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How Nicaragua is weaponizing immigration to the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For people all over the world looking to migrate to the U.S., Nicaragua has become a popular first stop. The Central American country has relatively lax visa rules, and flying directly there means people trying to head north can forgo the dangerous jungle trek through the Darien Gap up to the U.S. border. Well, this setup is raising questions over Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's motives - whether he has weaponized the country's immigration regulations as a way at digging at the Biden administration and protesting sanctions. Among those raising questions is our next guest. Manuel Orozco is director of the Inter-American Dialogue. Welcome.

MANUEL OROZCO: Thank you.

KELLY: Explain the changes, if you would, that President Ortega has made to his country's visa requirements. When did this begin?

OROZCO: The first time he started making these changes was during the elimination of visa restrictions for Cubans in November 2021. From that point on, the government started to release a number of regulations for other countries, Haiti included, as well as other Latin American countries and eventually to several Asian and African nations, and that includes Indians, Uzbekistanis, people from Mauritania and Senegal.

KELLY: OK, so how does President Ortega explain the changes to his country's visa rules and allowing people to do this? Why does he say it's a good idea?

OROZCO: Well, he has the motive, the opportunity and the means. The motive is that Ortega has had, historically, a deep hatred of the United States. He finds it to be an evil empire that needs to be dealt with. And the opportunity was the huge migration crisis that has been taking place from predominantly fragile states. And the means was to utilize the airport for the passing of passengers from differing nationalities. So his justification has been both an ideological one but also an opportunistic - because there is money to be made on each flight that arrives and the fees that they charge to the airlines and the airport taxes that they charge to every individual that comes into the country.

KELLY: So tell me how this works. These are chartered flights being organized into Nicaragua? How are they arranged? How much do they cost?

OROZCO: Correctly. What Nicaragua did was to hire a private company to organize contracts with charter flight companies across Asia, Europe, Africa. And with that, there are landing fees that you have to pay. There are airport taxes that every individual has to pay, and it ranges from 100 to $200 per person. But when we're talking about economies of this scale, then it becomes a multimillion-dollar operation.

KELLY: So based on your study and analysis of this, is Ortega's strategy working? Has he weaponized his country's immigration rules in a way that is digging at the Biden administration?

OROZCO: Well, if you - if we put it in statistical terms - with the expulsion of 600,000 Nicaraguans due to repression that moved to the United States, plus at least 150,000 people from other nationalities, Nicaragua is responsible for at least 10% of all the migration that has arrived into the Mexico-U.S. border. So I will say that's being a pretty good rate of success by Ortega's terms.

KELLY: How's the U.S. responding? - particularly in this, an election year, where immigration, as always, is a very hot issue?

OROZCO: Well, I think it has been a slow response. They were caught off guard at first on the charter flights. They were able to discuss with Cuba and Haiti over the control of these flights. They were reduced, but Ortega has continued to utilize other routes. This is a situation that is right in your face that is an obvious case of weaponization of migration. So it seems to me that the Biden administration will try to do something more proactively in the next couple of weeks.

KELLY: That is Manuel Orozco, director of the Inter-American Dialogue. Thank you.

OROZCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gus Contreras
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.