup d’état.

Before last year’s election, Mr. Ortega jailed seven presidential candidates and banned several opposition parties from participating. President Biden called the election “neither free nor fair and certainly not democratic”.

A spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan government did not respond to several messages asking for comment.

“They eliminate the media, eliminate political parties, eliminate universities. Why do you think people are leaving?” said Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research firm.

Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist, fled to Costa Rica four years ago after the government raided her political science institute and stripped it of its legal status.

“These are really not the usual economic migrants,” she said. “This is forced eviction.”

Since 2018, 154,000 Nicaraguans have applied for asylum in Costa Rica, where the government recently announced changes to its asylum policy to curb arrivals. Refugees must now apply for asylum within a month of arriving in the country, are no longer granted expedited work permits, and cannot leave Costa Rica while their applications are pending.

At the current rate, it will take Costa Rica 10 years to process all asylum requests, said Marlen Luna, director-general of the Costa Rican Immigration Service.

“This immigration from Nicaragua is historic,” she said. “There is no short-term solution to this problem. It’s not a wave. It is not boring. This is permanent.”

Many Nicaraguans are also leaving the country because of the increasing economic hardship under Mr. Ortega’s rule.

Although International Monetary Fund figures show that about 25 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty, analysts say the actual rate is likely much higher, given that about two-thirds of the nation live on about $120 a month.

“The only way you can find a job that doesn’t pay very well but is a little more comfortable is if you’re allied with the government,” said Víctor Hernández, 29, who left the city of León in October lives in Nashville and does odd jobs. “I bought a small plot of land to build a house five years ago and I couldn’t buy a single brick.”

Mr. Hernández worked as a restaurant manager in Nicaragua before becoming unemployed for a year. He eventually found a new job at the restaurant, earning $250 a month, but that wasn’t enough to support his two children, although his wife also worked. He decided to leave his family behind, hoping to return in a few years.

“The situation in Nicaragua is too ugly,” said Mr. Hernández.

The money that people like Mr. Hernández send home helps Mr. Ortega’s government, which is under US sanctions targeting individuals and companies associated with the government. Nicaraguans bought a $3 billion home in 2022, Mr Orozco said remittances accounted for 17 percent of the country’s tax revenue.

“It’s a paradox,” said Alberto Cortés, a professor at the University of Costa Rica. “They have differences with the regime and by leaving they are helping to uphold the regime. The government is okay with the departure of all these people.”

In a speech in October, Mr. Ortega said the US government was responsible for the increase in migration.

“It’s the country that has the most sanctions and therefore the most damage and more crises, and then they complain about immigrants there,” Mr. Ortega said.

Across Nicaragua, however, Mr. Ortega’s criticism of the United States has meant little as people lose faith that the grim political and economic picture is about to improve.

Hazel Martínez Hernández, 21, and her brother Julmer, 19, saw their father begin to look much older than his 51 years when he rented a piece of land to grow produce and worked as a security guard. They wanted something better for themselves. It took the family months to borrow $8,000 to pay a smuggler for the siblings’ trip from Santa Rosa, a border town near Honduras.

The family had to raise another $10,000 ransom when the siblings were kidnapped in Mexico.

Woman. Hernández, a college grad, and her brother, a former farmer, now rent an apartment in California and don’t work.

“We saw the people who left sending money to build houses, and some have returned and opened businesses, bought land and improved their lives,” said her sister Jahoska, whose partner left last year and send her money.

“So they want to do the same,” she added.

Alfonso Flores Bermudez reported from Managua, Nicaragua and Frances Robles from Miami, Fla.

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