Almost 12,000 Ecuadorians were detained at the U.S. border in November for entering the country illegally, the highest number in almost 15 years. Although poverty and lack of employment continue to be the primary motivation for migration, experts say that violence in coastal provinces is also sending many Ecuadorians north.
“The numbers have increased rapidly in recent months, despite the danger and hardship of the journey,” says Cuenca immigration attorney Pablo Cordero. “People are risking their lives to cross the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, many of them walking great distances to improve their lives. It is a sad situation for Ecuador and for the families left behind.”
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection authority, 11,949 Ecuadorians were apprehended at the borders in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California in November, while the number was 7,097 in October, 5,471 in September, 3,751 in August and 3,031 in July. By comparison, only 650 were detained in January.
The U.S. State Department estimates that at least one illegal immigrant makes it past border secuirty for every one detained.
For the first time, drug trafficking violence, particularly in Guayas, Manbai and Esmeraldas Provinces, has become a prime motivator of those attempting the enter the U.S. “There are neighborhoods around the sea ports in Ecuador that have become centers of murder and violent crime as a result of the drug trade,” says Gustavo Infante, spokesman for the NGO Migrant Watch. “It has become so bad in some areas that people are leaving and taking the trip to the U.S. This is different than in the past, when most Ecuadorians were looking for a better life.”
Traditionally, says Cordero, the majority of Ecuadorian migrants to the U.S. were from rural areas in the Andes. “They were looking for work and a way to support their families and this is still the case,” he said. He added that historically, the southern Andean provinces of Azuay, Cañar and Loja produced the most migrants. “Because so many people from this region have migrated in the past, they have connections in the U.S. and the possibility of lodging and employment.”
According to Infante, who focuses on migration from Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, the trip north has become increasingly dangerous, even deadly. “Many of the travelers cannot afford the services of a coyote, who can charge as much as $20,000 for the trip, so they join groups that travel without assistance through the Darien Gap swamps,” he says. “They walk or take buses through Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. It’s a terrible journey and dozens have died along the way.”
According to Panama’s National Migration Service, an estimated 22,500 Ecuadorians have passed through the Darien Gap so far in 2022.
The trip to the U.S. border became more dangerous in late 2021 when Mexico ended its program allowing Ecuadorians and Colombians to enter without visas. “Until then, they could fly to Mexico City and other cities and then hire agents [coyotes] to take them to the border,” says Infante. “The cost was $8,000 to $10,000. Until the visa requirement began, 5,000 to 6,000 Ecuadorians a month were flying north to Mexico from Ecuador and Colombia.”
In addition to those taking the overland route, some Ecuadorians are traveling by sea. “They pay to go from Panama or Guatemala by ship, either to California or Florida, but this is dangerous since many of the boats are not seaworthy,” says William Murillo, representative of the migrant assistance organization 1800Migrante.
According to Infante, most Ecuadorians detained at the U.S. border are asking for asylum based on fear of violence and extreme poverty. Most of the detained Ecuadorans are at Border Control processing centers in El Paso, Eagle Pass and Del Rio, Texas as well as in Yuma, Arizona.
Infante estimates that as many as 200 Ecuadorians have died attempting to reach the U.S. border in 2022. “We know officially of only about 70 but we believe there are many more.”