After losing her job in Honduras, Gabriela Alvarado has spent the last six weeks crisscrossing towards the United States border, part of a small but growing movement of Central Americans heading north after the coronavirus ravaged the already poor region.
Alvarado and her husband, Jose, decided their only option was to leave their two children with relatives and try to reach the US, after a fruitless hunt for work at home.
“I went searching but there’s nothing, everything is shut down,” the 24-year-old former factory worker said on Tuesday from the northern Mexican border state of Sonora. “There’s no employment.”
Earlier this year, US-bound migration plummeted as Central American and Caribbean countries imposed strict restrictions on movement in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, and the US implemented a new programme of rapidly expelling people caught crossing the border without authorisation.
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 US 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 US administration.
US Border Patrol conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions or apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September – a 238 percent increase from April, according to new data from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Around two-thirds were Mexican nationals, a US Department of Homeland Security 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 US source with knowledge of the numbers said.
The data points to a rebound in traffic, although the CBP said more than a third of the people expelled under the new US programme 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 were expected to keep pushing migration higher.