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Transnational Politics in Central America$

Luis Roniger

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780813036632

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813036632.001.0001

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Transnational Displacement

Transnational Displacement

The Refugee Crisis and Migration

Chapter:
(p.132) 11 Transnational Displacement
Source:
Transnational Politics in Central America
Author(s):

Luis Roniger

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813036632.003.0012

Abstract and Keywords

The wave of armed conflicts that destabilized Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s sparked a severe refugee crisis. International intervention and civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and the major counterinsurgency operations by the Guatemalan military and the PACs created an unprecedented flow of refugees, generating a process of transnational migration whose unintended consequences are still felt today. It was a transnational dislocation of populations far wider than anything the Central American states had experienced before. In a region from which relatively few inhabitants had emigrated in the first half of the twentieth century and the process of rural-urban migration occurred later than in other parts of Iberoamerica, the wars started massive dislocations of populations and waves of refugees searching for asylum, followed later on by equally massive movements of transnational migrants gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s.

Keywords:   Central America, International intervention, civil wars, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iberoamerica

The wave of armed conflicts that destabilized Central America in the late 1970s and early 1980s sparked a severe refugee crisis. International intervention and civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and the major counter-insurgency operations by the Guatemalan military and the PACs created an unprecedented flow of refugees, generating a process of transnational migration whose unintended consequences are still felt today.

It was a transnational dislocation of populations far wider than anything the Central American states had experienced before. In a region from which relatively few inhabitants had emigrated in the first half of the twentieth century and the process of rural-urban migration occurred later than in other parts of Iberoamerica, the wars started massive dislocations of populations and waves of refugees searching for asylum, followed later on by equally massive movements of transnational migrants gaining momentum in the 1990s and 2000s.

Salvadorans made up the largest group of refugees, followed by Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. The case of Salvadorans was particularly acute as the number of refugees reached around 750,000, or 16 percent of that country's population in the mid-1980s; of them 175,000 were in Nicaragua, 120,000 in Mexico, 70,000 in Guatemala, 20,000 in Honduras, 10,000 in Costa Rica, 7,000 in Belize, and 1,000 in Panama. The number of political refugees was estimated to be 245,000 in 1984. In addition, there were internal refugees (desplazados) who had been forced to flee within El Salvador.1 Hans Wollny's figures are even higher. According to his assessment, the total number of Central American refugees surpassed 1.3 million in the 1980s, and out of these, Salvadorans comprised more than 1 million, while the number of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans was estimated to be around 200,000 and 63,000, respectively.2 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (p.133) (UNHCR) estimated that at least 1 million people, perhaps twice as many, had been displaced by the generalized violence afflicting the region by May 1986. Of these, only 46,600 had received UNHCR assistance by the end of 1987, when the peace process began.

Mexico was particularly affected by the refugee crisis. To deal with the mass influx of refugees, in 1980 the Mexican government created a special interministerial body, the Mexican Commission for Aid to Refugees (Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados, or COMAR). At that time, COMAR proposed to recognize most Central American refugees as political refugees. However, that proposal was not implemented, as Mexican immigration authorities defined the mass of Central American refugees as economic migrants rather than victims of political persecution. The restrictive Mexican policies toward the Central American refugees was underpinned by several factors, among them the economic situation at that time, the complex relationship with the United States, and last but not least, Mexico's fear of a spillover of the Central American wars into its territory, which would put Mexico at risk of becoming an indirect victim of political turbulence in the region.

Between 1980 and 1982 at least 70,000 Salvadoran refugees were deported from Mexico to Guatemala or directly to El Salvador. Some estimates put the number of Central Americans deported annually to their home countries at more than 46,000.3 Moreover, beginning in 1983 the Mexican government stopped recognizing Salvadorans as refugees. Mexican authorities claimed Salvadorans were economic immigrants and refused to grant them asylum status or otherwise legalize their presence in the country. Accordingly, the number of Salvadorans residing illegally in Mexico grew. In 1987 the Mexican coordinator for Salvadoran refugees estimated their number to be at least a half-million, far beyond the estimated 110,000 Guatemalans and few thousand Nicaraguans residing illegally there. If caught, Salvadorans had to provide documented proof of employment or face deportation. Although Salvadorans were, by and large, well-educated young people belonging to the urban middle classes, government officials portrayed them as a problematic and undesirable population.

Among those moving to Mexico in the early 1980s were many indigenous Mayans from Guatemala. Most of them entered Mexico as refugees, escaping counter-insurgent campaigns by the Guatemalan army and paramilitary groups. Comparatively, these Guatemalan refugees had to confront even harder obstacles than the Salvadorans since they were an indigenous rural population who had been the subject of discriminatory policies in their (p.134) home country. These indigenous people were mostly illiterate and lacked economic means. Even though most of the displaced Guatemalans shared a common ethnic background with the inhabitants of southeastern Mexico, many of them did not speak Spanish but rather their own languages, a fact that greatly impaired Guatemalans' ability to integrate.4 Most tended to settle in improvised camps near the border, mainly in Chiapas and to a lesser extent in the states of Campeche and Quintana Roo, where they shared cultural and linguistic ties with the local population. They hoped to return home when possible. In this case, Mexico was forced to confront a novel situation when in a relatively short time tens of thousands of Guatemalan peasants crossed the border. While in the earlier waves of exile—from the Southern Cone in the 1970s, for example—those seeking asylum or residence came from the middle and upper strata, the refugees from Guatemala were mainly peasants and of lower-class origins, adding pressures on access to land, already a problem in existence in southern Mexico. A change in foreign policy took place in this period as a result of the situation. Mexico pursued the pacification of Central America in order to both stop the flow of refugees and facilitate the return of those refugees already settled in Mexican territory. In parallel, as indicated above, the Mexican government attempted to expel illegal immigrants by the thousands while granting asylum to only a small number of individuals. In a 1984 survey of Guatemalans in Mexico City, 80 percent of the sample declared having left their country for political reasons, 73 percent did not possess any kind of document, and 13.6 percent had tourist visas, while only 3 percent had received political asylum. Within Chiapas, the government promoted a policy of resettlement into neighbouring states, but by 1987 it had only managed to convince an estimated 18,200 peasants to move on. Many others refused to abandon the state of Chiapas. The government granted documents to them as border visitors or agricultural workers, and the Catholic Dioceses of San Cristóbal de las Casas and UNCHR provided them with support and recognized many of them, thus precluding the possibility of expulsion.5 Likewise, the United States attracted successive waves of refugees and migrants, becoming a major pole of attraction.6

The arrival of successive waves of refugees and exiles has often turned a host country into a pole of attraction for future immigrants. Once refugees settle and community bonds are re-created, a process of learning and accommodation also takes place as the newcomers learn institutional and cultural practices and how to interact in the new environment. It is then easier for future waves of conationals, be they refugees or economic immigrants, to find their way around. The old-timers may become a bridge for newcomers. (p.135) One of the crucial factors in this process of adaptation is the formation of a critical mass of residents. For the newcomers, the presence of “old-timers,” both prior exiles and other countrymen, can lessen alienation and contribute to reconstructing some sense of normalcy and community in the diaspora. The existence of such human bridges has encouraged the growth of massive transnational labor migratory waves through the region and beyond, mostly into Mexico and the United States.

In the early 2000s the Central American Commission of Migration Directorates estimated the migrant population of the region to be nearly 5 million. More than 100,000 Guatemalan agricultural workers are employed in Mexico annually as temporary agricultural workers, with many more heading north to Mexico, the United States, and Belize. It is estimated that 108,000 Hondurans transit through Guatemala annually. Hondurans comprised 36 percent of all border apprehensions in Mexico in 1999 and 46 percent of Central American illegal immigrants apprehended in the United States between 1999 and 2001. These percentages are complemented by significant numbers of Salvadorans and Guatemalans apprehended while crossing these two borders illegally. Salvadorans have migrated to Guatemala as temporary agricultural workers, with many conationals moving from Guatemala to Mexico, the United States, and Belize. Hondurans have migrated either directly or through El Salvador and Mexico to Guatemala, Belize, and the United States. In Belize and Guatemala many Hondurans have found work as temporary agricultural laborers. Nicaraguans have migrated to Costa Rica, where they currently comprise about 8 percent of the population, as well as to destinations in Central America and—through transnational chains of migration—also to Mexico and the United States, albeit in smaller numbers than others, at least as measured by the number of individuals apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities while attempting to enter the country illegally from Mexico.7

Table 11.1, elaborated by David Guinn and Elissa Steglich, sums up these migration flows both within the isthmus and beyond, indicating the main destinations and transit areas in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. According to estimates, by the early 2000s more than 2 million Central Americans were living in the United States, over 50 percent of them from El Salvador. Salvadorans also constituted up to 12 percent of the population of Belize, while Nicaraguans comprised about 10 percent of the population of Costa Rica.8

In the United States many of the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have remained undocumented or illegal residents. In 1990 Salvadorans were the first group to be eligible for “temporary protected status” (TPS) later (p.136)

Table 11.1. General migration flows in Central America

Origin

Nicaragua

Honduras

El Salvador

Guatemala

Costa Rica

Belize

Mexico

USA

Nicaragua

X

T

T

T

D

D

T

D

D

Honduras

X

X

T

T

X

D

T

D

D

El Salvador

T

T

X

T

X

D

T

D

Guatemala

X

X

X

X

X

D

D

D

Source: Adapted from Guinn and Steglich, In Modern Bondage (2003), 25.

Notes: T = Transit

D = Destination

to be granted to others such as Nicaraguans and Hondurans. Without recognizing asylum, TPS status has provided legal temporary residency and the possibility of getting employment authorization. This system, created as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 and modified in March 2003, was designed for aliens who are temporarily unable to safely return to their home countries because of ongoing armed conflict, environmental disaster, or other extraordinary conditions. It does not entitle migrants to permanent residency, and it leaves its bearers in a state of uncertainty, pondering time and again whether the status will be extended or derogated for them. Many of those residing in the United States and Mexico do not have such protective status. Thus, for instance, recently the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala have been deporting tens of thousands of Hondurans and others to their home countries.

