The US homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has a message for migrants that he has been repeating loudly and frequently: “Our border is not open … don’t risk your life and your life savings” to come to the US seeking refuge without invitation.

But for millions, hunger, violence and fear ring out louder. Political dysfunction and economic calamity are pushing people from many nations in the western hemisphere in what Joe Biden has called the “largest migration in human history”, exacerbated in Latin America and beyond by the coronavirus pandemic.

People with tenacity but few means make a hopeful journey mostly across land towards the US-Mexico border. If they beat the odds to reach American soil they may find harbor – or more heartbreak.

Yesi Ortega choked up when talking to the Guardian at a shelter in El Paso, west Texas, earlier this month, as she recounted the odyssey she, her husband Raphael López and their five-year-old son, Matías, had spent six months making.

The family had reached a tipping point in their native Venezuela and followed more than 7 million other citizens who have fled the country’s economic collapse and pervasive hunger when their choice came down to food or clothing, Ortega, 24, said.

“We had no option. We needed to take the risk,” she said. Like almost a third of this exodus, they first tried nextdoor Colombia, itself unstable and contributing amid the post-pandemic hardship to the latest rise in migration towards the US.

Ortega found work in a restaurant kitchen and López labored in a plastics factory in Medellín. But they were paid less, as migrants, the equivalent of $35 a week between them, when a staple such as milk was $3 a liter and the rent was crippling, she said.


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