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What is in store for Ecuadorians trying to cross illegally into the US

Published on October 05, 2021

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Asylum applications, false Mexican identities, name changes in Ecuador, multiple attempts to cross the border, these are just some of the tactics that Ecuadorian migrants use to reach the United States.

In the changing routes of irregular migration between Mexico and the United States, after the reinforcement in the Arizona border patrol, the hot spot is now New Mexico. And the closest consular office for Ecuador is in Phoenix.

Located in the heart of the State of Arizona, the Ecuadorian diplomatic headquarters has three officials who, in addition to daily consular tasks, work to serve migrants who try to enter the area illegally.

Under the direction of Consul Leticia Baquerizo, who has 22 years of diplomatic experience, the office is in charge of recognizing and accompanying Ecuadorians detained by the border patrol, communicating with or searching for their relatives, organizing their repatriation, and even, in several cases, making search and rescue requests.

Within the jurisdiction of the Consulate in Phoenix there are 18 border crossings, in a range of about 1,000 km of land border, from Yuma (Arizona) to El Paso (New Mexico).

Recently, New Mexico has become the space that the ‘coyotes’ use most frequently for the illegal trafficking of migrants, after the Tucson (Arizona) area was reinforced

Between September 1st and 20th, 3,379 Ecuadorian detainees arrived at the El Paso station. While that number is significant, it is only around 50% of the arrests in previous months, since there was a noticeable reduction after the measure taken by Mexico to eliminate the visa exemption for Ecuadorians.

Before the Mexican government demanded a visa again, the daily average of arrests in El Paso was 300 Ecuadorians, now it fluctuates between 100 and 150.

After arrest there are two legal paths

Migrants who enter the United States illegally are treated under two regulations: ‘Title 8’ or ‘Title 42’.

The first—Title 8—implies that a crime has been committed, which is recorded in the migrant’s immigration record; so, if they try to enter again, without permission from the Attorney General, the offense will become more and more serious.

The second—title 42—was created for health and biosafety reasons in March 2020, and prohibits the entry of unauthorized people, whether they are migrants or asylum seekers. These people are immediately returned to the country through which they entered, that is, to Mexico.

The key difference here is that this expedited deportation does not involve any immigration records. So, the Ecuadorians who are returned by buses to the Mexican border often decide to stay in that country and try again.

“Title 42 is a hybrid figure between inadmissibility and deportation,” says Consul Baquerizo.

She adds that the consular network monitors the deportees, to offer them a voluntary return or repatriation to Ecuador, but they reject it, even though Ecuador bears those expenses.

The problem is that the more times they attempt to cross the border illegally, the risk of dying in the attempt grows, by falling off the wall, by extreme weather conditions in the desert, or even as victims of criminal acts.

Several of the Ecuadorians found dead by patrols have previously been returned to Mexico. But that does not matter to the ‘coyotes,’ who offer them up to three attempts for the price that migrants pay to be transported from one side of the border to the other.

The highest percentages of migrants to the United States come from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, and El Salvador. In that order. Of all nationalities, 80% of detainees are returned by Title 42.

But Ecuadorians, which represent the country with the third highest migratory flow to the United States, only 20% are deported under Title 42.

Obstructions to consular work

Although the Consulate in Phoenix wants to accompany and advise Ecuadorian migrants facing arrests at the border, the task is not easy. And the influence of ‘coyote’ networks complicates it.

The criminal groups that move people from one side of the border to the other work to prejudice them against the Ecuadorian authorities. They convince migrants not to contact consulates to avoid deportations when the opposite is the case.

In addition, in their desperation, the migrants ask for asylum, which in the United States represents a legal status similar to that of a refugee in Ecuador, meaning they aren’t deported under Title 42.

Therefore, by ‘fleeing’ the Ecuadorian State under this argument, the US authorities ensure that Ecuador is not part of the process, for the protection of the alleged persecuted or citizen who would not have guarantees of rights in Ecuador.

In these cases, the Consulate cannot know who has been detained, unless the migrant’s family reports him or her as missing and gives their information and requests that they search for them.

But, as Consul Baquerizo explains, if an Ecuadorian says that he is fleeing his country because the State does not protect is rights (i.e., an asylum request), Ecuador cannot offer him legal advice. Therefore, the Consulates hands are tied and they cannot help determine which detainees might have a legitimate reason for an asylum request.

According to figures from the diplomatic headquarters, around 80% of Ecuadorians detained at the border allege persecution and request asylum. But in more than 90% of the cases, after the hearing to present the case, they are deported anyway.

