CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Millions of people have been fleeing their homes in Latin America in numbers not seen in decades, many pressing toward the southern border of the United States.
While migration to the southern US border has always fluctuatedthe pandemic and recession that continued to hit Latin America harder than almost anywhere else, plunging millions of people into hunger, destitution and despair.
A generation of progress against extreme poverty was erased. Unemployment hit a two-decade high. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clogged a key grain and fertilizer pipeline, causing food prices to spike.
The economic shocks were compounded by violence, sparking conflicts between armed groups in previously peaceful countries and burning in places long accustomed to terror.
Both smugglers and migrants have launched powerful social media campaigns, many riddled with misinformation, urging people to migrate to the United States.
This accumulation of grim factors means that now, having lifted this month a pandemic-era border restriction known as Title 42, The United States faces an even more daunting immigration challenge.
“You couldn’t imagine a worse set of facts to leave tens of millions of people with no choice but to move,” said Dan Restrepo, who was President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Latin America. “It is inevitable that you will have a massive displacement. It really is a perfect storm.”
For the past three years, the US government has tried to reduce migrant registration flows by using Title 42 to quickly remove illegal border crossers. Now that the measure has expired, migrants who entered illegally have the opportunity to apply for asylum, something many were barred from doing while the restriction was in effect. Qualifying won’t be easy—the Biden Administration has implemented new eligibility restrictions—and if the process goes as planned, many will be deported relatively quickly.
Social media has been used to falsely advertise border rule changes as opening the floodgates. The number of border encounters increased in the days leading up to Title 42’s expiration on May 11, but the number has decreased, at least temporarily, since then.
Many migrants come from places like Venezuela, which was suffering from one of the world’s worst economic crises before the pandemic, then plunged further into misery when the coronavirus hit. A mass departure deepened, bringing the number of Venezuelans who have fled since 2015 to 7.2 million — roughly a quarter of the population.
In Colombia, where protections for workers are weak, unemployment reached its highest rate on record. Brazil had the second highest number of Covid deaths worldwide. Immigrants who had already traveled from all over Latin America to these two countries were among the first to lose any hope of earning a living.
Historically, Nicaraguans migrated north in relatively small numbers. But inflation, falling wages and an increasingly authoritarian government have driven hundreds of miles away in recent years.
Haiti was hit by a cholera outbreak, a starvation crisis, and a war between armed criminal groups all at the same time.
The Darien Gap, a treacherous 110-kilometre stretch of jungle connecting Central and South America, suddenly became a thoroughfare for people without visas or money to otherwise make the journey. The UN anticipates that some 400,000 people will pass through there this year, almost 40 times the annual average from 2010 to 2020.
Sitting inside a tent on a Colombian beach not far from the jungle last year, Willian Gutiérrez, 31, a welder and bricklayer, said that in Venezuela he had not had a stable job for years, food was scarce, “ and sometimes I would stop eating so they could do it,” pointing to their sons Ricardo, 5, and Yolayner, 2.
Johana García, 38, Gutiérrez’s wife, said that after seeing so many friends leave for the United States, they had decided to risk the journey.
They went because the US economy recovered quickly from the coronavirus and then had a hunger for workers. But people smugglers, family members and people who posted on social media, told them that under President Joseph R. Biden Jr., they could cross the border and stay.
Garcia, who barely had money to buy a tent, a flashlight and two bags of bread for the trip through the jungle, had heard this from Venezuelans who had arrived in the United States. «It is difficult, yes, but it is possible,» they told him.
US border authorities had been regularly using Title 42 to immediately turn away people entering the country illegally, invoking it more than 2.7 million times since March 2020. Since taking office, the Biden Administration has allowed some 1.8 Millions of migrants will remain in the US while they wait for asylum hearings.
Ana Gabriela Gómez, 28, a pharmaceutical assistant who earned less than $100 a month in Caracas, left Venezuela with her two children, ages 5 and 6, in September. After nine harrowing days in the Darien jungle, she heard that Biden was enduring border restrictions against Venezuelans.
But so many neighbors and friends had passed. She didn’t quite believe the President.
«I’m going to go see it with my own eyes,» he thought. After arriving at the US border with her children, she crossed the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juárez and turned herself in to US Border Patrol agents, who let her pass.
He is now in a shelter in New York and plans to apply for asylum.
“My goal was to get here, but now I have another goal: work, get my papers and a good school for the boys,” he said.
«It really is a perfect storm.»
President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Latin America
By: NATALIE KITROEFF and JULIE TURKEWITZ
BBC-NEWS-SRC: IMPORT DATE: 2023-05-19 13:00:08