Thu, 06 Aug 98 09:30:36 -0500
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Subject: Nicarguan immigrants in Costa Rica
Author: <firstname.lastname@example.org (Mark Krikorian) > at smtplink
Date: 7/28/98 3:49 PM
[For CISNEWS subscribers -- Mark Krikorian]
An Immigration Dispute Far South of the U.S. Border
Latin America: Nicaraguans seeking work are finding it harder to sneak into
Costa Rica as patience wears thin.
By JUANITA DARLING
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1998
LONG THE RIO SAN JUAN, Nicaragua -- As dusk fades to darkness, the rickety
riverboat slides into the long grass along the shore. Half a dozen young
men sling backpacks over their shoulders and walk into the night with grim,
The success of a long, arduous journey depends on what happens in the next
half an hour. From here, they must dodge border guards to reach the land of
opportunity -- and well-paid jobs.
It's a scene familiar to anyone who has watched television footage of the
nightly gatherings along the Rio Grande that separates the United States
But this is the Rio San Juan. And these workers aren't headed north, but
They are Nicaraguans, from the Americas' second-poorest country, trying to
sneak into Costa Rica, the most developed nation in Central America. If
they succeed, they will join 500,000 to 700,000 compatriots, more than half
of them without work permits, who harvest coffee and sugar cane or clean up
construction sites and houses.
Costa Ricans grudgingly accepted Nicaraguan refugees during their northern
neighbor's civil war in the 1980s. But eight years after the fighting
stopped, the migration is clearly economic -- Nicaragua has an unemployment
rate of at least 50% -- rather than political. And Costa Ricans are
becoming impatient as the number of migrants has reached more than 15% of
their population and the influx of foreigners without papers continues to
"Costa Rica is not prepared to deal with this massive immigration," said
Costa Rican Immigration Director Eduardo Vilchez Hurtado. The number of
Nicaraguans is too much for a nation of more than 3 million people to
absorb, he said, complaining, "It is interfering with our system of social
services and job availability."
The issue is becoming particularly prickly because Costa Ricans are facing
tough adjustments as they try to move their traditionally prosperous
country, with social services that rival Canada's, into a global economy
based on cheap labor markets. As in the United States, when the economy
sours, migrants -- especially ones without work permits -- are among the
first to be blamed.
Border Patrols Are Stepped Up
In the nearly three months since Miguel Angel Rodriguez became president,
Costa Rica has stepped up its border patrols. As a result, the number of
Nicaraguan rechazados -- literally rejects, or potential migrants turned
back at the border -- has tripled, Nicaraguan immigration authorities
In those three months, 3,500 Nicaraguan rechazados have been returned by
Costa Rica, according to Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry figures. That count is
probably inflated by prospective migrants who try unsuccessfully several
times to cross the border and are tossed back, the government acknowledges.
For potential migrants such as Alberto Estrada, that means more chances of
getting caught. In the past two years, the 37-year-old cobbler from the
northwestern colonial city of Leon has twice made the journey to the
southeastern river and on to Costa Rica.
"I just do not make enough" at home, said the father of three. "Some days,
I will only earn 20 cordobas," about 20 cents. In Costa Rica, he can make
six times that amount as a farm worker.
So he boards the bus to Granada, where, for the equivalent of $4, he can
take a 16-hour boat ride across Lago de Nicaragua, the biggest lake in
Central America, to San Carlos at the mouth of the Rio San Juan.
Passengers try to sleep on the boat's hard, wooden benches to escape the
heat and the stench of sweat and urine mixed with the scent of overused
frying oil from the tiny galley next to the restroom. Cockroaches crawl
over the children lying on the deck.
Even so, the journey by boat is cheaper and more reliable than bus travel
around the lake on a road that is often impassable in the rainy season.
Once past San Carlos, there are no roads, only the river.
In the muddy streets and open-air market of San Carlos, inexperienced
migrants can find a coyote -- a paid immigrant smuggler -- to guide them
across the border. By 2 in the afternoon, migrants are ready to board the
riverboat that charges $3 for a trip halfway down the river to El Castillo.