There are even migrants who claim to be persecuted by criminal gangs, such as ‘Los Choneros’, ‘Los Lagartos’, ‘Los Chone Killers’, and others. But not being able to prove it to the judge, they are also deported.

There is also the case of those who get lost in the desert, get sick or are left abandoned. But having been indoctrinated not to contact the authorities, neither Ecuadorian nor local, they generally die at the border.

The migrants’ relatives also face this dilemma, when they lose contact with them, they do not dare to ask for official help or report their disappearance. And few do it in enough time (less than 48 hours) to make a difference.

Even so, on some days, the Consulate can receive between 12 and 20 calls to report missing migrants. In these cases, the Consulate can activate the search and rescue protocol with the border patrol. On the border with Sonora (Mexico) there are quite inaccessible areas, so the Mexican authorities collaborate with their satellite technology to track the disappeared.

“We have had several cases, especially two in which they worked all morning, the Mexican team and the United States team, and they found the compatriots alive,” Baquerizo said.

Number of deportees exploded this year

The growth in emigration of Ecuadorians to the United States is also reflected in the number of deportees, which rose 80% this year.

Normally, before the current migration crisis, every week an airline flight with citizens deported from the United States arrived in Ecuador. In recent months and weeks, the weekly quota went up to two flights.

And, since the beginning of September, according to the records of the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry, four weekly flights carrying deportees from the US are now arriving: two on Tuesdays and two more on Fridays. The planes land at the Guayaquil Airport.

On average, each flight arrives with it 100 Ecuadorians deported from the United States, including adolescents and children.

The Foreign Ministry has confirmed that so far in 2021, more than 4,000 deported citizens have already been returned to Ecuador.

The figure shows remarkable growth. According to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the number of Ecuadorians who were sent back via removal and removal flights has been growing in the last four years.

Although the data for 2021 is only through September, the number of deportees already far exceeded the data for the previous three full years.

On average, 105 Ecuadorians were deported per month in 2018. In 2019, there were 188. In 2020, the number rose to 246. And in 2021, the monthly average is already 444 deportees. The increase, compared to 2020, is 80%.

The increase in deportations also coincides with the increase in the exits of Ecuadorians to the United States and to Mexico, which is the main step for illegal migration to US soil.

In addition to the increase in the departure of Ecuadorians to these countries, there has also been an increase in the difference between the departures and arrivals of Ecuadorians. In other words, there are more citizens who go abroad and do not return.

Deportation doesn’t mean they won’t try again

The obstacles to stopping the illegal trafficking are many. Due to the high percentage of detainees being returned to Mexico, Ecuadorians sometimes choose to buy false Mexican identities, so as not to be detained by local authorities and to be able to try again.

Or, in the case of those who are deported under Title 8, once back in Ecuador they go to the Civil Registry and officially change their name. Once all the procedures are ready, they travel again to the northern border of Mexico to cross again.

In both cases, once they are arrested their identification is complicated, so the Consulate may not find out that they are there or has problems confirming their identity with the US authorities.

Not all migrants manage to cross the border successfully

Repatriation flights serve to bring back to the country most of the Ecuadorians who failed to cross the border and were inadmissible, deported or returned. It is also done in the case of those who died in the attempt.

The Consulate in Phoenix has had to work for the repatriation of 15 bodies of Ecuadorians since June, nine are in process. The amount to cover these procedures amounts to more than $80,000.

The rest are pending, and the Consulate recently received notifications of three new deceased, who need to be returned and await the approval of the State to cover the costs of the process.

“The Ecuadorian State gives priority to the repatriation of corpses, we never skimp on resources,” says Baquerizo.

There is also another reality that migrants face and that is the presence of Mexican drug trafficking cartels, which often kidnap them for trafficking networks or to use them as mules.

That is why the authorities ask that the disappearance of the migrants not be made public, but that only the authorities be notified so that they can start the search. Because, if the person was kidnapped, criminals may murder them so that there is no known association with them.

“I would not recommend it to anyone,” says Ecuadorian who traveled with coyotes

Ecuadorian, Mexican and American coyotes, bank transfers, code words, GPS, safe houses, camouflage suits, vans and little water, these are some of the ingredients of irregular migration to the United States.

The routes of irregular migration to the United States change according to the situation. And, although the border continues to be crossed on foot like decades ago, there are new elements that are part of the coyoterism business, such as technology.

