Miranda Villasmil guided her daughter and son past hundreds of huddled migrants, many still muddied and swollen from their trek here to Costa Rica from South America. The family of three carried just two grocery bags of their belongings from their past lives in Venezuela.
When they reached the row of shuttle buses that would carry them to the Nicaraguan border, Ms. Villasmil was so overwhelmed with relief that she texted her relatives back home who were also considering fleeing. The Costa Rican government, she wrote them, was willing to provide “safe passage.”
“We move forward,” Ms. Villasmil told her family in Venezuela.
Ms. Villasmil is one of thousands of migrants taking advantage of new busing programs adopted by Costa Rica and other Central American countries trying to contend with a historic tide of migration passing through their borders.
More than 400,000 people have crossed into Costa Rica from Panama this year, according to Panamanian officials, doubling the number of crossings from last year and leading to a massive tent encampment along Costa Rica’s borders, complaints from business owners and a rise in abusive smuggling operations.
In October, the Costa Rican government declared a national emergency and formed a plan with Panama to shuttle migrants from its southern border to its northern one. Costa Rican officials say the busing program has removed the encampment, as well as alleviated the strain on border communities and provided people a safer alternative to paying human smugglers.
Similar busing programs have also emerged in parts of Honduras and Mexico.
But the strategy has raised alarms in the United States, which has called on its Latin American allies to deter people from making the treacherous journey north by encouraging them to apply for refugee status closer to their home countries.
Instead, the shuttles seem to be forming a fast lane for them to race north.
“The United States wants to contain the people,” said Dr. Marta Blanco, the executive director of the Cadena Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian organization currently assisting migrants in a bus terminal in Costa Rica. “This is to keep sending people, to just keep the flow going.”
Biden administration officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, say they have brought up their concerns behind closed doors with the governments of both Costa Rica and Panama, while publicly commending both countries for collaborating on other security and immigration agreements. Mr. Biden even hosted President Rodrigo Chaves of Costa Rica at the White House in August before dispatching $12 million to the country to bolster its immigration policies.
But the U.S. officials have also argued that the busing routes only incentivize more migrants to flee their homes and make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border. Their Central American counterparts argue migrants are already set on traveling to the United States and the busing system is making the journey less dangerous.
“This migration flow couldn’t be stopped, it can’t be prohibited, but it can be administered,” Jose Pablo Vindas, a Costa Rican migration police coordinator, said in an interview from the migrant bus terminal, which had once been a pencil factory.
Roughly 30 buses, each carrying 55 migrants, come in and out of the facility each day. The numbers can spike; in one week more than 14,000 people were bused from Panama to Costa Rica’s northern border, according to Costa Rican officials.
“It’s not a question of allowing, motivating or deterring this travel,” Mr. Vindas said. “It’s about giving safe conditions for the people who are doing it, because otherwise they would be exposed to trafficking or to hazardous conditions.”
But some families said they had encountered those very conditions in the bus terminal.
The busing program is not free, and has added one more fee to the many that migrants are confronted with on their costly journey north.
It can also be dangerous. Earlier this year, at least 39 people were killed when a bus ferrying migrants through Panama fell from a cliff. Last month, 18 migrants died in a bus crash in Mexico and a crash in Honduras left four dead and a dozen injured.
In Panama, each person must pay $60 to be bused to Costa Rica’s main terminal. They then must pay another $30 to board a shuttle that will take them to the Nicaraguan border. The fees are collected by the bus companies, which are licensed by the governments.
On a recent October day inside the terminal, dozens of frantic families lined up outside a money wiring office to receive funds from relatives for a bus ticket.
Travelers can only leave the facility on a bus, Mr. Vindas said. They cannot simply walk out of the facility.
In a nearby building, bunk beds and military cots were set up for about 380 people, but they had been full for days. Mr. Vindas said the facility normally held more than 1,000 people and that on a recent day it had housed up to 1,800, with hundreds sleeping on the ground.
Jose Diaz and his family had been traveling for 20 days when they arrived at the bus terminal. They were relieved to just climb aboard one of the government-provided shuttles in Panama that would transport them northward.
But soon he found out he needed more bus tickets — and he had spent his last $120 in Panama, just to get here.
The Diaz family had two options, a terminal employee said: A relative could transfer them money, or they could wait in the dark underpass of the bus terminal, along with dozens of other families, and sleep on concrete in minimal light. With the terminal brimming with people, Mr. Diaz prepared his daughters to make their way under the building.
“We feel like prisoners — prisoners, prisoners, prisoners — because we cannot get through to the outside,” he said. “They think you have a lot of money. Rather, one comes to secure their future.”
Down below in the darkness, families huddled on sheets on the concrete floor or leaned on loose plastic construction barricades. There was one frame for a bunk bed but no mattress. Toddlers in diapers ran around dazed adults. Parents desperately tried to find staff members to aid their ill children.
Some migrants said they were not provided regular meals and that when they asked for water, they were told to drink rain water dripping from the floor above. Many said the only way they could get enough money was to leave the facility and work — something the authorities had banned.
In an interview, Marta Vindas, the migration director for Costa Rica, rejected comparisons of the bus terminal to a detention facility, noting that the migrants had access to bathrooms, meals and numerous humanitarian organizations on site.
“This is a transit zone; that is the reason they are there, so that they can flow to the other border,” Ms. Vindas said.
Other Central American countries have also adopted busing practices. Honduran migration and transportation officials created direct bus routes to Guatemala as a safe alternative for migrants. In Mexico, the transit programs are more sporadic. The government established centers in Oaxaca where buses transport migrants north to relieve pressure on the country’s southern border, but it has also flown migrants south, away from the U.S. border.
In the United States, Texas and Florida have bused migrants to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and several other cities to ease the concentration of people arriving in border towns. But Republicans have also exploited the practice to punish blue states.
Before the busing program in Costa Rica, migrants crossed that country’s southern border without much of a challenge, before settling temporarily into a tent camp on a fairground in the town of Paso Canoas while searching for short-term jobs.
“At least this bus system gets the problem elsewhere rather than keeping it here,” said Rubén Acón, president of Canatur, Costa Rica’s national chamber of tourism. He said the country was facing “the same situation” as New York City, where Mayor Eric Adams has said his resources have been exhausted by the surge of migrants arriving in the city.
From the street outside the bus terminal, Kimberly Salas, 43, of Venezuela, and her son, Pedro Zerpa, wondered if they should enter. While traveling from Panama they had heard about the new busing program that could speed their journey north. But as they considered it, they spotted a person in the window of the building waving them to stay away.
“It’s OK,” Mr. Zerpa said. “We can walk.”
They next day they were spotted hiking under the blazing sun along a highway heading north to the United States.
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Joan Suazo from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.