Central America has been a locus of migration for generations. It is characterized by rural-to-urban and regional migration as well as emigration abroad, particularly to the United States. A relative unknown in hemispheric migration matters until recent decades, Central America transformed from a minor to a major player during a decade of armed conflicts in the 1980s. In this period the region also became a geographic bridge to North America for migrants from South America seeking to enter the United States, while Mexico has become the main transit country for Central Americans headed north. In short, Central America is a crossroads of many migratory streams.
However, migration does not affect the region uniformly. Some countries and communities have seen high rates of emigration or immigration. For example, civil strife in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala produced significantly higher rates of emigration than rates in the more stable countries of Panamá and Costa Rica. Similarly, the most conflictive zones in each country are also more represented in the migratory streams.
Emigration abroad has produced an array of profound changes within the region. A quick list includes rising economic dependency on remittances, an exponential increase in the volume of international phone calls, and the importation of outside tastes in everything from fashion to governance.
Central America was colonized by the Spaniards in the 1500s. A largely subsistence agricultural zone, the "Kingdom of Guatemala" provided far fewer riches than other Spanish colonies and, not surprisingly, garnered less attention.
Though independent as of 1821, the region's livelihood did not change substantially until the late 19th century when coffee and then other export crops were introduced. The "liberal" reforms at that time privatized communal lands, displacing thousands of peasants and initiating a pattern that endures to this day — an oligarchy in control of both the land (dedicated to export over subsistence crops) and the armed forces, and a majority population battling perpetual poverty. This combination of agricultural labor needs with people displaced from the land produced seasonal, rural-to-rural migration, a configuration that endured into the second half of the 20th century.
In the 1960s, several countries in the region attempted industrialization largely through import substitution. However, the divided class structure endured and became the basis for revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, insurgency and counter-insurgency movements, and civil warfare in the region during the 1970s through the early 1990s.
Warfare not only killed thousands and displaced millions, it also institutionalized a migration pattern that heretofore had been very minor: emigration to El Norte. Massive refugee flows moved through the isthmus into the United States and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, Costa Rica, Canada, and Belize. Until then, Central American emigration had consisted of only a small number of professionals and skilled laborers and domestics. However, the region's conflicts and generalized insecurity made internal labor migrations increasingly dangerous and economies suffered, provoking combatants and noncombatants alike to flee.
The United States sided with conservative governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, labeling its actions anticommunist, and invested billions of dollars. When hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their homelands and sought asylum in the United States, this aid became the primary reason for denying the refugees' tales of torture, forced recruitment, and other crimes. To accord them political asylum would have undermined the U.S. government's policies (see Central Americans and Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era article for more).
As the peasantry and working classes left en masse, the predominantly middle-class nature of the migration shifted (see the Spotlight on Central American Foreign Born). A conservative estimate of this exodus, derived largely from the 1990 U.S. census, is that more than a million Central Americans fled their homelands and sought safe haven in the United States during the tumultuous decade of the 1980s. Most would not find a legal safe haven, however.
Regional Migration Issues
In 1970, according to the work of demographer Alicia Maguid, half of all Central American emigrants (those moving into other countries) relocated to other Central American countries while half moved out of the region. Their regional movements typically traced coffee and other export crop seasons; in some cases, more permanent migration occurred among peasants seeking greater access to land. By 1980, the proportions had altered dramatically, with 80 percent leaving the region. Extraregional migration claimed 93 percent of all emigrants by 1990.
Given this latter statistic, it should be no surprise that the academic literature on Central American migration pays less attention to intraregional flows, with the notable exception of Nicaraguan migrants to Costa Rica and, to a lesser degree, migrations of Guatemalans and Salvadorans to Belize. Though less studied, intraregional migration is not insignificant.
For example, there is growing evidence of migrations of Nicaraguans and Hondurans into El Salvador spurred by the late 1990s post-war economic recovery in that country, a rebound financed in large part by remittance dollars from Salvadorans living in the United States.