Now payments are made via bank transfers, in the United States. Each migrant must have someone in that country who can disburse the funds, after each stage of the journey that has been completed.

Payments are not made in ‘good faith.’ Throughout the journey, the coyotes send “proof of life” to relatives via WhatsApp, as well as arrival and departure notifications. These confirmations are short videos, lasting two or three seconds, in which the migrant identifies himself at each point and only then is the money transferred.

Now, the dynamic also includes several attempts to cross into the United States, because many of the migrants are caught by the Border Patrol and returned to Mexico immediately. On many occasions, the detained Ecuadorians refuse to return home, so they make a new payment for the section that they must repeat and try again.

This is the case of ‘Arturo’ (fictitious name to protect his identity), who made the journey almost a year ago.

Arturo is the son of migrants from Cañar, from La Troncal. His mother and father left the country in the mid-1990s, as did most of their family. However, he stayed behind at the age of six, and with two of his brothers was raised by his grandmother. He had not seen his parents for about 25 years.

When the pandemic arrived and the economic crisis worsened in Ecuador, he began to consider the idea of ​​following in his family’s footsteps and seeing them again. He had previously applied for a tourist visa to visit them, but it was denied.

Arturo studied gastronomy at a private university in Quito and worked in the south of the capital. But his working conditions worsened: he was not paid overtime and he had almost no days off. So, he did not see a possible future in Ecuador, “I work so hard and for nothing.”

So, he talked to his father, who said that he would take care of making the contacts and getting the money. On November 6, 2020, Arturo flew to Cancun for the first time, but was denied entry. It was the time when the Ecuadorian visa exemption still existed. He was returned to the country.

Arturo needed an Ecuadorian coyote to fix “the descent” in Mexico. That is, pay the Mexican immigration agent to let him in. Eleven days later, with all the contacts ready and a first disbursement of $2,500 to the coyotes, he left the country again for Mexico City.

Upon landing in the Federal District, they let him pass and he took a connecting flight to Hermosillo, in the State of Sonora, which borders Arizona, in the United States. What he didn’t know was that they were going to stop him there. The Mexican agent told him that “all countrymen pay an entrance fee,” and took $200 from him.”

Under directions from the Mexican coyote, he left the airport and went to the bus station to take a but to Nogales. Thus began his overland journey of around 4,400 kilometers.

In Nogales his father paid the coyotes another $2,000 to get on the list of applicants to cross the border. They put him up in a small hotel along with other migrants who were to make the same route. A week later, the coyote contacted them to take them to a first safe house, closer to the border. There they took away their cell phones.

From that moment, the coyotes took care of communication with his father and began proof of life tests on WhatsApp.

In the safe house, Arturo and the other eight migrants had only dirty blankets to cover themselves as they slept on the floor. The food portions were basic, usually only made of eggs.

Arturo says that he was there for four days, until the group was assigned its keyword: sierra. And it was time to leave. They put them in a truck, hid them in the trunk and covered them, so that they would not see the route to the next safe house.

There they divided them into smaller groups: when crossing the desert, if there were too many people, they would raise enough sand to give away their position. They were also given a basic cell phone, not a smart one.

The group headed toward the wall that divides the United States and Mexico on that part of the border. During the day, and with the help of a ladder made of ropes, he jumped to the other side of the wall. All under the surveillance of a team of coyoteros that monitored the area from a mountain, to warn them if a border patrol was approaching.

Once in the United States, from that same surveillance post, the coyotes called them on the cell phones they were given and gave them instructions: “Get down, roll, run, stay there.”

“I crossed three mountains by crawling… and I crossed three times in front of the Border Patrol cars, and they did not see me.”

The group went on like this for an hour, until they reached the pick-up point. They had to wait another hour for the truck to arrive that took them to another safe house, where they recorded a proof of life video and Arturo’s father disbursed another $2,000.

On that first route they had to pass a checkpoint in Tucson. But their car—with tinted windows—which was carrying 10 illegal immigrants, was stopped. The US agents released the North American coyote who was driving the vehicle, took the data of the migrants and put them on a patrol that took them back to Mexico.

The patrol dropped them off near Agua Prieta, 228 kilometers by road from Nogales. Arturo refused to return to Ecuador and decided to return to Nogales to look for his coyote again, to notify him that he had been caught and returned.

Arturo said that the problem is that “it’s all mafia out there,” referring to drug cartels. And, indeed, when their group was about to look for a bus, they were approached by a man who asked them who they were.

