It took just a few days for Monica Muquinche to reach New York after leaving Ecuador’s Andean highlands with her 10-year-old son.
She flew to Mexico City, took a bus to the U.S. border, boated across and was detained by the Border Patrol. After one night in custody in Texas, she was released and then headed to the Big Apple.
“I think God protected us,” said the 35-year-old, whose husband disappeared last year while trying to make the same journey.
Muquinche is part of an extraordinary number of Ecuadorians coming to the United States. They surpassed El Salvadorans as the fourth-largest nationality encountered by U.S. authorities on the Mexican border, behind Mexicans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. U.S. authorities stopped Ecuadorians 17,314 times in July, compared with 3,598 times in January.
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Those from the South American nation were the single largest nationality encountered by the U.S. Border Patrol in the busy El Paso sector in July, even more than Mexicans.
Other nontraditional nationalities have shown large increases in unauthorized arrivals to the U.S., including Brazilians and Venezuelans. But Ecuador stands out because of its small population — fewer than 18 million people.
The rise, which appears to be rooted partly in the coronavirus pandemic and a Mexican policy, also has led to increasing numbers of Ecuadorians vanishing along the perilous journey.
Ecuador's economy had been struggling for several years before COVID-19 devastated it. Hundreds of thousands lost jobs, and officials said 70% of businesses closed at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, Mexico's government announced in 2018 that Ecuadorians could visit without a visa. That gave those with a passport and a plane ticket a huge leap toward the U.S. border once pandemic travel restrictions were lifted.
More than 88,000 Ecuadorians left their homeland for Mexico in the first half of 2021, and more than 54,000 of them haven’t returned, according to Ecuadorian government data. More than 22,000 of those trips occurred in July alone.
“Since 2018, we have seen a big increase in Ecuadorians taking the Mexican route" rather than trying the more complicated and dangerous path through Central America, said William Murillo, co-founder of the law firm 1800migrante.com that handles immigration cases.
While Ecuadorians no longer needed smugglers for the journey north, they were turning in greater number to smugglers who could get them across the U.S. border itself.
Murillo said smugglers “lie, trick people. We predicted we would have many deaths and disappeared migrants.”
The Foreign Ministry said this month that 54 Ecuadorians have been reported missing since the start of 2019 while trying to cross the U.S. border. Nineteen have disappeared so far this year.
The sudden leap in migration led Mexico to end the visa-free option. As of Saturday, Ecuadorians will once again need a visa. Mexican officials said the requirement is “a provisional measure that will help ensure that Ecuadorians do not fall prey to human trafficking networks."
Murillo said the election of President Joe Biden increased hope among would-be migrants because they perceived he would be friendlier than his predecessor, Donald Trump. False rumors spread about U.S. authorities allowing migrants to cross the border, the attorney said.
Gloria Chavez, chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, has said Ecuadorians are not subject to pandemic powers that allow the government to expel migrants at the border on the grounds it prevents spread of the coronavirus.
The agency started noticing the surge in Ecuadorians last year, she said.
“We started seeing an increase slowly in every week after we started seeing more Ecuadorians come into our area. And that’s how we started noticing that there was a trend,” Chavez said in May.
Carlos López, Muquinche's husband, was a cobbler who lost his job at the end of 2019 as political unrest roiled Ecuador. In search of better opportunities, he went north.
He was stopped and returned to Mexico on his first attempt across the U.S. border. Muquinche said he called and told her that partners of the smuggler he had hired in Ecuador had pointed guns at him and accused him of giving information to U.S. border officials about them.
Muquinche stopped receiving her husband's calls in April 2020. She filed a complaint against the smuggler, who was arrested in Ecuador but later released. Muquinche said he started threatening her, demanding she withdraw the complaint.
She was making $180 every two weeks as a cobbler and felt overwhelmed by the threats and the debt incurred to pay for Lopez's trip to the U.S.
“I was scared of coming,” she said. “Now, I think the worst is behind me. I have learned to live with this pain.”
Muquinche flew to Mexico City with her son, then took buses to reach Ciudad Miguel Aleman, across the Rio Grande from Roma, Texas. They crossed the river in a small boat with other migrants and were detained by U.S. border agents, she said.
She was released but ordered to check in with immigration authorities, which she did in New York.
Many of the Ecuadorians coming to New York are from the Andean highlands, a land of volcanic peaks where most of Ecuador’s national parks are located. Many are poor farmers, with little opportunity for other employment.
Those who try to reach the U.S. often go into debt to pay the $15,000 or so per person that smugglers charge to take them over the border. Some are kidnapped for ransom by cartels en route, putting more costs on their families, or face dangers from the tough journey.
Cristian Lupercio, 21, had been an unlicensed taxi driver in the Ecuadorian city of Cuenca when the pandemic left him with few clients. He headed to Mexico in hopes of crossing the U.S. border.
He last spoke to his father, Claudio Lupercio, on Thanksgiving Day and then set out. Claudio Lupercio said he learned from others on the journey that his son's guide got lost in the desert and that Cristian grew tired and was left behind.
The elder Lupercio, a carpenter on Long Island, called the Ecuadorian consulate in Texas, attorneys, hospitals near the border and immigration authorities, asking about this son.
When news of the disappearance spread, people in Ecuador contacted him, saying they knew where Cristian was. It was a scam, he said.
“I paid them $2,500. I was so desperate, I believed them,” Lupercio said.
New York is the most popular U.S. destination for Ecuadorians, with more than 241,000 living in the state, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Ecuadorian restaurants with names like “El Sol de Quito” or “El Encebollado de Rossy” are common along avenues in Queens and Brooklyn.
Many migrated following an economic crisis in their homeland in the late 1990s.
Walther Sinche, director of a community center in Queens called Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional, said about 10 to 15 Ecuadorians used to show up at his classes on safety regulations in the construction industry. Now, about 50 attend, he said.
“They have been here just three days, a week, a month,” he said. “There is an exodus happening.”
For Muquinche, frying green plantain dumplings and chopping onion for a fish stew called “encebollado" at the restaurant where she works helps distract her from the memory of her husband's disappearance.
“I have my son who needs me,” she said, her eyes red from crying. "I have to move forward.”
Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano contributed to this report from Quito.