Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 264 | Julio 2003



Why Do They Go? Theories on the Migration Trend

Given the planetary migratory trend, Nicaragua is playing in the big leagues. Each theory about international migration has its own implications for policy formulation, making it extremely important to become familiar with them and reflect on their different focuses.

José Luis Rocha

Many research studies have sought to reveal the characteristics of those who emigrate: whether they are better or worse prepared than those who stay behind, whether they are poorer or better off, if they participated in or were indifferent to community organizations, if social mobility was having an adverse effect or just impeding the satisfaction of their social expectations… Some studies have even used such profiles to calculate the probabilities of a determined segment of the population or community leaving the country.

But it is just as important to know why emigrants exist. Why do they leave at certain historical moments? What springboard catapults them abroad? What siren or mirage lures them away or what invisible hand or rude kick pushes them to leave family, friends, language and habits to face emotional scarring as they travel thousands of miles in extremely risky conditions only to reduce their social status and face racial and residential segregation?
All of these questions could be condensed into one: why are so many people in the world caught up in the migration “trend”? Many theories, approaches and disciplines have attempted to provide an answer, some of them from a supposedly aseptic scientific position and others based on openly confessed political options. The vigorous nature of this human mobility and the many recent changes in its form add to the importance and potential controversy of any answers today.

More Nicas emigrated in the last decade

International migrations have experienced noticeable changes over the last 30 years. For a start, their volume has increased. In the United States alone, immigrants have gone from representing 4.7% of the population in 1970 and 6.2% in 1980, to 11.5% in 2002. Nicaragua is one of the nations whose out-migration has most increased in the last 10 years. Of the total number of emigrants recorded by Nicaraguan’s Living Standards Measurement Survey in 2001, 71.5% left between 1994 and 2001, 53% of them in the last four years of that period. This explains our accelerated and growing presence in the two migratory destinations most preferred by Nicaraguans: Costa Rica (53%) and the United States (34.6 %).

While the US census registered 44,166 Nicaraguans during the eighties, its 2000 census detected 177,000; an increase of over 300%. The Costa Rican censuses during the same period show a jump from 45,885 to 226,374 Nicaraguans, a 393% increase. Nicaraguans went from representing 1.9% of all ordinary residents in Costa Rica in 1984 to 5.9% in 2000, at the same time increasing from half to two thirds of all foreign residents in that country. And we know that there are far more Nicaraguans in Costa Rica who were not registered by this census and even more seasonal migrants who enter and leave Costa Rica along undetectable paths.

A whole range of theories provide partial explanations

A look at worldwide population movements reveals that the sources of migration have switched from Europe to Latin America, Africa and Asia. European countries, which traditionally supplied migrants, have suddenly become receivers, a reluctantly swallowed novelty that shapes them into multiethnic, culturally enriched societies while generating unanticipated challenges. The fact that this is occurring in all industrialized countries demonstrates the pull and the coherence of the underlying forces. Unfortunately, this abrupt migratory explosion has caught social and political scientists and the disciplines of law and demography unawares. No less surprised are the politicians, journalists, migration officials and citizens of the host countries, who find themselves devoid of any suitable discourse or concepts. The most commonly adopted reactions have been indifference, an improvised demagogy devoid of any consistent theoretical references and “iron-fisted” policies aimed at putting the brakes on human mobility.

There is still no migration theory that pieces together a total explanation. Instead, we find ourselves faced with a whole range of theories that are often segmented according to different disciplines. Several of these are relevant to the case of Nicaraguans who have emigrated. I will refer to the authors who are most representative of the theories and to their synthesis by US sociologist Douglas Massey, bearing in mind the wise maxim of Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff cited at the beginning of this article. The various theories operate on different levels of analysis that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, the causal processes and their variables operate simultaneously on various levels. And although it is important to know which approach has a greater empirical validation, one discovers along the way just how difficult it is to isolate certain variables and find univocal correlations. This is particularly true in a country like Nicaragua, all of whose shortages, features and mechanisms converge to make us such a major league expeller of migrants that we validate almost any model. Each approach, however, has very different implications for policy formulation, making it very important to analyze what unique aspect it has to offer and its relevance to a particular country.

