Sandra Alvaro only packed one change of clothes. Hoping to find work as a maid, she reasoned her boss would give her a uniform. So she set out to a country she thought would provide her with more opportunities, and made a run - south - to the border.
While thousands of Central Americans head north each year in search of brighter horizons in the US, most migrants from job-starved Nicaragua head in the opposite direction, to Costa Rica.
"I saw how people go to Costa Rica for work, and I just thought I'd do the same because in Nicaragua I don't have a job," says Ms. Alvaro, a mother of seven.
Getting into Costa Rica at the popular crossing Ms. Alvaro used, however, will soon become more difficult when the government completes construction of a wall there. The planned wall has hit a sore spot in Nicaragua, where some see the move as the materialization of an increasing crackdown on undocumented Nicaraguan migration.
"We are seeing a toughening of Costa Rica's migration policy and increasing xenophobia, and for me this wall is an expression of both," says Martha Cranshaw, a Nicaraguan researcher for the Costa Rican office of the social research think tank FLACSO.
According to a FLACSO study, out of every 5 Nicaraguans who emigrate, 3.5 go to Costa Rica, widely seen as the most stable and viable economy in Central America, while 1.3 go to the US.
Official household survey figures from Costa Rica show there are 300,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, a nation of 4 million. Yet these figures don't count maids or migrant field workers living in farm housing. Based on her research, Ms. Cranshaw projects there are no fewer than 450,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica.
Last week the Costa Rican government announced it was beefing up migration controls on the northern border to meet an expected increase in migration of Nicaraguans fleeing their nation's current agricultural crisis and food shortages. The Costa Rican government projects it will expel 75,000 Nicaraguans by year's end.
Penas Blancas is one of the principal crossing points for Nicaraguan migrants. Three strands of barbed wire strung between tree-branch posts is all that currently separates Costa Rican and Nicaraguan territory here.
Costa Rican officials at the border station say they apprehend an average of 150 Nicaraguans trying to enter Costa Rica illegally each day, and that doesn't contemplate the many who slip by.
Coyotes, as migrant smugglers are known here, openly hustle for business among the Nicaraguans coming off buses at the border. Other migrants chance it alone. Others have been known to pay off local officials to let them pass undocumented at Penas Blancas.
Nonetheless, Costa Rican officials maintain that they are not building the 7-1/2-foot wall at Penas Blancas to keep migrants out, even though it may serve that purpose. They say the Nicaraguan press blew the wall issue out of proportion, and they maintain it's part of efforts to provide better, faster service at the border. Indeed, a wall over a half mile in length can hardly seal off a nearly 200-mile border.
"It is not a wall aimed at dividing the countries," says Allen Calderon, director of migration at the Costa Rican side of the Penas Blancas border crossing. "It is aimed at giving more control over the cargo going through customs and improving service. In regards to immigration, it will also help minimize the illegal entry of Nicaraguans into Costa Rica."
But whether the wall is being built to protect trucks or to keep out Nicaraguans, migrant advocates like Rev. Jorge Estrada of Nicaragua's office of Caritas, an organization of the Roman Catholic Church, are concerned.
As the wall makes the Penas Blancas crossing more difficult, he says more migrants will use the crossing at San Carlos, farther east, facing more dangers, including a river crossing and a long day's walk to the nearest town in Costa Rica.
Nonetheless, Rev. Estrada notes: "The wall is not going to stop migration. Until there is a social emphasis in Nicaragua's development plans, the migration will continue."
Moments after Costa Rican police escorted a batch of apprehended Nicaraguans - including sobbing Sandra Alvaro - over to the other side of the border at Penas Blancas, a young girl clutched her baby doll in one hand and her mother's in the other as they set off through the fields in search of a place to cross the border.
"I'm scared they will catch me," says Socorro Burmudez. "But I am going, because I have to."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor