Central Americans Migrating to US Instead of Closer, Safe Countries

Central Americans Migrating to US Instead of Closer, Safe Countries

The federal government has struggled to process and house over 57,000 minors who have entered the US illegally from Central America since October of last year. 

One of the biggest controversies associated with this crisis has been the root cause of this mass migration of children and family units–increased gang violence and lack of jobs, rumors of amnesty being granted to kids, or a combination of both. However, one question not commonly being asked or answered is, “Why are they coming here instead of a neighboring (i.e. closer) country?” More specifically, why is nobody asking recently detained illegal immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador why they did not flee to neighboring Nicaragua, where crime is low and they can legally enter and live under a regional treaty?

It seems logical that anyone claiming to solely be fleeing drug war and gang-related violence would seek safety in another Central American country not dealing with these issues. Logistically speaking, such a trip would be considerably shorter and much less dangerous than having to deal with drug cartels, rapist and exploitative coyotes, the “Death Train,” and the deadly Sonoran desert. The cultural adjustment would be considerably easier, and the financial burden much smaller. The rarely heard truth is that migrants from the troubled countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras can legally travel and stay in neighboring Nicaragua, and can relatively easily (albeit illegally) enter Belize and Costa Rica, which are safe compared to the countries they are leaving. However, they just choose not to, calling into question many claims of “credible fear” that seeking sanctuary in the US is the only solution to protecting their families from gangs and cartels.

The countries of Central America form a thin strip of land that connects North and South America. Only Guatemala and Belize share a borders with Mexico, and then directly to the south of Guatemala lie Honduras and El Salvador. Those two countries share a border with each other, but only the former shares a border with Nicaragua to the south. Continuing towards South America, one then has to pass through Costa Rica and Panama before arriving in Colombia. For migrants escaping violence in El Salvador and Honduras, neighboring Nicaragua would seem to be an easy choice for a destination. But is it really?Nicaragua has been in dire straits economically for a long time, in a similar fashion to its neighbors. However, its socialist government is run by President Daniel Ortega, a lackey of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. The country’s history is peppered with instability, including the Sandinista revolution that sparked the Iran-Contra scandal here in the US. It is also one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and has its fair share of citizens who leave to find better economic opportunities elsewhere, usually the US or neighboring Costa Rica. However, Nicaragua is not currently dealing with an outbreak of violence, either politically or criminally motivated.

The truly vexing part of analyzing the reason why migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras aren’t seeking refuge in Nicaragua is that it’s perfectly legal for them to travel and temporarily stay there. In 2006, the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua signed a treaty called the Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement, which established the free movement across borders between the four signatory states of their citizens without any restrictions or checks. Also, tourists or other travelers who obtain a visa for any one of these four countries can travel to other signatory states without having to obtain additional permits or to undergo checks at border checkpoints. In other words, a child or family fleeing gang recruitment or daily street shootings in San Pedro Sula, the deadliest city in the world, can legally travel through normal means just a few hundred miles south to Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua.

Other relatively safe (when comparing crime levels) and closer options than the US include Belize and Costa Rica, which is already a large receptor country for illegal immigrants–mostly from Nicaragua. Because of Costa Rica’s low crime rate and stable government, the country is a magnet for illegal immigrants heading south. Its northern border is flooded at the end of every year with around half a million migrants, both legal and illegal. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, 39 percent of Nicaraguan immigrants said they crossed the border for better job opportunities; another 20 percent said they moved to Costa

Rica because it was more politically and economically stable. Despite a 2010 legal crackdown on border crossers, drug seizures are doubling annually and the illegal crossings continue. “We catch them and deport them, and a few days later, you see the same people again,” a Costa Rican federal police officer told the Arizona Republic. “Here in Costa Rica, we don’t have the money to build walls or put officers all along the border.” 

Knowing that it is completely legal for migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to enter Nicaragua and relatively easy to transit through to Costa Rica, why do they insist on embarking on the perilous journey to the US instead?

Part of the reason is family reunification in the US and an established place to live. Most of the 57,000 minors recently apprehended along the border already have family members living here–family members who likely sent for them and may have also helped pay for their passage north. Those family connections don’t exist in large numbers in other Central American countries. Also, job and educational prospects in Nicaragua are just as bad, if not worse, and although illegal entry into Costa Rica and Belize may be relatively easy, staying there is not. Finally, in the eyes of most illegal immigrants, the prospect of getting into and staying in the US–a prospect that is widely rumored to be easier than ever–will always be more attractive than trying to establish a new life in a third-world country where they don’t know anyone.

Given that such a large proportion of illegal immigrants from Central America involved in the current border crisis are claiming “credible fear” of gangs when questioned by US Border Patrol agents, it would be interesting if the line of questioning by both agents and reporters started including why they chose the US over Nicaragua if their family’s safety truly was the first and only priority.

Sylvia Longmire is a border security expert and Contributing Editor for Breitbart Texas. You can read more about the evolution of cross-border migration in her new book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer.


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