E.g., 06/15/2024
E.g., 06/15/2024
Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans

Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans

Central American migration to Canada is a fairly recent development. Until the 1960s, the country's climate, geographic distance, and cultural unfamiliarity discouraged migration from Central and South America. However, as Canadian involvement in Latin American affairs expanded during the administration of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — through trade, investment, and diplomatic representation — so did its visibility and lure.

Canada's generous accommodation of thousands of Cuban and Chilean refugees during the 1960s and 1970s made it an attractive option for would-be immigrants and refugees from throughout the Americas over the next few decades. At the same time, U.S. and Mexican policies toward some Central American refugees also helped push those flows further northward.

Canada: A "Natural Haven"

Canada's response to the revolutions in Central America, which differed in significant ways from the United States, made it a natural haven for those displaced by the political upheaval. While the Reagan and Bush administrations saw the Central American revolutions as a strategic Cold War struggle for control of regional allies, Canada's position was more in line with the countries that supported the Contadora peace process, viewing the conflicts as homegrown, and the logical consequence of the unequal distribution of economic resources and political power.

While the United States regarded it their historic right and duty to "protect" the region, Canada opposed military aid or any actions that might perpetuate the wars. Instead, Canada stepped up its relief efforts in the region, channeling funds through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Red Cross, and Canadian NGOs to provide emergency aid such as food, medicine, and clothing as well as assistance in finding durable solutions and relocating displaced people.

Canada enacted a variety of measures to protect the displaced. Through UNHCR, Canadian officials facilitated the immigration of Guatemalan refugees living in Costa Rica and Mexico.

Canadian consulates in the United States were instructed to issue visas to Central Americans facing deportation. And the government established a moratorium on the deportation of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, even if they entered the country illegally.

Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America, the majority of them Salvadoran (11,251). Under a special program, 4,444 family members were allowed entry, bringing the five-year total to 20,955. By the end of the decade, Salvadorans had replaced Chileans as the principal immigrant group from Latin America.

The Central Americans' Path to Canada

Overland migration from Central America to Canada also increased as the violence in the region escalated, refugee camps filled up, and more restrictive immigration policies were enacted in Mexico and the United States.

Interviews with landed claimants revealed that most had spent some time in Mexico and/or the United States before moving on to Canada. A 1992 profile of Salvadorans in Montreal, for example, found that 40 percent had lived in the United States for at least one year before moving to Canada; 33 percent had lived in Mexico for at least six months before moving to Canada; and the rest had chosen Canada as the country of first asylum.

The Salvadorans moved further northward because the approval rate for asylum applications was generally much higher than in the United States. From 1980 to 1986, for example, between 21 and 60 percent of Salvadoran applications were approved; and between 28 and 71 percent of Guatemalan applications were approved. By comparison, only three to five percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan petitions in the United States were successful during this period.

Central American Numbers

By the end of the 1980s, Salvadorans were the largest group of Central Americans — legal and undocumented — in Canada. In 1987, there were 22,283 Salvadorans living legally in Canada, and thousands more were believed to be working in the underground economy (see Table 1). Most were young, single males.

Table 1. Flow of Central American Immigrants to Canada, 1961 to 2001
  before 1961 1961-1970 1971-1980 1981-1990 1991-2001 1991-1995 1996-2001
Belize 30 120 295 575 360 85 280
Costa Rica 30 60 75 850 1,220 610 605
El Salvador 15 60 1,145 23,780 13,455 10,690 2,770
Guatemala 40 125 930 6,215 6,360 4,360 2,000
Honduras 0 50 355 1,190 2,735 1,690 1,050
Mexico 1,445 2,140 4,865 9,660 18,115 6,650 11,465
Nicaragua 0 45 125 4,695 4,510 3,560 950
Panama 30 60 220 640 1,450 1,130 325
Central America Total 1,595 2,660 8,015 47,610 48,210 28,765 19,445

Source: Statistics Canada

Like their conationals in Mexico and the United States, they had urban, working-class backgrounds and averaged 10 years of schooling. And, as in these other countries, the young migrants came with a variety of skills and life experiences, or human capital, and came to occupy important niches in the Canadian economy.