And the Panamanian economy attracts a modest number of Central American migrants; the number of Central American foreign born rose 11 percent between the 1990 Panamanian census (11,600) and the 2000 census (12,898). More problematic for Panama has been the flow of asylum seekers from neighboring Colombia.
Nicaraguan Migration to Costa Rica
Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica, like many regional migrations, has deep historical roots in agricultural labor. Since the early 20th century, thousands of male Nicaraguans have migrated seasonally to Costa Rica to assist in the banana industry, and later in coffee and other export-commodity industries. This pattern is still evident today, though overshadowed by newer political and economic refugee flows.
The character of Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, beginning with the 1972 earthquake, followed by the 1970s civil war to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, and continuing into the 1980s with the Sandinista government and the Contra war. During these tumultuous years, rising streams of Nicaraguans sought refuge in Costa Rica. Some political leaders were granted political asylum by the Costa Rican government while the general population received refugee assistance from international agencies as well as the government. In the 1990s, voluntary return to Nicaragua was implemented and encouraged.
This refugee migration is the main reason behind the two-fold increase in Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica between the national censuses of 1973 and 1984, from 23,347 to 45,918. The 1984 figure for foreign-born Nicaraguans pales in comparison, however, with the 226,374 recorded in the 2000 census, constituting three-quarters of all foreigners in that country and six percent of the entire country's population.
Of the Nicaraguans surveyed, two-thirds reported arriving during the 1990s, a number that peaked in 1998. This ten-fold increase over 1973 reflects the fact that Nicaraguans also migrate to Costa Rica because of greater employment opportunities, higher wages and, to a lesser extent, more generous social benefits such as state-subsidized medical care.
As the Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica has matured, the seasonal agricultural worker profile of previous generations no longer fits well. Rather, Nicaraguans' insertion into the Costa Rican economy is now much more urban and diverse.
Although a third of male Nicaraguans continue to work in the agricultural sector, that percentage has been in decline while urban occupations in construction, manufacturing, and informal retail have risen to constitute 48 percent of their employment. The percentage of the migrant population that is female is now on par with males; driving this increase has been sustained demand for domestics, constituting nearly half of all employment for Nicaraguan women.
Projections suggest that Nicaraguan migration will account for one-quarter to one-half of Costa Rica's population increase. However, Nicaraguan immigration rates declined quickly in the late 1990s with no single cause. Rather, the slightly improved economy in Nicaragua and declining opportunities in Costa Rica explain some of the shift; there is also evidence that increasing numbers of Nicaraguans have begun to look for work in El Salvador because of improvements in the Salvadoran economy.
Moreover, relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua continue to be strained owing to long-standing border disputes, and these have translated into popular anti-Nicaraguan sentiment. This has consequences for Nicaraguan migration; for example, the Costa Rican government recently passed a punitive immigration law to become effective in August 2006 that raises penalties for smugglers, facilitates deportations of undocumented immigrants, and transforms various aspects of legal residency, making them more restrictive.
Regional Migration to and from Belize
Another site of significant regional migration is English-speaking Belize, a former British colony that has a population of 250,000. Serving as a transit country for a small percentage of Central Americans headed north, it has also been impacted by both immigration and emigration, processes that are "Latinizing" the nation's ethnic mix.
There was an "implicit" policy in the Belizean government to accept migrants, especially Salvadorans and Guatemalans, during the conflicts of the 1980s. These Latin newcomers, many of them refugees, have largely settled in rural areas; they provide agricultural labor in jobs unattractive to urbanized Afro-Belizeans (both creoles and Garifuna).
A census in 2000 recorded 34,276 foreign born, up 34 percent from 25,548 in 1991. Central Americans represent three-quarters of these foreigners, 42.5 percent of which were from Guatemala (mainly indigenous people), 17.6 percent from El Salvador, and nine percent from Honduras. Consequently, the percentage of foreign born in the total population has risen from eight percent in 1980 to 13 percent in 1991 and 14 percent in 2000.
