Debt-ridden Nicaraguan Migrants Struggle in the USA

Many migrants who manage to arrive in the U.S. must find a way to pay the debts they owe in their country of origin. Photo: AFP

Many thousands of Nicaraguans took out loans from banks or moneylenders to pay for their trip north. Today, they’re on US soil, but struggling to keep up with the payments on these debts.

By La Prensa

HAVANA TIMES – Worn out and desperate as the result of the economic and socio-political crisis that has battered Nicaraguans since 2018, hundreds of thousands have opted to emigrate to other countries in search of security and better work opportunities to improve their family’s living conditions.

In 2022, the US Office of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained 217,091 Nicaraguans who had entered irregularly. Many of them, possibly the majority, had to borrow large sums of money from banks or moneylenders to finance their trip north, especially to pay the “coyote” to get them to US border, or into US territory.

Once in the US, many of these migrants must pay off debts that range from 5 to 10 thousand dollars. That’s the case of Oscar Miranda and Lucia (assumed name), who told La Prensa about their experience traveling undocumented with the help of a bank loan.

“We traveled with fears of being unable to cross”

Lucia, originally from Corinto, Chinandega, left Nicaragua with her husband and their daughter on June 30, 2022. She says that although she didn’t originally have any plans to emigrate, the economic crisis pushed her to do so. Lucia had a credit card from a local bank, and two months before she made the final decision to leave, the bank offered her a loan. Initially, she refused.

“They sent me a message saying I’d been preapproved for a loan of up to US $5,000. At first, I didn’t give it much thought, because I wasn’t thinking about leaving. However, two months later, an opportunity arose, because a family member offered to help me pay for part of the trip. That’s when it occurred to me to take the bank loan,” Lucia explains from Los Angeles, California, where she currently resides.

Her trip began in Nicaragua and led her across Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, all without papers, until she was able to step onto US soil. “We spent 13 days on the road. It was very hard, but we didn’t have it as bad as some other migrants did. One day before we got to the border, we had to sleep outside in the brush. We entered [the US] on July 14, after a day and a half in Immigration detention,” she recalls.

The coyote charged them US $3,500 each, so that the three of them paid US $10,500. They paid one part with the bank loan she took out, and she borrowed the other part from family members who were already established in the US. She admits that during the journey her fears and worries never stopped, since she didn’t know if they would manage to reach the border and cross into US territory successfully.

“We came with fears of not being able to cross, and if that happened, how would we ever be able to pay the debt later? But, thank God, that fear didn’t become a reality,” Lucia says now.

In terms of the loan she took out, she says it’s been much easier to pay it off from [Los Angeles]. The fact that she and her husband share the debt has worked in her favor. “It takes work to pay that debt but thank God we obtained work as soon as we got here. It’s been easy for us, but you must refrain from buying certain things in order to get out of debt,” she explains.

The monthly payments she owes come to US $470 dollars for the year that ends in June 2023. That is, she’ll end up repaying US $5,640 for the 5,000 dollars she borrowed. Nonetheless, Lucia confirms she’s been paying more than the established quota every month, in order to pay off the debt sooner and thus be charged less interest.

“In fact, right now in April I’m going to send the last payment. For the US $5,000 they charged me over $500 in interest, but it wasn’t as much as it could have been because I paid it off sooner.” Once Lucia and her husband have paid off the debt they left in Nicaragua, she’ll begin paying back the family members who lent her the other part she needed to emigrate.

“It’s like taking away a part of my stability”

Oscar, from Matagalpa, is 33 and a public accountant by profession. He left Nicaragua for the US on November 15, 2021. Previous to that, he quit the human resources job he’d held in a company in Managua, where he’d gone to live when he was 25.

In addition to leaving his first professional job, he ended an ongoing relationship with a man on the administrative team for a Nicaraguan political movement. On some occasions, he’d accompanied his partner to meetings, never imagining that doing so would make him the target of persecution and harassment on the part of the Ortega police force.

“I always stayed on the sidelines, because I’ve suffered a lot of violence due to my sexual orientation. The situation that began occurring with the Police made me feel like at any moment there could be another outbreak of violence like that of 2018,” he comments.

Oscar says it had never entered his mind to emigrate, but when a bank offered him a personal loan for US $7,000 he told himself: “it’s my best opportunity, to be able to leave.” “I had never asked for a visa,” he continues, “but at some point, when I felt infringed, vulnerable, I decided: ‘this is an escape hatch.’”

The coyote charged him US $7,500, but not even that sum guaranteed him a peaceful trip. “I tell you, I saw some very traumatic things, especially being a gay man. If it hadn’t been for the political situation in the country, I’d never have thought about going through all that. Migrating had never for a second been [an idea] of mine. I tell you, the violation of rights a migrant goes through are terrible. My greatest fears are having to live like a beggar, and on this trip, I lived through all of my fears at once. To spend all that time locked up with men who made fun of me or picked on me because I was gay.”

Oscar is now in Miami, Florida. The debt he acquired to be able to make the trip has diminished his economic stability in a country distant from his own, where he must also pay rent and cover his basic needs.

Adding to the debt for his trip is a car loan he took out, making a total debt of US $15,000.

“These last 14 months have been very challenging, because I need to adjust to this country, but having to pay off loans in Nicaragua takes away part of my stability. I keep paying because I don’t want to lose my credit there. That means $400 less that I have here, for rent, food, and I still don’t have a work permit. Having to set aside that quantity while working irregular jobs – sometimes in hotels or florist shops – and I don’t always earn the same amount of money,” he notes.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times