Guatemalans and Nicaraguans were comparatively fewer in number. In 1987, there were 7,700 Guatemalans and 7,081 Nicaraguans. Some attributed the smaller numbers of Guatemalans to UNHCR policies that encouraged them to remain closer to their country of origin to facilitate repatriation. Indeed, Guatemalans living in Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica were more likely to repatriate in the 1990s than those living in northern countries.

The settlement patterns established by the first refugees in the early 1980s — most of whom settled in Mexico — also affected the destinations of those who followed later in the decade. Early Nicaraguan migrants, in turn, settled largely in the United States and Costa Rica, and these communities served as magnets for those who emigrated later in the decade.

Nicaraguans who traveled to Canada found it slightly easier than other Central Americans to receive asylum but, as in the United States, after the defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990, Nicaraguan petitions were increasingly denied since the justification for migration was believed to no longer exist.

Central Americans in Canada as a whole were concentrated in two cities. In 1987, roughly 15,000 Central Americans lived in Montreal and some 6,000 lived in Toronto. Over half of the men were employed in construction, manufacturing, and service occupations. One-third of women were employed in service occupations, and another third were employed in managerial, clerical, or professional occupations.

IRCA's Effect on Canadian Policy

A change in U.S. immigration policy forced the Canadian government to adjust its own immigration policies reciprocally, demonstrating the impact that policy changes in one state can have on its neighbors. In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which created a series of measures to restrict the number of undocumented workers in the country, among them an expanded border patrol, tougher status verification criteria, and penalties on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers.

As a result, Canada experienced a dramatic rise in the number of petitions for asylum as immigrants of many different countries left the United States and traveled northward in search of work and safe haven. In just one year, the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles saw a 500 percent increase in the number of Central Americans seeking assistance to come to Canada. Others asked for asylum at border points or entered illegally.

From December 1986 to February 1987, 10,000 refugees, most of them Central Americans, entered Canada, encouraged in part by the Spanish-language press, immigration lawyers, and sanctuary workers in the United States who alerted them to Canada's more generous policies. Church, Salvation Army, and Red Cross shelters on both sides of the border — Montana/Alberta, North Dakota/Manitoba, New York/Ontario-Quebec — hosted thousands of refugees awaiting their hearings.

The increased number of asylum seekers focused attention on the limitations of Canada's asylum determination process. The 1976 Immigration Act had created a bureaucratically cumbersome process under the Refugee Status Advisory Committee (RSAC) and the Immigration Appeals Board (IAB). These were adequate in the 1970s when inland applications stood at only 200 to 400 per year.

But the architects of the Immigration Act never envisioned that one day thousands of people would ask for asylum at border checkpoints at Windsor, Niagara Falls, or Lacolle. By the end of the 1980s, Canada had a backlog of 121,000 asylum cases.

Over the next few years, a series of bills were introduced into parliament to reform the immigration and refugee bureaucracy, exert better control of the border, and discourage "frivolous claims." While Central American refugees were not the specific targets of these bills, the so-called "border rush" of the late 1980s was a one of a series of high-profile incidents that contributed to the intolerance towards immigration.

Public opinion polls demonstrated a growing opposition to Canada's more generous policies even though yearly immigrants consistently numbered less than one percent of the total population. Bill C-55, passed in 1988, established a new tribunal, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), to streamline the processing of asylum claims, eliminate the backlog, and facilitate deportation.

Bill C-84 introduced new "detention and deterrence" measures, among them tougher criminal penalties on those who "smuggled" or aided the undocumented. In 1993, the passage of Bill C-86 established tougher criteria for asylum, resettlement, and detention, including an expanded list of criteria by which an applicant might be determined inadmissible.

Some of the bills' more restrictive measures were mediated or eliminated in part due to pressure from immigration and refugee advocates who lobbied and threatened lawsuits in order to keep the determination system fair and accessible. These advocates — affiliated with church groups, charitable and professional organizations, universities, labor groups, and other NGOs — staged rallies, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and various forms of civil disobedience to remind the state of its humanitarian and international obligations. Although a minority viewpoint, they were influential in countering the anti-immigrant backlash.