But the migrants disembark at one of the boat's dozen stops before reaching
El Castillo, the spot where the Rio San Juan begins to form the border
between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Before El Castillo, both sides of the
river are Nicaraguan.
Getting Caught by Surprise
The challenge for migrants is to walk into Costa Rica without being
detected by that nation's border guards. Many favor this nameless spot just
downriver from the bustling lumber town of Boca de Savalo. From here, they
can follow a tributary of the Rio San Juan south into Costa Rica.
The first two times Estrada made the trip, it was simple. So simple in
fact, that this month he decided to bring along his 18-year-old son,
Carlos, and a 16-year-old friend, Mario Benito.
"I decided to show them so that they could work," Estrada said, chuckling
ruefully. "And look what happened." The trio were caught by Costa Rican
immigration authorities and held briefly in the detention center in the
Costa Rican border town of Los Chiles. Less than a week after they left
home, they were on a boat back to San Carlos.
"Here we are with no money and no place to sleep," he lamented. "I don't
know whether to go back home or to try again."
That is a dilemma that Capt. Anibal Sobalvaro, the Nicaraguan immigration
official in charge of San Carlos, has seen increasing numbers of rechazados
confront since early May.
"They have thrown out three times as many, and now three times as many go
back" and try to cross again, he said. "As long as Nicaragua's economy is
weak, workers will go to Costa Rica."
Sobalvaro said he expects the numbers to increase in August, when harvest
season begins and more Nicaraguans go south looking for jobs.
'We Need to Regain Control' of Borders
The arguments over migration will sound familiar to Southern Californians.
"We need to regain control over our borders," Vilchez said. "We need to be
able to determine who enters our country and who doesn't."
As for the other side, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez Montalvan
said, "Costa Ricans do not like heavy labor," stating a widely held belief
on the northern side of the border. So they hire Nicaraguans to do the
Vilchez acknowledged: "Costa Rica needs the migratory groups that come to
fill vacancies in the manual labor work force. But these should be
considered migratory workers who must return to their country once the
harvest is finished. It must be a cyclical migration."
To that end, Alvarez and his Costa Rican counterpart tried to solve the
problem earlier this year by signing a legal migration agreement that
permits seasonal migration depending on the needs of growers -- similar to
farm worker agreements between the United States and Mexico.
Both Central American governments are eager to guide the migratory flow
into legal, regulated channels before illegal immigration becomes an
entrenched tradition, as it is in North America. Thousands of workers from
central Mexican towns in Michoacan, Jalisco and Zacatecas states, for
example, follow the same routes northward to the U.S. that their
Attempts to stop that migration by tightening up the border at longtime
crossing points in California and Texas have forced prospective migrants to
take more dangerous routes through the Arizona and New Mexico deserts.
Costa Rica and Nicaragua hope to establish orderly, seasonal migration.
But those who watch migration up close give the pact little chance of
stopping the flow of workers without papers.
Workers with permits will cross at the well-regulated western border at
Penas Blancas on the Pan-American Highway, as they always have, they
predict. And illegal traffic will keep traveling along the uncontrollable
"The Costa Ricans do not want to legalize workers because then they would
have to pay them their [legal] fringe benefits," Sobalvaro said. "This
situation is not going to be resolved. Migrants leave Nicaragua because
there is no work. They have one option: Costa Rica."
Further, while many Nicaraguans go to Costa Rica with the intention of
working only a few months, they become accustomed to the prosperity and
want to prolong their stay, which a legal permit would not allow.
But from across the border, Vilchez replied: "We can't carry Nicaragua's
problems on our backs. . . . We cannot sustain the migratory influx from
Nicaragua. It's like putting your hands across a waterfall. The water still
flows through your fingers."
Researcher Auriana Koutnik in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this
Mark Krikorian, executive director
Center for Immigration Studies
1522 K St. N.W., Suite 820, Washington, DC 20005
(202) 466-8185 (202) 466-8076, fax email@example.com
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