Neoclassical macroeconomic theory:
They leave in search of better salaries

The oldest theory on migration focused on explaining the role labor migrations played in development processes. According to this theory, external and internal migrations are caused by geographical differences between the supply and demand of labor. In the case of international migrations, countries with an enormous labor force relative to their capital have a low equilibrium in their wage market, diametrically opposed to that of countries with a small labor force and large amounts of capital.

The wage differences activate the migratory flow, according to this theory, with workers traveling from countries with low wages to those with high ones, with a resulting fall in the labor supply in the country with low wages, which causes them to begin to rise. The country with high wages experiences a change in the opposite direction, with labor multiplying and wages falling. Internationally, posits this theory, a situation close to equilibrium is produced. The persisting wage differences merely reflect the pecuniary and even psychic costs of the migratory movement.

The neoclassical theory also states that capital sometimes circulates in the opposite direction. Money often travels from rich countries to poor ones with very high return rates on investment. Human capital sometimes moves in that direction as well. Thus highly qualified workers, like the international consultants based in Nicaragua, move from developed countries towards those with limited human capital and their skills are very well rewarded.

Here Massey insists on distinguishing between the flow of international labor and the flow associated with human capital: even the most aggregated figures of the macro-level models must clearly recognize the heterogeneity of the immigrants’ professional qualifications. While this is a valid point, its pertinence needs to be judged in each case. For example, skilled workers do not always migrate because of a shortage of human capital in the host country. In Nicaragua, for example, international organizations often create demand out of home-country affinity, without taking into account the real dimensions of our shortage of human capital one way or another.

According to Massey, the neoclassical macroeconomic theory of migrations has strongly influenced public opinion and provided the intellectual foundations for most migratory policies. We read and hear about it in the media and studies by many researchers categorically conclude that Nicaraguans migrate because of low wages at home.

Massey identifies various propositions and assumptions implicit in this perspective. First, it is assumed that because the international migration of workers is caused by wage differences between countries, the elimination of these differences will put an end to labor migration. The exception to this rule are the international flows of highly qualified workers, whose rate of return is much higher than average and thus generates a migratory pattern opposite to that of non-qualified workers.

Nicas earn $204 here and $253 in Costa Rica

This theory sustains that labor markets are the fundamental mechanism for inducing international labor flows and that other kinds of markets do not affect those flows in any significant way. A corollary of this approach is the policy associated with it, based on the idea that governments in the countries of destination that view migration in a negative light can control migratory flows by regulating and influencing their labor markets.

This theory also implies that the countries of destination—and their less qualified workers in particular—must fear these migrant waves because of the wage reduction they inevitably entail. The role of the US media in fanning such xenophobic labor panic has been magisterially described by Leo R. Chávez in his book Cubriendo la inmigración: Imágenes populares y la política de la nación. US magazines recurrently predict that the struggle between whites and blacks (Afro-Americans) will be replaced by a confrontation between blacks and browns (Latin Americans) competing for the same jobs.

Due to the very simplicity of this approach, it is easy to find basic figures that support it with respect to Nicaragua. According to World Bank figures, Nicaragua’s annual per capita income fell from US$800 at the beginning of the eighties to $340 at the beginning of the nineties. Following a modest recovery, per capita income was just $430 in 1999. The officially established minimum wage in Nicaragua is just $60 a month, whereas in neighboring Costa Rica it is $223. In addition, Costa Rica has a far greater capacity to ensure that the minimum wage is respected and in fact the country’s economic situation allows it to be exceeded. According to Carlos Castro Valverde of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), the average monthly income of Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica is 78,457 colons ($253), which is 30% below the average income of Costa Ricans but 17% higher than the average monthly wage ($204) in Nicaragua.

Neoclassical microeconomic theory:
They leave due to a cost-benefit calculation

These wage figures are important, but they do not encompass the true complexity of the migration-activating dynamic. So what does the microeconomic branch of neoclassical theory have to say on the matter? A microeconomic model closely associated with its macroeconomic cousin deals with individual choice. Individuals decide to migrate based on a cost-benefit calculation that leads them to expect a net gain by doing so.