The coyote had contacted the armed groups in the area to notify them that he had a group of migrants in Agua Prieta. So, when they said the keyword “sierra,” the same members of the cartel took them to a nearby motel, without charging them anything.

The next day the same subjects took them to the bus and warned them to always say the keyword and nothing would happen to them. At each stop along the four-hour drive, the group said “sierra” when questioned. Otherwise, they could stop them or demand money.

Back in Nogales, Arturo was only able to rest for one night. After his father paid another $2,000, he began his second attempt to cross the border. But the coyotes took them by another route, to a part “where they had cut a piece of wall, a little door to pass crouching.”

They were taken to a highway and, in a van, back to a safe house. They were taken from there at night, in another truck. Later, they waited an hour on the highway, until the American driver made sure that there were no immigration controls ahead.

The next drop-off point was a ranch. There the coyotes gave them a backpack with eight bottles of water, a half bag of bread and some ham. That was the entire ration of liquid and food for a group of three migrants to walk through the desert to their next “lift” point.

They were also given a smartphone for the group and camouflage suits. The cell phone was used to communicate via WhatsApp with their coyote and to send screenshots of the locations every hour, so he could guide them through the desert.

Equipped like this, they left at 6:00 p.m. After several hours of walking, they came across another ranch and the local dogs began to bark. Arturo’s group ran to get away from the area and hid among some trees when they saw that border patrol helicopters were flying over the place.

After half an hour they resumed their journey. And, although later the coyotero told them to stop and rest, they decided to continue because the rations had run out. They had no water and wanted to avoid walking in the sun.

All agreed with Arturo and continued, with the regret of finding the corpses of the migrants who could not continue or some who lay down to rest and protect themselves from the cold and “many do not get up.”

“We saw quite a few bodies, crosses, children’s clothing, toys.” Arturo, Ecuadorian migrant”

This was the hardest part of the trip; the desert held the evidence of all those who previously traveled there. And the migrants who travel its mountains every day are witnesses of the belongings and people that were left on the road.

With the support of their guide, they arrived at the designated point at 09:00 the next day. But border patrol agents were in the area. For this reason, the coyotes ordered them to wait to cross the road and, in doing so, erase their tracks with the branches of a tree.

Hiding on the other side of the road, the coyote told them to wait for their transport to arrive. After four more hours they were picked up by the same car that had taken them to the first ranch two nights before.

So, they avoided the checkpoint where they were detained the last time and were in Tucson again. There they were taken to a house and put in the garage. They were given food and treated well for the first time on their journey.

Four hours later, they left in a jeep for Phoenix, dressed as workmen. And at the next stoppoing point, they changed to “a more elegant car” to be taken to another safe house. After a proof of life to his family, his father made another payment of $5,000, as they had passed all the border control points and were inside the country.

Once the transfer was verified, the coyotes organized new groups according to their destination route. The payment to the coyoterism networks includes that they take them to the closest point of their final destination.

In this last house there were about 90 people. The American coyotes were chatting about other houses nearby, with more people. There they were given clean clothes and organized by the vans they would take to each sector. Arturo left after three days, with eight other migrants, for the east coast.

“Two stayed in Chicago and the rest of us went on to Trenton (New Jersey).”

This last journey was four days on the road. The 22-year-old American woman who drove them only stopped for about two or three hours a day to sleep.

The end point of the trip was the parking lot of a supermarket. There, Arturo saw his father for the first time after 25 years. And only when he had disbursed another $700, was he free.

“If my dad didn’t give the money, they wouldn’t let me get out of the car.”

Throughout all stages of his journey, he heard stories about those who failed to complete payments and, in the best of cases, were held until they did. But each day of delay adds on a penalty fee. Arturo says that the coyotes told them stories of some migrants who’s payments had not arrived on time, who they were handed over to the authorities for deportation, or who were simply killed.

Following their reunion, he and his father traveled to their new home in New York State.

Arturo’s trip ended on December 12, 2020, 26 days after leaving Quito.

A week later, the young Ecuadorian migrant lost all his toenails. One of the consequences of climbing mountains at night, since to make sure they did not take false steps they were taught to kick the stones with force before stepping on them. Many marks were left on his body by the thorns of the cactus.

The memories of his migratory journey are varied, but the Arizona desert and the encounter with people from the Mexican cartels are the strongest. Although he is now happy and works in the family business while studying English, he refuses to give advice and contacts to his friends who want to follow his example.

“I would not try again, nor do I recommend it to anyone, it is very hard.” Arturo, Ecuadorian migrant.


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