Twice a week at a gas station on the western edge of Nicaragua’s capital, local residents gather, carrying the telltale signs of people on the move: loaded backpacks, clothes and toiletries stuffed in plastic bags and heavy jackets in preparation for a chilly journey far from the stifling heat.
Nurses, doctors, students, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans say teary goodbyes as they await private charter buses for the first leg of an 1,800-mile journey. Final destination: the United States.
For generations, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, saw only a trickle of its people migrate northward. But soaring inflation, declining wages and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government have drastically shifted the calculus.
Now, for the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the small nation of 6.5 million is a major contributor to the mass of people trekking to the U.S. southern border, having been displaced by violence, repression and poverty.
While attention has focused this year on the record numbers of Venezuelans and Cubans pouring into the United States, this less-noted but remarkable surge of Nicaraguans is also adding to the migration crisis in a big way, sending money back to their families and, inadvertently, providing an economic lifeline to a government under sanctions from the United States.
More than 180,000 Nicaraguans crossed into the United States this year through the end of November — about 60 times as many as those who entered during 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 in the eastern part of Nicaragua for Phoenix last month, because her father, the leader of an opposition party that saw its charter revoked, was accused of terrorism and had to flee to Costa Rica.
Nicaragua used to be “an enviable country, a place people wanted to go,” she said. “Now it’s a place where its own people want to get out. When you cross that river into the United States, it’s like you breathe a different air.”