The influx of Central Americans is complemented by an emigration of Afro-Belizeans to the United States. The yearly rate of emigration fell by nearly a third during the 1990s to a total of 2,181 per year, down from an average of 3,050 in the 1980s. Eighty-four percent leave for the United States, a figure comparable to 1991, while five percent move to other Central American countries, slightly higher than in the past.
Though the emigration rate has fallen, its effects may have become more pronounced since more educated Belizeans are leaving. As noted in the country's official census report, half of emigrants held high school degrees while the percentage with post-high school education rose 64 percent above the rate recorded in 1991, signifying an accelerating brain drain.
Population projections for all of Central America indicate the continuation of a historical trend toward greater urbanization. According to 2004 United Nations Population Division (UNPD) estimates, by the year 2015 every Central American country's urban population will exceed its rural population. The urban populations in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, and Nicaragua are expected to rise to around two-thirds of their total populations, approximately a 10 percent increase from 1995. Meanwhile, urban populations in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize will reach a slight majority, an increase of nine percent for the first two countries and four percent for Belize.
Numerous factors contribute to urbanization, not the least of which is declining opportunities in rural areas. With a few minor exceptions, such as bananas and products marketable in overseas ethnic markets, the growth prospects for agricultural products appear very poor, particularly in comparison to other sectors.
Another related, though less recognized, factor influencing rural-to-urban migration is environmental degradation. Deforestation, loss of topsoil, contamination of ground water with fertilizers, and other environmental problems imperil subsistence agriculture. Declines in small-scale farming also induce peasants to leave the countryside for urban areas, capital cities in particular. Once in urban areas, research shows higher tendencies for these rural-to-urban people to emigrate, a process referred to as "step migration."
The drop in export commodities during the years of warfare in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador also affected the rural peasantry, depriving them of seasonal agricultural wages that enabled them to pay for everything from fertilizer to clothing to medical care. In recent years, the coffee sector has been in particular crisis, depriving small producers and seasonal laborers of income.
Unevenly distributed regional economic opportunities are also attracting migrants to urban areas. These opportunities include jobs in manufacturing (particularly maquilas), services, tourism, and, to some degree, agribusiness. Financial services, such as accounting, customer orders, payroll, and software support for such services, are prospering in countries like Costa Rica, which has the region's highest levels of human capital. These stable and relatively well-paying jobs are stimulating demand for secondary services — such as domestic labor — which, in turn, attract less skilled labor from the countryside or from neighboring countries.
The need for medical care also brings rural people to cities, as do educational opportunities since many areas do not offer schooling past the elementary level.
Even remittances play a role in spurring rural-to-urban migration. These funds sent from migrants abroad finance enhanced access to education and medicine and, consequently, greater urbanization. They also have allowed more families in some areas to purchase tracts of land, pushing up real estate prices and exacerbating existing land scarcity problems that contribute to migration.
Lastly, natural disasters greatly influence the course of both regional and international migration for Central Americans. Hurricane Mitch blasted the Caribbean coast of the isthmus in late fall 1998, killing an estimated 11,000 people, devastating subsistence and export crops, and destroying infrastructure. Two major earthquakes rocked El Salvador in January and February 2001, causing at least 1,000 deaths.
Both Mitch and the earthquakes crippled the region's recovery from civil warfare and sent new streams of migrants into the cities and across borders. The U.S. Border Patrol recorded a 28 percent rise in interdictions of Central Americans in the first months after Mitch and a 61 percent increase in Hondurans specifically.
Emigration to Mexico
Central American migrants overwhelmingly travel to the United States and Canada by land, making Mexico a transit country. This fact is reflected in Central Americans' unsavory stories of traversing Mexico — typically their harrowing encounters with Mexican officials.
During the 1980s, Mexican officials maintained a laissez-faire attitude toward interdiction and deportation. Since the 1990s, however, and under pressure from the United States, Mexico has drastically increased its efforts; on average over 100,000 Central Americans per year are apprehended and returned, the largest numbers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, compared to only 10,000 per year repatriated in the 1980s.
The administration of Vicente Fox, hoping that the United States would offer a similar humanitarian measure for Mexicans in the U.S., also extended its "Beta Groups" (special police who assist migrants and protect them from abuse) to the Guatemalan border and provided a "regularization" program in 2001. Only 6,500 applied, the vast majority from Central America.
Less well known than its interdiction role is that Mexico has been a destination for a small percentage of Central American emigrants. In 2000, Central Americans constituted nine percent of foreigners in Mexico. Guatemalans, largely seasonal agricultural workers and refugees in the southern state of Chiapas, are by far the largest group at 27,600, followed by Salvadorans (5,500).
Government statistics report that tens of thousands of farm workers enter Mexico from its southern border each year. In 2000, the number peaked at 69,000 but has declined in recent years to around 40,000 per year. Good statistics on Central Americans residing permanently in Mexico are difficult to find. Mexican census figures, which report only legal immigrants, document a mere 14,000 in 1970 and 1980 but a major increase to 59,000 in 1990, followed by a drop to 44,300 in 2000.
Repatriation programs for Guatemalan refugees, run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international organizations since the late 1990s, are the likely cause of this decline.
Emigration to the United States and Canada
The overwhelming majority of Central American emigrants have relocated to the United States. As of the 2000 U.S. census, over two million foreign-born from Central American countries — about 40 percent from El Salvador — were living in the United States. According to Statistics Canada, about 70,000 Central Americans resided in Canada in 2001.
The causes of the rise in Central American migration to Canada during the 1980s and 1990s parallel those for migration to the United States. Because U.S. asylum policy toward Guatemalans and Salvadorans was so harsh, thousands of would-be settlers continued on to Canada, a country whose asylum policies were more generous (see Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans.
Canada dramatically increased its refugee quota for Latin America from 2,000 in 1981 to 25,000 by 1984; two-thirds of these visas went to Central Americans primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Canada also passed a moratorium on deportations for Salvadorans and Guatemalans. In the late 1980s, Canada overhauled its asylum system, resulting in a 77 percent approval rate for Salvadorans (as opposed to two percent in the United States), and all those approved received comprehensive assistance services.
Most Central Americans settled in Montreal and Toronto, which still attract most Central Americans who settle in Canada. During the 1990s, and under pressure from the U.S. government, Canada debated returning to the United States asylum applicants who had transited through there. This policy did not become effective until 2004, due in large part to heightened, post-9/11 concerns about border security.
In recent years, Canada has attracted few, if any, new immigrants from the region (see Table 1). Canada's landed immigrant policies (those establishing criteria for permanent immigration) favor educated, highly skilled immigrants — uncommon characteristics among most Central Americans.
The situation of Central Americans in the United States is much more dynamic. A comparison of U.S. census figures from 1970 to 2000 illustrates the dramatic rise in their numbers (see Table 2).
Between 1970 and 1980, the number of foreign-born Central Americans living in the United States tripled and then nearly tripled again during the 1980s because of the ongoing conflicts in the region. It is important to note that U.S. Census Bureau figures have been shown to underestimate Central Americans, particularly the unauthorized. The United States had approximately 1.3 million unauthorized Central Americans as of March 2005, according to recent estimates (based on the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey) from the Pew Hispanic Center.
Over 50 percent of all Central Americans live in just five U.S. metropolitan areas, according to the 2000 census: Los Angeles (23 percent), New York (14 percent), Miami (eight percent), and Houston and San Francisco (five percent). As is true more generally for Latin American immigrants, Central Americans are increasingly relocating outside these principal cities; an important new region is North Carolina, where the robust demand for workers in construction and services requires steady increases in low-cost labor.
Since many Central Americans in the 1980s did not have legal status, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) had profound effects on this population thanks to its legalization program for unauthorized migrants already in the country. Well over 200,000 Central Americans benefited from IRCA according to statistical yearbooks from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), most notably 146,000 Salvadorans.
This new population was able to legally bring over hundreds of thousands of family members during the early 1990s (see Table 3).
Since U.S. citizens do not face the same per-year limits on family migration as permanent residents, legalization has led to a dramatic rise in naturalizations among Central Americans (see Table 4).
