Álvaro thought about leaving Colombia when the pandemic hit his business selling computer and cell phone accessories hard. The 55-year-old Colombian also dealt with discrimination due to his sexual orientation.
He heard that the trip would not be so complicated: Mexico did not impose restrictions on Colombians, which would allow him to fly to the southern US border to request asylum.
“At that time they didn’t ask for a visa in Mexico,” he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
And so it was that Álvaro, who requested that his last name not be made public due to his immigration status, joined thousands of Colombians in March leaving one of the most populous countries in Latin America to travel a route that few had used, until now.
Colombians were stopped at the US-Mexico border more than 15,000 times in March, an increase of 60% compared to February and almost 100 times more than the arrests that were registered last year, according to data from the Border Patrol.
Many fly into Mexico City or Cancun and take a bus or other plane to Mexican border cities, then cross into the United States on foot.
Over the past year, Mexico has introduced travel restrictions for three other Latin American countries that were leaving large numbers of people en route to the United States.
The measure paid off immediately: US authorities recorded a 65% reduction in the arrival of Brazilians in January, the month after Mexico began requiring visas.
Ecuadorians were detained 95% less in October than in August and Venezuelans were detained 88% less in February than in December, after Mexico began requiring visas.
A similar dynamic could be occurring with Colombians.
“If you look at the large number of Venezuelans who arrived in Mexico in December, before the visa restrictions came in in January, it might suggest that the people (Colombians) were told… `now is your chance, come now,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs at The Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
Colombians have little reason to worry. Together with Peru and Chile, Colombia and Mexico form the economic block of the Pacific Alliance and the four countries have agreed not to impose visas on the others.
But the administration of US President Joe Biden is pressuring Mexico to tighten up. In April, Mexico imposed an online registration process for Colombians requiring travel itineraries, hotel reservations in Mexico and departure tickets.
Álvaro left Bucaramanga, in north-central Colombia, in March and flew to Mexico City, but was returned to Colombia because he did not have a hotel reservation.
Two days later a human trafficker booked a hotel room and Álvaro flew back to Mexico City. From there he flew to Mexicali, across the border from Calexico, California. He scaled the border wall on a flimsy ladder and turned himself in to US border agents.
After spending three days in detention, he was taken to a refugee center and called his nephews in Miami.
Colombians have largely avoided a public health order – which is supposed to end on May 23 – that has denied migrants the ability to apply for asylum more than 1.8 million times since March 2020. The regulations, known as “Title 42”, it was invoked to stop the spread of COVID-19 but is applied unevenly across nationalities at the border.
In March, only 303 – 2% – of border apprehensions resulted in the removal of Colombians, according to the Border Patrol.
The costs of deportation flights, diplomatic relations and other considerations explain why migrants of some nationalities are not returned to their home countries and are allowed to remain in the United States to seek asylum.
Mexico has agreed to receive migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico under “Title 42” and therefore migrants from these countries are the main targets of the policy. Last week, Mexico began accepting a limited number of Cubans and Nicaraguans under the regulations.
The Border Patrol told the AP that its ability to expel migrants under that rule “may be limited for a number of reasons, including Mexico’s ability to receive those people.”
Several hundred Colombians have been expelled by “Title 42” since the United States increased flights there last month, officials said. Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that tracks deportation flights, recorded 28 to Colombia in March and April compared to only 12 in the previous 10 months.
Years ago, Colombians flew to the United States on visas and then applied for asylum, said Andrés Daza, a lawyer who works with the Colombian consulate in Miami. Now more Colombians, many of them professionals, are coming through Mexico, he said.
Last week the waiting room of the Colombian consulate in New York was full. Sitting in a metal folding chair in the back row, Darwin Hincapié listened to music on his headphones as he waited to obtain a Colombian passport. US border agents had kept him after he crossed the border in November.
From Medellín, Colombia, he flew to Cancún and took a bus to Reynosa, on the border with the United States. After crossing he was detained for about a month. He now lives in Queens.
“There is quality of life here. I don’t have that in Colombia,” said the 27-year-old who drove for Uber in his native country but left his job after being extorted by gangs.
The pandemic hit the Colombian economy hard, bankrupting many businesses and sparking violent protests last year when the government proposed raising income taxes. According to the Colombian Ombudsman, at least 50 people died in the demonstrations.
In rural areas, community leaders face threats from rebel groups and drug cartels fighting for territories abandoned by the ex-guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016.
In addition, Colombia has received a large wave of Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic difficulties in their country.
In New Jersey, activist Carmen Salavarrieta helps immigrants obtain local identification cards and offers them English classes, among other things. The founder of the aid organization Angels for Action says she has seen a record number of Colombians arriving.
“Many are professionals but they come across the border on foot, can you believe it?” he said, adding that some come to his center in search of clothing and food.
Jaime Rojas and Nataly Chaparro were professionals in Colombia.
Rojas, a systems technician in Bogotá, lost his job during the pandemic and his wife lost hers as an English teacher. Both participated in the massive protest marches last year.
His volunteer work in youth groups wasn’t working either: gangs scratched his car because they knew of his efforts to try to get youth off drugs.
In March 2021 Rojas went to Mexico City because he has a brother there and months later his wife and two children followed him. But since the money was still not enough, the family decided to try their luck in the United States.
In September they took a bus to Mexicali and from there crossed to Yuma, Arizona.
They were released after spending four days in detention, Rojas with an electronic shackle that he had to wear for more than two months. Now the 36-year-old Colombian immigrant and his wife work 10 to 12 hours a day preparing vegetables and packing salads at a New Jersey food wholesaler.
It has been difficult to go from working in an office to doing physical labor in a factory, but they are grateful.
“Our house in Bogota was recently broken into. However, we have been able to save and a month ago we installed security cameras,” Chaparro said. “You work very hard, but we are better off here.”