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.
“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 wave of Ecuadorians coming in the United States. The South American nation became, at least briefly, the fourth-largest source of unauthorized migration to the U.S. via the southern border in July, surpassing much-closer El Salvador a more usual source of immigrants.
Other nontraditional nationalities have also 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.
It also has put increasing numbers of Ecuadorians among those who vanished on the way.
The rise appears to be rooted partly in the pandemic and partly in a bureaucratic policy.
Ecuador's economy had been struggling for several years before it was devastated by COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands lost full-time jobs and officials said 70% of businesses closed at least temporarily.
The virus hit early and hard. It so overwhelmed health services that people in Guayaquil were leaving bodies in the streets early last year. The small country now has surpassed 32,000 COVID-19 deaths.
Meanwhile, Mexico's government had announced in 2018 that Ecuadorians were welcome to visit without a visa. That gave those with a passport and a plane ticket a huge leap toward the U.S. border — a completely legal trip as far as the Rio Grande — at least once pandemic-prompted 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.
At the border itself, U.S. authorities stopped Ecuadorians 17,314 times in July, compared to 3,598 times in January.
“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 southern part of the journey northward, they were turning in greater number to smugglers who could get them across the U.S. border itself.
Murillo said the smugglers “lie, trick people. We predicted we would have many deaths and disappeared migrants.”
Ecuador's 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 close that 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 that President Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House also 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.
Carlos López, Muquinche's husband, was a cobbler who lost his job at the end of 2019, even before the pandemic hit but as political unrest rolled across Ecuador.
In search of better opportunities, he went north.
He was stopped and returned to Mexico on his first try to cross 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 last year. 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.
The 35-year-old mother, who was making $180 every two weeks as a cobbler, felt overwhelmed by the threats and by 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 halfway across Mexico 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 on the other side, she said.
She was released but ordered to check in with immigration authorities. She did on reaching Manhattan, where agents took her passport.
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 there 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 smugglers charge to take them over the border. Some are kidnapped for ransom by criminal cartels en route, putting an even greater cost on their families.
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 to cross. But Lupercio said he learned from others on the journey that his son's guide got lost in the desert and Cristian grew tired and was left behind.
Claudio, a carpenter on Long Island, called the Ecuadorian consulate in Texas, attorneys, hospitals in the border area and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asking about this son.
When news of the disappearance came out, people in Ecuador contacted him saying they knew where Cristian was. But it was a scam, he said.
“I paid them $2,500. I was so desperate I believed them,” he said.
New York is by far 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 had 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 that about 10 to 15 Ecuadorians used to show up in past years 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.