Posted on October 19, 2020

Central Americans Edge North as Pandemic Spurs Economic Collapse

Laura Gottesdiener, Reuters, October 15, 2020


Earlier this year, U.S.-bound migration plummeted as Central American and Caribbean countries imposed strict restrictions on movement in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, and the United States implemented a new program of rapidly expelling people caught crossing the border without authorization.

The historic lockdowns threw the region’s well-trodden migration routes into such chaos that some ‘coyotes’ – human smugglers – reversed course and began moving stranded Central Americans south to their home countries.

Now, only weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the region’s complex migration machinery is reactivating, smugglers, experts and migrants say, as the collapse of Central America’s economies pushes families deeper into poverty, creating what could become a lightning rod political issue for the next U.S. administration.

U.S. Border Patrol conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions or apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September, according to new data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a 238% increase from April.

Around two thirds were Mexican nationals, a DHS spokesman told Reuters, while Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were the next three largest countries of origin.

Early data for October shows the upward trend continuing, one U.S. source with knowledge of the numbers said.

The data points to a rebound in traffic, although the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said more than a third of the people expelled under the new U.S. program had been caught more than once.

CBP acting Commissioner Mark Morgan on Wednesday said worsening economic conditions in the Western Hemisphere due to COVID-19 was expected to keep pushing migration higher.


Back in February, a human smuggler known as Chicote, who oversees a network of coyotes, took his last trip to the U.S. border, nervously eyeing migrants who coughed or sneezed while packed into the crowded safe houses the network uses to move people while evading authorities.


{snip} But now, after a seven-month hiatus, he says he’s back in business, with a twist. He now insists both smugglers and migrants use masks and plenty of anti-bacterial gel.


In Honduras, the central bank expects the economy to contract between 7% and 8% this year due to pandemic-related restrictions, marking the worst financial collapse in the country’s history.


The controls on movement across the region, shrinking resources available to many potential migrants, and lingering fears of the pandemic still raging in Mexico and the United States have so far kept a lid on migration.

But in a sign that pressure is building, thousands of adults, children, and elderly people joined a hastily organized and largely unsuccessful caravan that departed from Honduras two weeks ago, many grabbing their bags and leaving just days after learning on social media of the caravan’s planned departure.


After the group initially overwhelmed Guatemalan border security, the Guatemalan government gave special powers to the army to round up and deport more than 3,000 of the migrants back to Honduras, including Ramirez.

While such large groups garner attention in Washington, the majority of Central Americans who migrate without authorization do so either alone or through smuggling networks, largely out of sight.