The second major event affecting Central Americans' fates in the United States was a class-action lawsuit, American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (ABC), filed in 1985. The case successfully challenged the U.S. government's inequity in hearing asylum cases and made it possible for thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans to file new applications.
The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) of 1997 was a special legalization program for Nicaraguans and Cubans living continuously in the United States since 1995 with their families. It continued the government's tradition of favoring Nicaraguans over other Central Americans. This unevenness in policy toward different Central American groups led to a campaign aimed at extending NACARA to Salvadorans and Guatemalans. They were not added to the legalization program but were permitted to follow a complex process toward permanent legal status.
Hurricane Mitch and the Salvadoran earthquakes helped write yet another chapter in Central Americans' legal history in the United States. In December 1998, the U.S. government accorded temporary protected status (TPS) to some 86,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans while deportation proceedings were temporarily suspended for Salvadorans and Guatemalans. Following the earthquakes, Salvadorans were granted TPS status as well.
Owing to political pressure from immigrants, immigrant advocacy groups, and Central American governments, TPS has been repeatedly renewed, most recently to July 2006 for Hondurans and Nicaraguans, and September 2006 for Salvadorans.
Before the 1980s, most countries derived the majority of their foreign exchange from commodity exports. In the 1990s, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras saw this relationship shift to an increasing dependency upon remittances as key sources of foreign currency, up to 20 percent of GDP (see Table 5). Cash remittances from Central Americans living abroad have become extremely significant to families' survival and to regional reconstruction and economic development in the post-war era (see Remittance Trends in Central America).
Surveys show that migrants send home between $150 and $350 per month on average, typically enough to cover recipients' basic necessities with about five to 10 percent used to finance small businesses or to be invested in savings. These relatively small family transfers together form the single largest pool of hard currency in the region, and it is growing.
In 1996, remittances equaled foreign direct investment (FDI) in the region, but, by 2003, they had grown to three times the FDI figure — $6.4 billion versus $2.0 billion, according to the World Bank — which also far exceeded official development assistance. In some countries, remittances rival all income from exports.
Clearly, remittances have become an integral feature of Central American economies in the past decade, a fact that has been a key motivation for governments to play increasingly activist roles vis-à-vis their expatriate communities.
For example, in 2000, El Salvador established a General Directorate within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGACE) to attend to expatriates. DGACE, along with the national agency for development (FISDL), created a program that matches funds raised by hometown associations (HTAs) to underwrite community projects (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “collective remittances”).
This effort mimics the Mexican government’s two-for-one (later three-for-one) matching program. The Salvadoran government distributed some $7 million in government resources by early 2004, and an additional $3.1 million to fund 12 new projects has been approved more recently (see Migration and Development in El Salvador: Ideals Versus Reality).
However, Central American policy makers have engaged in a variety of strategies — such as adding government ministries for expatriate affairs — to reach out to their citizens abroad. In a critical public relations shift, emigrants who in the 1980s were disdained for abandoning their homelands became recast as national heroes in the 1990s as their remittances fueled economic recoveries.
Additionally, since 1996, Regional Migration Conferences have focused governmental and academic attention on a multitude of migration-related themes and processes; their modest accomplishments include getting to the United States to notify governments that deportees are being sent back.
Transnational Migration: Impacts and Issues
The effects of large-scale migrations to North America have brought palpable changes to the isthmus, some welcomed and others disparaged. Much of Central America looks, feels, and sounds like a cultural crossroads, a blend of lo centroamericano and lo gringo. Upon arrival at the international airport in El Salvador, for example, the traveler is greeted with huge billboards advertising remittance services and international direct dialing to the United States and Canada.
Newspaper headlines in Nicaragua scream the latest information about the plight of Nicas in Costa Rica; and along the Guatemala-Mexico border, young Mayas have forsaken traditional employment in agriculture for quick money assisting streams of migrants headed for El Norte who need to cross Central America's northern river border.
