Nicaragua used to be ''an enviable country, a place people wanted to go. Now it's a place where its own people want to get out.''

An unexpected migrant group. Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans have fled to the U.S. in recent years. And this is how it essays out :

Twice a week at a gas station on the western edge of Nicaragua's capital, local residents gather, carrying the telltale signs of people on the move : loaded backpacks, clothes and toiletries stuffed in plastic bags and heavy jackets in preparation for a chilly journey far from the stifling heat.

STUDENTS, nurses, doctors, children, farmers and many other Nicaraguans say teary goodbyes as they await buses for the first leg of an 1,800-mile journey. Final destination : the United States.

For generations, Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, saw only a trickle of its people northward. But soaring inflation, declining wages and the erosion of democracy under an increasingly authoritarian government have drastically shifted the calculation.

Now, for the first time in Nicaragua's history, the small nation of 6.5 million is a major contributor to the mass of people trekking to the U.S. southern border, having been displaced by violence, repression and poverty.

Attention has focused this year on the record numbers of Venezuelans and Cubans pouring into the United States, but this less-noted but remarkable surge of Nicaraguans is also adding to the migration crisis in a big way.

They are sending money back to their families and, inadvertently, providing an economic lifeline to a government under sanction from the United States.

More than 180,000 Nicaraguans crossed into the United States this year through the end of November - about 60 times as many as those who entered during the same period two years earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

And while tens of thousands of people remain stuck in Mexico after the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled to keep in place the Title 42, the public health measure that allows the United States to turn back migrants arriving at the border, Nicaraguans can continue to enter the country as they are largely excluded from the measure.

Tatiana Gonzales Chacon, 23, a baker, left the Bluefields region in the eastern part of Nicaragua for Phoenix last month, because her father, the leader of the opposition party that saw its charter revoked was accused of terrorism and had to flee to Costa Rica.

Nicaragua used to be ''an enviable country, a place people wanted to go,'' she said. ''Now it's a place where its own people want to get out. When you cross that river into the United States, it's like you breathe a different air.''

''You eliminate the media, eliminate political parties, eliminate universities. Why do you think people are leaving?'' said Manuel Orozoco, a Nicaraguan analyst at Inter-American dialogue, a Washington-based research institute.

Elvira Cuadra, a Nicaraguan sociologist, fled to Costa Rica four years ago after the government raided her political science institute and revoked its legal status.

''These are really not the usual economic migrants,'' she said. '' This is a forced displacement.''

The World Students Society thanks authors Alfonso Flores Bermudez and Frances Robles.


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