From this perspective, migration appears as an investment, and a very costly one at that. To obtain better wages, migrants invest in the material costs of the journey and then risk their lives. They also assume the costs of their own maintenance until they find work, and perhaps even those of the family they left behind, plus the costs of depriving their family—wife or husband, (often young) children and (often old) parents—of their presence and monetary and emotional support; and of racial discrimination in the country of destination. Finally, they must also be prepared to face possible isolation there, the effort of learning another language and culture, adaptation to a new labor market and the psychological costs of cutting off old links and forging new ones.

This model has even generated equations to work out the expected net returns of migration. It is calculated just before departure as a function of the probability of avoiding deportation, finding work and the income resulting from that job in the new country—from which must be deducted the probability of finding work and the wages they can earn in the community of origin, as well as the total costs, psychological ones included, involved in migrating. If the expected net return is positive, people supposedly decide to emigrate; and if it is negative, they will stay in their community. If it is neither positive nor negative, the person in question will be undecided about whether to stay or go. Unlike the macroeconomic model, this perspective includes both employment rates (not just wage rates) and features corresponding to human capital (education, experience, training, knowledge of the language) as incentives for emigrating.

The probability of emigrating is influenced by both individual and social characteristics, a set of elements that means that individuals from the same country may have different inclinations to migrate. As can be appreciated in the Nicaraguan documentary on emigration to Costa Rica, Desde el barro al sur, older women have fewer possibilities of finding work in our southern neighbor and are therefore less inclined to emigrate. Only 5.5% of the total number of female emigrants are older than 45. Almost 40% of the women who go to Costa Rica are aged between 17 and 25, a range of just 8 years. A large percentage of them work as domestics, a job for which young women are preferred.

Nicaraguans are moved by hunger, rumors,
myths, expectations and serious desperation

The neoclassical microeconomic approach assumes that migratory flows between countries are the sum of individual decisions based on the cost-benefit calculation. It also assumes that migrations are not divorced from the diversity of employment and wage rates, that the expected net return determines the migrant flow between countries, that the labor market—and none other—directly influences the decision to migrate and that governments can control migration through policies that affect expected income in the expelling and receiving countries. Such policies include imposing sanctions on employers in the country of destination to reduce the probabilities of finding employment, promoting programs to increase wages in the country of origin or even pushing up the material and psychological costs of migration through migratory controls and deportation.

The costs and risks involved obviously do make a difference, which is why there are more Nicaraguans in Costa Rica (53% of Nicaraguan emigrants) than in the United States (34.6%), although the latter is more attractive due to its high salaries and the cultural draw activated through its cinema, television, music, currency, consumer goods, etc. But costs and the labor markets as measured by their employment and wage rates are not the only things that matter.

Things are simply not that rational for many emigrants. A large number are fleeing enemies or the law, many women are as good as kidnapped by a new love and more than a few people are encouraged by rather unfounded expectations. The poorest must opt for destinations that may end up frustrating because they can’t make the kind of money they dreamed of there, as happened to a 22-year-old Nicaraguan agricultural technician who went to El Salvador to work as a hacienda laborer and returned with less money that he left with. Many others have had similarly frustrating experiences, although El Salvador remains the third most popular destination for Nicaraguans.

In other words, it is not just a question of comparing income or the probability of finding work. This cost-benefit calculation includes the comparison of personal security in one country against another, along with the stories, accounts and rumors that circulate and fuel expectations and the myths and other ravings of national politics. Desperation is a variable seldom considered. Hunger produces despairing people. More than refugees and political asylum seekers, Nicaraguan politics produces desperate utopian refugees. Very few people are prepared to put their money on Nicaragua and some have even declared it unviable.

But perhaps the greatest weakness of this theory is that it does not include the interests of those who go so they can invest in their families and by extension in their communities of origin. It ignores the most widespread strategy behind the desire to increase one’s income.

The new migration economics theory:
They leave as part of a family strategy

The “new migration economics” approach has questioned some of the assumptions of the neoclassical perspective. It proposes that the decision to emigrate is not taken by isolated individuals, but rather by units of related people—families and households—who not only seek to maximize income, but also to minimize risks and eliminate the restrictions associated with a variety of market defects. The families send some of their members away to diversify their sources of income, reduce their risks and make new investments. When local conditions deteriorate, the households survive thanks to the remittances sent back by family members who left and are living abroad. This theory has most influenced those studying the impact of family remittances, offering them an appropriate framework for many of their assumptions.