In many hamlets in the countryside, sparkling new brick homes with tiled roofs and satellite dishes contrast sharply against neighboring wattle and daub huts with thatched roofs that feature a mule, not a new Toyota pickup truck, in front. These migration prizes are enjoyed by the migrants themselves, particularly once they have legalized their status up north.
Emigrants' return visits constitute a key percentage of every country's tourism industry except Costa Rica. Indeed, 40 percent of El Salvador's tourists are returning migrants. During their visits, migrants share their knowledge of life abroad, stimulating discussions about everything from better road construction to responsive governments.
Sections of El Norte have also become Central Americanized. Entire swaths of commercial thoroughfares in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, DC, and even suburban New York feel more like Guatemala City or San Salvador than they do Main Street USA; a pupusa or a tamal is easier to find than a hamburger and fries. And "Spanglish," a blend of Spanish and English, is becoming the lingua franca of these neighborhoods as well as in pockets of Central America.
What these brief descriptions portray is the blending of once distinct places and ways of life into a new reality. In academic terms, this is known as "transnational migration," a phenomenon understood as the processes through which migrants maintain and promote ties between the countries where they reside and their homelands and home communities.
It is important to repeat here that migrations and the cultural transformations they bring with them do not affect each country, region, or locality equally, and that people migrate along networks of contacts such that some communities have a high proportion of migrants while other communities remain almost unaffected.
One of the most well-known aspects of transnationalism are transnational enterprises, small to medium-sized businesses that operate across borders and are frequently run by migrants themselves. For example, the Tapachulteca supermarket chain has a store in Los Angeles as well as stores in El Salvador. The passage of the Central America Free Trade Act (CAFTA) would likely benefit these firms while nontransnational firms are likely to encounter greater competition (see CAFTA: What Could It Mean for Migration?).
These businesses thrive off of meeting the needs and desires of a migrant clientele, often aided by Central American governments that have also become transnational actors. An example is the Salvadoran government's Programa Nacional de Competitividad (National Competitiveness Program). The program works with migrant communities to assist in expanding Salvadoran exports. In a similar vein, Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments and business organizations have established trade fairs in Los Angeles.
Central American Gangs
The explosive rise in transnational gangs and gang violence in the past decade is a sobering reminder that not all transnational ties are beneficial or desirable. Widely recognized as originating in the north, Central American gangs have flourished in the isthmus owing largely to deportations of thousands of members who have committed crimes in the United States and served time in prison — arguably universities for gangs (see National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs).
Deportees find themselves disoriented, dispossessed, and with few prospects for employment in the "homelands" they might not have seen since childhood. Despite efforts by grassroots organizations — such as Los Angeles- and San Salvador-based Homies Unidos and government-sponsored programs such as El Salvador's Bienvenido a Casa (Welcome Home) — to assist these gang members and their families in leaving gang life and reintegrating into society, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), its rival, 18th Street, and other gangs continue to grow and terrorize even small towns and middle-class suburbs.
Thus, as sociologist Andrew Papachristos argued in an article for Foreign Policy, "U.S. immigration policy has amounted to unintentional state-sponsored gang migration."
Though their violent reputation overwhelms other perspectives, gangs can also be viewed as creative cultural responses to the pressures of immigrant life. Indeed, gang culture contributes to Central Americans' literary, artistic, and musical expressions across borders.
Central America is a migration crossroads. The region's marginalization in the world economy and growing populations assure that migration will remain an enduring feature of Central American life into the foreseeable future.
It is now clear that this fact brings both challenges and opportunities. Among the greatest challenges is rapid cultural change, including shifting employment and class structures, rapidly changing consumer habits, increasing numbers of transnational families, and growing cross-border criminal organizations.
Additionally, as increasing percentages of Central Americans live outside the region, their political and economic loyalties become evermore complicated. Governments and NGOs are straining to find creative ways to endear hermanos lejanos (distant brothers) to their homelands. They also seek to translate migration into prosperity for those who do not migrate.
Among the most debated subjects is how to improve the productivity of remittances through creating new investment options and "banking the unbanked." These are the same questions facing peoples around the globe, helping Central Americans to find a more significant place in world affairs.
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