Many of these advocates were actively involved in assisting the Central American refugees and in protesting U.S. militarization of the region. Through articles, editorials, and testimonies, they documented the abuses of war and helped keep attention focused on Central America.

Central American Migration Post-1996

After the elections and peace settlements of the 1990s, Central America's refugees ceased to occupy a prominent role in Canadian public discourse. It is unclear how many Central Americans living in Canada actually returned to their homelands after the peace accords were signed.

Based on anthropological studies that have examined links between immigrant communities in North America and the homeland, it is probable that those who legalized their status in Canada have maintained a transnational existence. This means they have likely invested in a variety of capital in both old and new homelands and blurred the borders in spite of state policies to reinforce them.

Migration from Central America continued after civil war ended in 1996 but for different reasons. From 1996 to 2001, Central Americans emigrated to escape ongoing criminal and political violence, as well as natural disasters that disrupted the economy and exacerbated the poverty. Migration from Honduras and Nicaragua to North America increased as a result of Hurricane Mitch (1998), and from El Salvador after the earthquakes of 2001.

The 2001 Canadian Census showed 39,200 Salvadoran immigrants and nonpermanent residents; 14,095 Guatemalans; and 9,535 Nicaraguans (see Table 2). Like many immigrants, the majority were concentrated in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Table 2. Central American Population in Canada by Country of Birth and Status, 2001
  Immigrants Nonpermanent Residents Total Immigrants and Nonpermanent Residents
Belize 1,385 10 1,395
Costa Rica 2,230 270 2,500
El Salvador 38,460 740 39,200
Guatemala 13,680 415 14,095
Honduras 4,340 170 4,505
Mexico 36,225 6,525 42,740
Nicaragua 9,380 155 9,535
Panama 2,400 125 2,520
Central America total 108,085 8,405 116,500

Source: Statistics Canada

These numbers were small compared to U.S. figures. By 2004, Salvadoran officials estimated that nearly one-fourth of all Salvadorans lived in the United States alone, and sent close to US$2 billion in remittances each year.

Central Americans who now wish to enter Canada legally generally do so as landed immigrants rather than as refugees or "protected persons." However, since Canadian legislation favors immigrants with certain skills and work experiences, and who can speak English or French, this excludes many Central Americans.

Those who legally immigrate tend to enter as members of the "family class," which reunites Canadian residents with their family members. Adoption is another means by which Central Americans — in this case, children — have become permanent residents.


Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, it is much more difficult to immigrate or receive asylum in North America. The United States, Mexico, and Canada have all revamped their immigration bureaucracies, increased security personnel at airports and border checkpoints, and enacted new — and highly controversial — detention and deportation procedures in order to discourage terrorists from establishing a foothold in their societies. Unfortunately, immigrants and refugees have become casualties of these new policies.

As a result of all these new measures, the number of overall refugee claims in Canada fell from a record high of 44,063 in 2001 to less than half that number in 2003. Immigration numbers also failed to reach government targets.

Central American petitions for both asylum and landed status have been affected. Theoretically, Central Americans are still able to receive refugee or protected status if they are able to prove a credible risk to their lives. IRB regularly updates its country profiles to help evaluate such claims. However, it has become increasingly difficult to receive a favorable verdict through the refugee bureaucracy. Landed immigration is considered the only realistic means to enter the country legally but eligibility is also limited.

For those willing to take the risk, illegal immigration along the porous U.S.-Canada border is an option. News stories in the Mexican press report the many dangers that the transmigrantes face in reaching the United States and Canada, and hundreds die each year at the hands of gangs, corrupt police forces, and smugglers.

Some argue that a guest worker program in Canada, recently proposed by Mexican President Vicente Fox, would help Mexicans and Central Americans find employment and address some of the economic problems that propel them northward.

María Cristina García recently published Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, published by University of California Press. Information on the book is available here.

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