Like so many others, I’ve been appalled by the images of young children being ripped away from their mothers and fathers and sent to internment camps for deportation. And yet, as a conservative acquaintance of mine recently posed in a heated debate about the matter on Facebook, “Why do people migrate anyway?”
The question touched a nerve, in large part because my three children are Mexican-American, and every time I see a child in a cage, I think of them. But it also connected with my current reality; several days ago my family and I fled Nicaragua, where civil unrest has led to the mass migration of thousands of people—including us—to neighboring countries.
I’m from the U.S., but for the last two years I have been living in Nicaragua, where I was directing a study abroad program for the School of International Training. Two months ago, a civic insurrection broke out in Managua, the nation’s capital, and since then, it has spread across the country. As residents of Managua, my family and I watched the insurgency materialize before our eyes. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I assure you: the thousands of brave souls currently leaving Nicaragua are not doing so because they want to. Whether due to political persecution or out of economic necessity, they are fleeing for their lives.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from witnessing Nicaragua’s civic insurrection, it’s that the most affluent people in the world simply don’t understand the inner despair that propels people to leave behind everything they know. My hope is that this short article will help people better understand the mindset of a migrant.
This is how we experienced the uprising. What would you do?
How migrant crises begin
Everything began on April 19th. It was clear there was something amiss. The government had recently passed a reform of the nation’s social security system, which led to a wave of initial rallies against the government. Images of police brutally beating elderly protesters began to circulate on social media. Tensions were high. By this time, police had already killed several young students, and more protesters were beginning to take to the streets in search of justice. Suddenly, a nation that had experienced 28 years of relative peace seemed on the verge of collapse.
Still, despite the growing urgency of the moment, people went about their lives as normal. The demonstrations were still relatively isolated. That morning, as is customary in the capital, traffic was thick as people made their way to work. The open-air markets in Huembes and Oriental were packed as usual, and tourist lined the beaches in San Juan del Sur. On my way home that evening I saw a group of protesters gathering in the roundabout in front of Galerias, the country’s largest shopping mall, but the parking lot at the cinema behind them was full.
The next day, on April 20th, everything changed. The social fabric holding Nicaragua’s peaceful society together burst at the seams. Police and paramilitaries brutally repressed protesters, and the faces of young students, assassinated by riot squads, began appearing on the front page of La Prensa. In the days to come, an average of 3 protesters were killed every day. Then, when it appeared things couldn’t get any worse, the unthinkable happened.
On May 30th, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, more than 500,000 people took to Managua’s streets to march alongside the mothers who had lost their children in the protests of the previous days. Above the protesters, snipers were waiting atop the national baseball stadium, which is located near a main street where protesters planned to march. By the end of the afternoon, 18 more mothers had lost a son or a daughter.
After Mother’s Day, the escalation of violence and chaos continued. At least once a week there were major runs on banks, stores, and gasoline stations. To date, more than $400 million dollars have been withdrawn from banks. Stores across the country have been looted. Nicaraguans have bought up everything off the shelves in preparation for the worst.
Sometime in early May the lockdown began. No one ordered a curfew; people simply started closing themselves inside at dusk. From 6:00pm to 6:00am the streets were barren and lawless. The National Police, who have been complicit in the violence since the beginning, let thugs hired by the government wreak havoc at night.
It was dangerous to be out during the day too. One afternoon, on the way home from work, I got caught in a roundabout where men on motorcycles were shooting up convenience stores with machine guns. I fled into oncoming traffic to get away. I was lucky. Others were not.
To date, more than 285 people have been killed, thousands have been injured, and dozens have disappeared. And at least 10,000 Nicaraguans have left the country altogether. Many have traveled to the southern border with Costa Rica to seek asylum. As I write this, entire families are sleeping outside of the nation’s central migration office so that they can be the first in line tomorrow to get passports.
Where will they go?
Nicaraguans have traditionally migrated to Costa Rica, Panama, Spain, and the United States. Roughly 600,000 Nicaraguans already live in Costa Rica, where they have relocated in search of economic security. But the truth is, they’ll go wherever they can. They’ll go where they can find work to feed their families. They’ll go where they can leave their homes without the fear of getting killed by a stray bullet. They’ll go wherever they feel secure.
The day before we left, at dawn, police showed up to a home in central Managua and demanded that the owners allow them to place a sniper on the balcony of their house, which overlooked a main avenue. When the family refused, the officials set the home on fire, and shot at anyone who tried to escape. We were still sleeping when it happened. By the time my one-year-old son playfully woke me by pulling at my hair, six people had already burned to death, including a baby a few months younger than my son.
