NEW YORK (AP) – It only took a few days for Monica Muquinche to reach New York after leaving the Andean highlands of Ecuador with her 10-year-old son.
She flew to Mexico City, took a bus to the US border, crossed by boat and was stopped by border patrol. After a night in custody in Texas, she was released and then headed for the Big Apple.
“I think God protected us,” said the 35-year-old woman, whose husband disappeared last year as he attempted to make the same trip.
Muquinche is one of an extraordinary number of Ecuadorians coming to the United States. They overtook Salvadorans as the fourth nationality encountered by US authorities at the Mexican border, behind Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. US authorities arrested Ecuadorians 17,314 times in July, up from 3,598 times in January.
Those from the South American nation were the largest nationality encountered by the US border patrol in the busy El Paso area in July, even more so than Mexicans.
Other non-traditional nationalities have seen a sharp increase in unauthorized arrivals to the United States, including Brazilians and Venezuelans. But Ecuador stands out for its small population – less than 18 million.
The increase, which appears to be partly rooted in the coronavirus pandemic and Mexican politics, has also led to the disappearance of a growing number of Ecuadorians during this perilous journey.
Ecuador’s economy had been struggling for several years before COVID-19 devastated it. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and officials said 70% of businesses have closed at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government announced in 2018 that Ecuadorians can visit without a visa. This gave people with passports and plane tickets a huge leap forward to the U.S. border once pandemic travel restrictions were lifted.
More than 88,000 Ecuadorians left their homeland for Mexico in the first half of 2021, and more than 54,000 of them have not returned, according to Ecuadorian government data. Over 22,000 of these trips took place in July alone.
“Since 2018, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of Ecuadorians taking the route from Mexico” rather than trying the most complicated and dangerous route through Central America, said William Murillo, co-founder of the firm. of attorneys at 1800migrante.com which handles immigration matters.
As Ecuadorians no longer needed smugglers for the journey north, they increasingly turned to smugglers who could get them across the U.S. border itself.
Murillo said the smugglers “lie, deceive people. We predicted that we would have a lot of dead and missing migrants. “
The Foreign Office said this month that 54 Ecuadorians have been missing since the start of 2019 as they attempted to cross the US border. Nineteen have disappeared so far this year.
The sudden surge in migration led Mexico to end the visa-free option. As of Saturday, Ecuadorians will need a visa again. Mexican officials said the requirement is “an interim measure that will help ensure Ecuadorians do not fall prey to human trafficking networks.”
Murillo said the election of President Joe Biden raised hope among potential migrants because they believed he would be friendlier than his predecessor, Donald Trump. False rumors have spread about US authorities allowing migrants to cross the border, the lawyer said.
Gloria Chavez, head of the border patrol’s El Paso sector, said Ecuadorians are not subject to pandemic powers that allow the government to deport migrants at the border on the grounds that it is preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The agency began to notice the increase in the number of Ecuadorians last year, she said.
“We started to see a slow increase every week after we started to see more Ecuadorians entering our region. And that’s how we started to notice that there was a trend, ”Chavez said in May.
Carlos López, Muquinche’s husband, was a shoemaker who lost his job at the end of 2019 as political unrest rocked Ecuador. In search of better opportunities, he headed north.
He was arrested and returned to Mexico on his first attempt to cross the US border. Muquinche said he called and told him that the partners of the smuggler he hired in Ecuador pointed guns at him and accused him of providing information to US border officials about them.
Muquinche stopped receiving calls from her husband in April 2020. She filed a complaint against the smuggler, who was arrested in Ecuador and then released. Muquinche said he started threatening her, asking her to withdraw her complaint.
She was making $ 180 every two weeks as a shoemaker and felt overwhelmed by the threats and debt incurred to pay for Lopez’s trip to the United States.
“I was afraid to come,” she said. “Now I think the worst is behind me. I have learned to live with this pain.
Muquinche flew to Mexico City with her son, then took buses to Ciudad Miguel Aleman, across the Rio Grande from Roma, Texas. They crossed the river in a small boat with other migrants and were stopped by US border officials, she said.
She was released but ordered to register with immigration authorities, which she did in New York.
Most Ecuadorians who come to New York City are from the Andean Highlands, a land of volcanic peaks where most of Ecuador’s national parks are located. Many are poor farmers, with few opportunities for other employment.
Those trying to reach the United States often go into debt to pay the roughly $ 15,000 per person smugglers charge to get them across the border. Some are kidnapped for ransom by cartels along the way, putting more strain on their families, or face the dangers of the difficult journey.
Cristian Lupercio, 21, was an unlicensed taxi driver in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca when the pandemic left him few customers. He traveled to Mexico hoping to cross the US border.
He last spoke to his father, Claudio Lupercio, on Thanksgiving Day, then left. Claudio Lupercio said he learned from others on the trip that his son’s guide got lost in the desert and Cristian got tired and left behind.
Elder Lupercio, a carpenter from Long Island, called the Ecuadorian Consulate in Texas, lawyers, hospitals near the border and immigration officials, to inquire about the son.
When news of the disappearance spread, he was contacted by Ecuador, saying they knew Cristian’s whereabouts. It was a scam, he says.
“I paid them $ 2,500. I was so desperate, I believed them, ”Lupercio said.
New York is the most popular US destination for Ecuadorians, with more than 241,000 people living in the state, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Ecuadorian restaurants with names like “El Sol de Quito” or “El Encebollado de Rossy” are common along the avenues of Queens and Brooklyn.
Many migrated following an economic crisis in their home countries in the late 1990s.
Walther Sinche, director of a community center in Queens called Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional, said about 10 to 15 Ecuadorians come to his construction industry safety classes. Today, about fifty of them are participating, he said.
“They are only here three days, a week, a month,” he said. “There is an exodus happening.
For Muquinche, frying green plantain balls and chopping onions for a fish stew called “encebollado” at the restaurant where she works helps distract her from remembering her husband’s disappearance.
“I have my son who needs me,” she said, her eyes red from crying. “I have to move on.”
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report from Quito.