Journey From Ecuador to Minnesota Marked by Poverty, Exploitation and Hope



Fort Snelling immigration court sees 12-fold surge in Ecuadorian cases since 2018.

Patricia fled Ecuador and trekked through the jungle, crossed eight countries, spent several days in immigration detention near San Diego and took a four-hour flight to Minneapolis. By the time she walked out of the airport this spring, the mother of three was crying. She missed her children.

"Tranquila," said the Ecuadorian man who came to pick up Patricia. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be all right."

He hugged her, and Patricia, 39, settled into the man's SUV with a family she had met weeks earlier at a bus stop in Ecuador. At a sprawling house in southeast Minneapolis, he showed her to a room where two other migrants shared a mattress. Rent was $800 each.

Patricia worried how she would pay for housing and the debts she owed for airfare and help crossing the Mexican border. The man gave her fake Social Security and green cards and said she could look for work on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, an Ecuadorian hub.

The journey had been hard, but Patricia, who didn't want her last name used because she feared retaliation from the man, found that her troubles persisted.

She didn't speak English. She didn't know anyone here. She and the other Ecuadorians had come to escape poverty and oppression — but at what cost?

'A lot of pain in that jungle'

Ecuadorians line up on Central Avenue to send money back home and find jobs. At one church, so many Ecuadorians fill the pews that dozens have to stand in the back. Demographers estimate Minnesota's Ecuadorian immigrant population grew more than 56% between 2007 and 2021 to at least 8,155 residents.

The numbers keep growing amid Ecuador's collapsing economy and rising violence. The federal immigration court at Fort Snelling went from only a few hundred Ecuadorians a year to 4,576 pending cases by mid-2023 — a twelvefold surge since 2018. Ecuador is now the most common nation of origin for pending immigration cases in Minnesota.

Near the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, Patricia said she faced discrimination and violence as an Indigenous woman. She and her family were beaten, called names and denied jobs. She made a meager living driving cabs and buses. It was too expensive for her whole family to leave, but she said her husband urged her to leave on her own after her boss abused her; he would stay with their three children.

The Biden administration announced in April a campaign with Colombia and Panama to stop record migration through the Darien Gap and crack down on human smuggling. Weeks later, Patricia left home. She met a man with his family at a bus stop in Quito. They were headed to a place called Minneapolis.

"They asked me if I wanted to come with them … and [said] they would help me," Patricia recalled.

She rode with the group to Colombia, took a boat into Panama and began walking through the lawless, mountainous jungles of the Darien Gap, where Central and South America meet. Patricia passed dead bodies. She saw children crying of hunger and broken ankles. At night, Patricia fell asleep on the ground, under a sheet of plastic to protect against bugs.

"There was a lot of pain in that jungle," Patricia recalled.

She lost the family in Costa Rica, and continued traveling solo through Central America on buses. A cousin who was going to help Patricia in Tennessee stopped communicating.

In southern Mexico, Patricia reconnected with the man from the bus stop. For $150 he helped her cross the country to Tijuana. For another $1,000, the man's brother helped her over the border. Her family back in Ecuador raised $700 of that by selling a TV and other items. She promised to pay the rest when she found work.

She entered the U.S. on May 9 and presented herself to immigration authorities, with the intention to apply for asylum. Patricia was briefly detained, then released with an order to appear in immigration court on April 17, 2024.

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