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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

On Latin America trip, Adams’ warning meets skepticism from migrants


New York City Mayor Eric Adams poses for a photo after touring the historic center of Quito, Ecuador, on Friday, Oct. 6, 2023. Adams traveled to three countries to discourage migrants from coming to New York. At each stop, people said they were still determined to make the trek.

By Andy Newman, Julie Turkewitz and Juan Arredondo


Mayor Eric Adams of New York City flew by helicopter on Saturday to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants enter the jungle passageway called the Darién Gap. It was the final stop on a four-day trip meant to send a message: Please do not come to New York.


It was an extraordinary tableau. Adams, wearing an olive-drab outfit and aviator sunglasses suggestive of military gear, was escorted by Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, the head of the national police and a heavy security detail. In Necoclí, as hundreds of migrants looked on, Adams stood beneath palm trees by the loading dock for a ferry into the jungle and alluded to difficult conditions “on the streets of New York.”


He did not explicitly tell the migrants to stay away from New York — he did not address his remarks directly to them. But he called for efforts to “push back on the propaganda that is giving people false hopes and false promises.” He has said frequently during the trip that migrants are being wrongly told that they will find comfortable living conditions and easy employment in New York.


The visit, culminating a 7,000-mile swing through Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, was all the more remarkable given the uncertainty that the mayor’s attempt at deterrence would have any effect at all.


In more than a dozen interviews this past week in Necoclí and on the streets of Mexico City and Ecuador’s capital, Quito, most U.S.-bound migrants said that they would not be dissuaded by Adams’ statements. The city has been increasingly overwhelmed by the 120,000 migrants who have arrived since last year; sheltering them has become so costly that the mayor has called for budget cuts. On his trip, Adams has called for countries to work together to help the migrants.


Johanna del Valle Acosta, traveling with her fiancé and three children from the Falcón state of Venezuela, said she understood Adams’ mission. “I think he, as mayor, is defending his country,” she said as Adams headed toward Necoclí, a poor fishing and tourist town that has been transformed by migrants making their way north.


But she asked for compassion. “Suddenly other countries see us as a threat, but we are good people who want to work,” she said. The day’s spectacle included a protest, hastily organized by an activist from New York, in which migrants chanted “Shame on you” at the mayor.


In Quito on Friday, 100 feet from where the mayor and his entourage were touring the historic city center, Carlos Gabriel Hernández sat on a restaurant doorstep with his wife and two young children. He said that he and his family had tried and failed to cross the Darién Gap but were determined to try again to reach New York. He was puzzled, even offended, to learn the purpose of Adams’ visit.


“How can you tell someone not to follow their American dream?” he asked.


At a news conference in Quito, Adams, who said he had made the trip to learn firsthand about the forces driving global displacement, acknowledged the limits of his efforts. “Mayor Adams showing up at the Darién Gap is not going to change the minds of everyone that’s coming through,” he said.


He added, “There isn’t one magic pill that’s going to solve this crisis, and we need to be clear on that.” But, he said, “If we sit back and wait for the one magic pill, then we are going to watch this issue erode.”


Adams is not the first U.S. official to visit the Darién region. The State Department has sent several recent delegations whose members have sometimes used the visits to urge people to not make the trek. But these pleas have been followed by ever-larger waves of migrants.


In Mexico City, where Adams spoke at a business conference Thursday, hundreds of families were camped outside a terminal for buses headed north, their tents and tarps stretching for blocks. Most were waiting for relatives to wire them money.


Jhonatan Antony Velásquez Diaz, 33, sat against the glass of an altar to the Virgin Mary. Beside him, his wife nursed their 6-month-old daughter. They trekked for 22 days from Venezuela and were robbed at gunpoint. Velásquez said that friends who had made it to New York “tell me to come, that a lot of them have jobs.”


“That lifts me up and helps me to keep going,” he said.


He said he doubted Adams’ words would carry much weight. “No matter what, people are going to get there, and I’m not going to be discouraged by what a politician says or a mayor says.”


Some families had heard less encouraging things about the city. Henry Aguilar, who had pushed through the jungle with his wife, three children and a dog, played a voice message that a friend sent him this week.


“I’ve been here for a little more than a week, and I haven’t been able to find work,” the friend was heard saying. “It’s not as easy as they paint it.”


Aguilar, 34, a former military bodyguard in Venezuela, had planned to bring his family to New York, but after hearing that there were no places to stay, he set his sights on Texas.


At every stop on his tour, Adams enlisted local news outlets to spread his message. “We need you, the media,” he told reporters in Quito, “the power of you going into households, going on apps and cellphones to push back on this misinformation” that New York would be an easy place to start a new life.


But a media blitz may be no match for the determination of those who see no future in their homeland.


Raúl Alfredo Chica, 39, runs a wood shop in Quito that makes frames for sofas and chairs. When the pandemic hit, his business was decimated and he laid off most of his employees. He fell into debt, then bankruptcy. In the middle of the night in late 2021, he woke his wife and told her, “I’m going to the U.S.”


After a grueling journey by foot, bus and storm-tossed boat, he crossed into Texas and was promptly arrested and detained for two months. Back home, his equipment was stolen. Extortionists paid regular visits to his wife. Chica gave up and returned.


Adams, he said, “might persuade some people, but I’ll tell you this: Even after all that I went through, my wife now wants to go.”

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