At six in the morning, the line to get into the Department of Immigration & Foreign Services already stretches for over four blocks. At that hour, traffic is paralyzed and the businesses that specialize in immigration paperwork have been working for over an hour. Since the crisis began in Nicaragua, every day is like this.
“Even in December, it’s never been like this,” says a peddler, while he offers enchiladas to the people in a line that gets longer with every passing minute. It’s historic. At the central offices of Immigration, around 1,000 people arrive daily to realize all kinds of paperwork. For many, obtaining a passport is the first step towards “freedom.”
Between the violence, the unemployment and the political persecution that the country is experiencing, the collective desperation grows. Entire families prefer to begin their lives again, rather than have them ripped away by the bullets. For many, that’s reason enough to leave.
The lines are divided between passport applications, travel visas for minors and submission of documents. All of the lines are immense. In the crowd, time hangs heavy. Some wait up to a full day to be seen.
Little by little, the long wait becomes the norm, and the lines are converted into places of sharing and meeting. People share food, help each other fill out the applications and forge ties with people they’ll probably never see again. Or maybe they will, but in another country and in another context.
In section E 222 of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights report, it states: “the worsening and prolongation of the violence is leading a considerable number of Nicaraguan individuals and families to apply for their travel documents in order to emigrate to other neighboring Central American countries.” According to the report, requests for documents related to emigration have increased 50%, with the majority being for children and adolescents.
The report cites a study of the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development, stating that the crisis in Nicaragua has endangered between 20,000 and 150,000 jobs. As a result, many people will opt to emigrate as a survival strategy, in search of work or opportunities for a better life.
Outside the Immigration offices, the stories are tough. Like Martina and Lorena, two young sisters from Masaya, 24 and 26 years old. Two months ago, they were still working, making handicrafts in nearby Catarina. This is the career that their family has exercised for generations. Proud and smiling, they tell how their ceramic creations were taken to European countries, and how much praise they’d receive from the tourists every day. This happiness quickly turns to sadness: five weeks ago the workshop laid off half the workers, among them Martina and Lorena.
It’s no secret that Masaya has been under siege and battered by the regime. “No one is blaming the barricades, one helps them,” they say. After losing their job, they’ve spent all their time preparing food for those at the barricades. Once in a while they come closer to measure their size. Martina, the younger, is less than five feet tall, and for her it’s amusing that some of the walls for defense are taller than she is. That’s the only thing that’s left for them.
Nevertheless, the fact of being single mothers is forcing them to leave. Both will leave behind their craft instruments to work as maids outside of Nicaragua. They’re fearful of leaving their children, but they feel that it’s the best thing to do for now. Get up in the early hours of the morning to obtain their passports, they say, is a sacrifice that’s worth it.
In order to reach the Immigration offices, they left home at three in the morning, passing through more than 20 roadblocks. They managed to reach Managua, less than 20 miles away, three hours later. They know that if they’re not seen today, they’ll have to remain camped at the gates to the immigration building, since they can’t make this trip twice.
Weeks ago, the majority of the departmental offices of Immigration and Foreign Services were closed. This has resulted in all of Nicaragua flooding the Managua offices. Like Martina and Lorena, many come from the places where the repression has been the fiercest: Masaya, Jinotepe, Matagalpa and Esteli. “I don’t want to die,” is one of the most common feelings expressed in the line.
With this as their backdrop, the people in line bear up under the hardship. They withstand the sun, no food, standing on their feet for hours, and at times they have to hold on after being told that the gates are closing and they can’t be let in. The quantity of applications is overwhelming, and at times by one in the afternoon they can’t let any more people in the institution’s grounds.
“If you don’t arrive by 4 in the morning, you won’t make it,” says a migratory agent outside the gates. These agents have witnessed how, from one day to the next, the lines began to wind around the corners.
“People are desperate when they come here,” he notes. The crying of the babies and the complaints of the elderly are common sounds in this area. According to the agent, people are so “desperate” that they’ll pay up to a thousand cordobas [just under US $32, but a considerable sum in Nicaragua] to buy a place in line, because even those run out quickly. Since not everyone can pay, some prefer to stay and sleep outside the blue-barred gate, which is now a familiar sight to many.
Martha spent the night there. She’s 20 years old and from Chinandega. For two months, she’s seen how they’ve killed, beaten up and arrested several young people that she used to see in her university halls. She’s shy about speaking, and when a camera comes near, she covers her face with the file folder that holds her documents. She’s ashamed that her classmates might see her and accuse her of cowardice.
“Many acquaintances are at the barricades and I’m here trying to get out of the country. That’s not a good thing,” she says with regret. Others in the line try to convince her that she’s mistaken. She laughs with embarrassment and tells how her mother put up her entire salary so that she could go to Costa Rica where she has aunts. “I’m going because I have to,” she repeats several times. Emigration has a young face.
There are more than a hundred people in front of Martha, and some five hundred others behind her. It will be another hard day for the workers at the Immigration and Foreign Services office. Lately, they’ve been closing the gates in the afternoon, even though there are people waiting outside. The gatekeepers try to explain that even though they wish they could attend to all of them, it’s impossible, given the demand for passports. Like Martha the previous night, there will be a number of people who have to sleep there.
Even closing their doors early, at six thirty in the evening there are still people inside the building waiting to put in their applications. At that hour, this is the busiest place in Managua, a city that after six has become a ghost town due to the lack of citizen safety over the last weeks.
People are afraid of being shot while sleeping outside of the immigration offices. They point out that there are kids, the elderly and pregnant women camped out here. “If they kill us while we’re trying to get out and escape the danger, it’s because our time has come,” an elderly man explains. This is just the beginning of the odyssey of these new Latin American migrants.