Crush of migrants headed to U.S. prompts Costa Rica to declare state of emergency

Citing a crushing wave of migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and around the world moving through Costa Rica headed for the United States, the Central American country has declared a “state of emergency” and stepped up deportations.

“The people that arrive are passing across Costa Rica trying to get to the United States, basically,” President Rodrigo Chaves said.

Viewed as one of the friendlier and protective countries along a 7,000 mile, 11-nation migration trail that begins in Brazil and ends at the U.S.-Mexico border, Costa Rica has recently seen a dramatic rise in migration. That spike is straining the country’s resources and led to an increase in crime.

Chaves said he has told his security ministry “to take a firm stance with anyone who takes Costa Rica’s kindness for weakness.

“This is a generous people. Don’t confuse that generosity with weakness,” he said. “The deportation processes have already begun and they are coming back.”

On Wednesday, the United Nations Office for International Migration said there was an “unprecedented” surge of migrants transiting through the region and appealed for governments in Central America and Mexico to collaborate to deal with the humanitarian needs.

Panama’s National Migration Service has reported a record number of migrants crossing the perilous Darién jungle from Colombia this year. As of Sept. 23, almost 400,000 people traveled through the jungle this year, crossing what considered one of the world’s most treacherous migrant routes. In August alone there were 82,000 migrants who trekked across the gap, the highest monthly figure ever recorded, the United Nations said. Most of the migrants came from Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti.

Along with a record number of children, the Darién jungle is also seeing a noticeable increase in the arrival of Chinese, Afghan and Nepali nationals.

The U.N. noted that the most significant trend has been the shift by Cuban migrants and those coming from Africa to take flights to Central America, sidestepping the Darién Gap. As a result, many are arriving in Costa Rica, which is just after Panama on the migration route to the U.S..

So far in September, more than 60,000 people crossed Paso Canoas, the Costa Rican town that borders Panama. The number of migrants was more than three times the town’s population of less than 20,000 people, Jorge Rodríguez, vice minister of the presidency, said.

The migration flow, Rodríguez said, exceeded “the institutional capacity to serve them.”

The presence of the migrants “generates enormous pressure on the population and that community has demanded solutions,” Rodríguez said at the press conference with Chaves.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration rolled out several immigration initiatives to try to stem the flow of irregular migration at the US-Mexico border. They included having migrants download a smartphone app to get U.S. immigration appointments and signing agreements with Colombia and Panama to deter migrants from crossing through the dangerous Darién.

Migrants sleep outside a train station as they wait for the arrival of a northbound freight train, in Irapuato, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.
Migrants sleep outside a train station as they wait for the arrival of a northbound freight train, in Irapuato, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 22, 2023.

The Department of Homeland and Security also announced a humanitarian parole program for nationals of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti. The program allows individuals from the four countries to work and live in the United States for a two-year period as long as they pass a background check and have a financial sponsor.

The Biden administration has touted the programs as effective in reducing the number of U.S. Customs and Border encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border. But critics say the programs, which have come under legal challenge from those who claim it’s an overreach of the president’s powers, have not stemmed the flow and the number of asylum seekers continues to grow.

Emilio Gonzalez, who was director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the George W. Bush administration, told the Miami Herald that the end goal of the federal government’s current immigration policy is “unclear” and that the Biden administration is violating “U.S. immigration law left and right.”

“It’s creating unheard of stresses on the border, it’s giving us hundreds of dead migrants, it’s giving us a completely stressed out border patrol,” said Gonzalez.

Roger Pardo Maurer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, said he isn’t surprised by the pressure of the migration flow on Costa Rica, a small country with a population of just over 5 million people.

He said Costa Rica has been getting 2,500 migrants or more a day since August. He also noted that 1% of of those entering Costa Rica are choosing to stay rather than to continue the journey onto Mexico, where there is no guarantee they will be allowed into the United States, and many of them are criminals.

“One percent means that maybe as many as 5,000 criminals have stayed in Costa Rica in a period of 6 months and this is much more than the police graduate each year,” he said, noting that there are only 15,000 agents in the police force and many of them are administrators. “That makes Costa Rica a sinking ship.”

Earlier this month, Chaves visited the U.S. and met with President Biden. Biden promised $24 million to help with border control, but Mauer said that isn’t enough money to contain the problem.

“To expect that amount to have a significant impact is absurd.”