The ambiguous status of many of these migrants in the countries of relocation has created what Adrian Bailey and associates have defined as a condition of “permanent temporariness.”9 Engaging in geographical mobility due to the political situation in their home countries or as a strategy to achieve social mobility, these individuals have become deterritorialized and reterritorialized at the same time.

Living across different space-time spans, their life experiences have generated new transnational projects and a varied economic impact both in the countries of origin and in the places of relocation. Such wide impact includes areas such as home (“nostalgic”) tourism, attempts at family reunification, the emergence of new devices, expanding markets for inexpensive telecommunication, new markets for produce, food, and beverages from the home countries, as well as the weight of remittances in the Central American economies.10 The proliferation of these ventures also involves the active consideration by individuals of their present experiences in terms of the past and (p.137) the projection of future plans in terms of present dilemmas, prospects, and constraints.11 The economic contributions of transnational networks and the strong numbers of migrants have given them a strategic visibility recognized by the politicians in the home country who have campaigned among them in recent years and have courted their financial support. At the same time, even as they have access to more resources and new technologies, they have faced tremendous difficulties as they tried to integrate in the new environment, evading being captured and deported, trying in some cases to have credentials recognized, and keeping their living costs at a minimum in order to send remittances to their families. The undocumented status of many and their stigmatization in the United States have generated situations of marginalization, rising crime, and exploitation by local employers.

Even communities of migrants who can trace their origins back many decades and who have relocated within the isthmus, as is the case of Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, have felt subject to stigmatization and criminalization. Being the focus of a racial discourse that “whitened” Costa Ricans and “darkened” Nicaraguans, the Nicaraguans became the “internal other,” being held responsible in the 1990s for the rise of criminality and the spread of diseases such as cholera. These processes did occur but were only tangentially related to the immigrants. As of 2000, more than 226,000 Nicaraguans were living in Costa Rica. During harvest times, their numbers grew even larger and reached close to 8 percent of the population. The Nicaraguans thus became a substantial minority, being “inside the country but outside the nation” in Carlos Sandoval-García's characterization.12 Processes of racial discrimination and criminalization of Nicaraguans have been under way for a long time. Nicaraguans are thought by Costa Ricans to be darker in skin and have a more indigenous physiognomy, which is matched in talk and behavior, as they supposedly exhibit distinct colloquialisms and violence-prone behavior. These stereotyped images have symbolically transformed Nicaraguans into a perceived social threat. In the early 2000s Costa Ricans already suspected Nicaraguans of affecting the attractiveness of their country to tourists, which, according to locals, had been clean and “ecological” until the immigrant Nicaraguans polluted its spatial and social texture. Following the same logic, in 2008 the Costa Rican authorities adopted more stern criteria for granting legal residency to aliens in the country.

Migration did not decline with the end of the conditions that had triggered forced migration in the first place. With the end of the regional wars and repression and until the economic crisis of the late 2000s, many individuals continued to flow in the direction of the poles of attraction in search (p.138) of higher incomes and livelihood, and other Central Americans were repatriated, especially from the United States. Their experiences in the United States were mixed. Many were hard-working individuals who used their sojourns to support their families and send remittances and were empowered individually and collectively by the experience, as reflected, for instance, in the emerging Hispanic presence and press in the United States or in the pan-Maya movement in Central America. Still, others lived marginal and insecure lives, some of them joining illicit networks and learning the ways and know-how of criminality, with a transnational impact that was fully revealed once civil wars ended and the isthmian countries democratized and liberalized their markets.

Notes:

(1.) Celio Mármora, “Hacia la migración planificada interlatinoamericana. Salvadoreños en Argentina,” Estudios migratorios latinoamericanos 1, 3 (1986): 275–93.

(2.) Hans Wollny, “Asylum Policy in Mexico: A Survey,” Journal of Refugee Studies 4, 3 (1991): 228.

(3.) Keith W. Yundt, Latin American States and Political Refugees (New York: Praeger, 1988), 231.

(4.) Ibid., 135–39.

(5.) Laura O'Dogherty, “Mayas en el exilio: Los refugiados guatemaltecos en México,” 213–17 in Memorias del Segundo coloquio internacional de Mayistas, Universidad Autónoma de México, Centro de Estudios Mayas, August 17–21, 1987.

(6.) Yundt, Latin American States; Menjívar and Rodríguez, When States Kill.

(7.) David E. Guinn and Elissa Steglich, In Modern Bondage: Sex Trafficking in the Americas (Chicago: De Paul University International Human Rights Law Institute and Transnational Publishers, 2003), 24–26.

(8.) Rosenberg and Solís, The United States and Central America, 72–73.

(9.) Bailey et al., “(Re)producing Salvadoran Transnational Geographies,” 139.

(10.) Manuel Orozco, “Transnationalism and Development: Trends and Opportunities in Latin America,” 307–30 in Samuel Munzele Maimbo and Dilip Ratha, eds., Remittances: Development Impact and Future Prospects (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2005).

(11.) Bailey et al. “(Re)producing Salvadoran Transnational Geographies,” 128.

(12.) See Sandoval García, Threatening Others.