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Costa Rica has become a thoroughfare for tens of thousands of migrants heading out of South America for the U.S. A lot of them are from the Caribbean, but a significant number of people coming through are Africans and Southeast Asians. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that the flow is straining Costa Rica's reputation as a welcoming country.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Migration officer Marvin Rodriguez is on the phone. He's getting word. Authorities are sending two buses carrying 120 migrants that just crossed into Costa Rica on its southern border with Panama.
MARVIN RODRIGUEZ: Ok, ok, esta bien.
KAHN: It'll take about two hours for them to arrive at this newly erected migrant shelter where he's stationed in a small town just north of the border. We've never seen anything like this, says Rodriguez.
RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: From one minute to the next, all these people started coming. It hit like a big blow to the country. Late last year, thousands of Cubans came. They got stuck in Costa Rica when Nicaragua refused to let them continue northward. Then soon after, Haitians, Nigerians, Congolese and even Kashmiris started coming. Authorities say about 150 arrive every day, and only about 30 can seek out daily past in the Nicaraguans.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: That's left most migrants stranded at shelters like this one. Maria Joseph arrived eight days ago with her husband and two daughters. In broken Spanish, she says her family flew from the Congo to Brazil, crossed several South American countries by bus, paying off border guards along the way then walked eight grueling days through the jungle between Colombia and Panama.
MARIA JOSEPH: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "In Panama, these five guys with guns got us and took everything - clothes, cell phones, all our money," says Joseph.
JOSEPH: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "Here in Costa Rica, they don't take from you," she says. "They don't take. They just give." Mayte Castro Santi smiles when she hears the migrants speak well of the Costa Ricans. She's one of several locals cooking two meals a day, washing the bed sheets and handing out donated clothes.
MAYTE CASTRO SANTI: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Stirring a huge pot of white rice, she says, "since our grandparents time, Costa Ricans have always greeted people as best as we can." Lately, though, that goodwill is being put to the test. In just the last four months, more than 6,500 migrants have been registered entering Costa Rica's southern border. The majority have told officials they're from Congo. But now most are believed to be Haitians who had been living in Brazil and left when their construction jobs in the run up to the Olympics ended.
With so many migrants coming through, authorities say even if they could determine nationalities, mass detention or deportation is not an option financially or morally. President Luis Guillermo Solis says his country will not criminalize migration.
PRESIDENT LUIS GUILLERMO SOLIS: And we are committed to doing this. I mean it has to be seen as a humanitarian challenge. This is how we like to think we're handling it.
KAHN: Solis spoke at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank after a meeting last week with President Obama and Vice President Biden. U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica S. Fitzgerald Haney says Costa Rica is a model for the world on how to treat refugees.
S FITZGERALD HANEY: We very much appreciate and applaud the government of Costa Rica for everything they're doing, and where we can help, we will.
KAHN: The U.S. sent tents for 2,400 families and is helping migration officials reduce a backlog of asylum applications. The country is also dealing with a record number of Central Americans, especially from El Salvador, seeking refuge. Starting this month, the U.S. will work with Costa Rica to resettle some of those asylum seekers in the U.S.
While the current work with migrants is admirable, University of Costa Rica social science professor Carlos Sandoval says the country has a mixed record on accepting immigrant groups and long-term resettlement. Nicaraguans who arrived here during the tumultuous 1980s and '90s still fill the lowest jobs in society and get blamed for nearly all social ills.
CARLOS SANDOVAL: Insecurity, lack of health provision and the like.
KAHN: You just blame it on the Nicaraguans.
SANDOVAL: Yeah, yeah. It's a very common kind of justification.
KAHN: Sandoval worries the newest refugees may suffer the same fate, especially since there's no sign their numbers are letting up. Carlos Granados lives next to one of Costa Rica's official migrant shelters and has grown tired of the endless traffic.
CARLOS GRANADOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "It's great being good people, but there's a limit," says Granados. He says, "we have a lot of our own poor people here, and they need help, too." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Costa Rica.
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