Pictures from the massacre began circulating on WhatApp. I wept when I saw the photo of the infant with third degree burns. I cried because the crime was senseless, because more precious lives had been lost. But most of all I cried because I knew a mother and father were feeling something I hope never to experience.
As I scrolled through the news, my son placed his tiny hand on my wet face and smiled. His playful innocence was more than I could take. I was crushed. We were scheduled to fly the next day, but my instinct as a father was to get on the next available flight out of Managua.
Humans don’t migrate because they want to. Humans don’t leave everything they know behind simply to try something new. We are creatures of habit, and when we migrate, more often than not, we do so out of necessity. We migrate to flee violence. We migrate to protect and feed our families. We migrate not out of hate, but out of love to protect those we care for. And this, it seems, is the common thread that binds all migrants. If you talk to any migrant long enough, you’ll understand.
Initially, we went back and forth about leaving. We were already considering moving before the violence began, because we’d had a very difficult time procuring our residency cards. At one point, we were told we’d have our cards in a week if we paid an under-the-table fee of $4,000 dollars. We didn’t have the cash, and we wouldn’t have paid the bribe if we did. Unfortunately, this practice is all too common in Nicaragua. After several more visits to migration, with no progress, and threats of deportation, I decided to start looking for work elsewhere. I didn’t have a choice.
I was lucky to land a new job quickly. Our plan was to make the transition in late July, but by early June, the violence was so unpredictable that we chose to leave on June 17th. On June 11th, we began selling off everything we’d accumulated in the home we’d created over the last two years. We learned the hard way that in the midst of civic insurrection, few want to let go of cash. We sold what we could at massive discounts, other things we just gave away. We left behind our Toyota Rav4, which cost us $20,700 in 2017, but was suddenly unsellable.
The last two months have been trying for our family. Our children cried as we sold away their possessions, and our oldest, Camila, sobbed on the way of the airport, whispering, “I don’t want to leave.” Still, every day, we remind ourselves that we are among the fortunate. Thanks to the lottery of birth, we are U.S. citizens. We can go nearly anywhere in the world that we’d like. For us, leaving the insurrection was as simple as getting on a plane. But for most Nicaraguans, it’s not that easy.
The last person I saw as we passed through airport security that morning was Marvin, who I’ve been friends with for years. In the 1980s Marvin was plucked off the streets at the age of 14, and thrown into the frontlines of the Contra War. He somehow survived, and ever since he’s worked as a chauffeur. He’s one of the most sincere, humble, and well-intentioned people I’ve ever met.
A few days before we left I’d called Marvin to say goodbye. He wept on the phone as we talked about the insurrection. He hadn’t worked in two months. His main job was driving tourists from the airport to the beach and back, but with the violence, Nicaragua’s fastest growing industry had ground to a halt. Like so many others, he’d experienced this before in the 1980s. He feared that his country was going to fall into the same downward of 30 years ago. Near the end of our conversation he said, “In the late 80s people were killing each other for a bag of rice in the streets.”
Meanwhile, back in the United States…
As thousands seek to leave Nicaragua in search of safety and a future, the U.S. government has been brutally separating thousands of young children from their parents. On June 16th I received an e-mail that included the first-hand account of a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline. It read:
“Through all the adversities we faced last evening with computer outages, cancellations and delays, nothing prepared me or my crew for 16 passengers. Sixteen. All dressed in black and gray, cheap Walmart sweat suits, quietly boarding the 12:30am flight…Children! Thirty-two scared eyes looking straight forward, dazed. We try to speak, yet none speak English…. These children were probably ranging in age from 11, to the most adorable little girl, maybe 6 years old. At 2:30 in the morning, [they] deplaned here in Miami not knowing if they will ever see their loved ones again that they were separated from in Phoenix.”
Close your eyes for a minute, and imagine yourself locked in a cage in Phoenix while your children fly with a stranger to an unknown location. Close your eyes too and imagine a Republican administration that—for all the hypocrisy of its treatment of refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—shuts its doors to the refugees from the one-time bête noire of President Ronald Reagan: the Sandinistas. This is the strange political reality in which we find ourselves.
People migrate because they are driven by a human instinct to survive. That’s really all migration is. It’s a deep-seated instinct that lies dormant in us all, and when called upon, it allows us to withstand unfathomable journeys.
As thousands of Nicaraguans flee their homes because they’re no longer safe, the debate over immigration to the U.S. has become beyond poisonous; it’s become nonsensical and cruel. Hopefully you will never have to go through such a journey yourself, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion for those who try to improve their lives by migrating to the country in which you were lucky enough to be born.