Developed countries have government programs, insurance companies and credit programs that allow households to minimize their risks and make new investments. Poor people from underdeveloped countries have to seek other options because such institutional mechanisms do not exist, are inaccessible or are too expensive for them. The labor market is not the only market that determines migration flows, as these institutional vacuums that stimulate emigration are also market defects. Thus credit markets, social compensation programs, insurance markets and unemployment security benefits in the receiving country plus price fluctuations in the majority of the South’s underdeveloped countries, which lack such mechanisms as these to cushion their effects, are other determining economic factors.

By producing migrants and receiving remittances, families mitigate the defects and shortfalls in all of these markets in the countries in which they happened to be born. By sending members abroad, the households guarantee themselves credit, insurance, subsidies and other mechanisms to mitigate risks, increase investment and improve their living standard.

The “showcase” effect: comparison with neighbors

Sometimes it is not so important to increase income as to diversify its sources, at which point this approach differs radically from neoclassical theory. The theoreticians of the new migration economics sustain that households send some of their members abroad not only to improve their income in absolute terms, but also to improve it relative to neighboring households and reduce their privations in relation to a given reference group. Family dissatisfaction is triggered by comparison to neighbors.

This thesis could explain the pull of emigration and its “showcase” effect: the more remittances emigrants from a community send home to improve their relatives’ living conditions, the greater the number of dissatisfied households that want to place at least one family member abroad. The probability of migrating increases with rising income in other households or perceived inequality. This means that there will be a greater probability of migrating in poorer households and less equitable communities.

Massey argues that the new migration economics has a very different set of suppositions for examination from those of neoclassical theory. For example, the most suitable units of analysis for research on migration from this approach are not autonomous individuals, but rather families, households and other cultural units of production and consumption. Wage differences between countries are not a necessary condition for international migration, as households can have strong incentives to diversify risks even in their absence.

Emigrating to later invest in the family and community

This approach also includes a novel discovery: international migration and employment and local production are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there are strong incentives for families to invest simultaneously in migration and local activities. The prosperity and profitability of local activities can even become a stimulus for migrating, a strategy to provide local investment capital and mitigate the risks to which they are exposed. This means that economically developing the regions of origin may not necessarily reduce the migratory wave once it has been unleashed and is being fed by the desire to keep up with the Joneses. According to this approach, eliminating wage differences may not necessarily stop emigration. Incentives to emigrate may persist when markets other than wage markets are imperfect, unbalanced or simply do not exist in the countries of origin, or when there is a desire to attain the status of a certain reference group. It must be recognized, however, that most often these other factors encouraging migration are at least indirectly related to income/expenditure, as in the case of wanting to improve one’s status.

In light of this theory, governments looking to put the brakes on migration face an enormous task. They must control the volume of migrants through policies that influence not only the labor and wage markets, but also the insurance, capital, unemployment compensation and other markets, and must moderate inequality as well. Government policies and economic changes that redistribute income will alter the relative poverty of certain households and thus their incentives for migrating. Such policies influence migration independent of their effects on average income. For example, an increase in income in the areas from which emigrants are leaving could encourage migration if relatively poor households do not benefit from it. By the same logic, such an increase could put the brakes on migration if it excludes relatively well-off families.

Remittances explain more and more in Nicaragua’s economy

Remittances and their repercussions provide the strongest empirical support for this theory. Remittances explain many new features of the Nicaraguan economy and their impact is receiving growing attention. While Nicaragua’s Central Bank estimates that remittances amount to $345 million a year, other calculations have produced higher estimates. A study by Federico Torres for the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) concluded that remittances ranged between $400 and $800 million in 1999, which amounts to an average monthly income of $70 per Nicaraguan household. Other studies talk of each home receiving an average of $150. Remittances could represent at least 14.4% of Nicaragua’s gross domestic product.

According to sociologist Eduardo Baumeister, households with at least one member residing abroad explain the 48% of poor homes that have risen above the poverty line between the last two national living standards surveys. Even allowing for other associated variables, it is striking that the 12% of households with migrants can account for the reduction of the country’s poverty level by nearly half. According to a FLACSO study, the average amount sent back from Costa Rica as monthly remittances is $63.30, which is equivalent to 33.4% of Nicaragua’s average monthly wage and exceeds its total minimum wage by about $3.

A study done by Ricardo Castellón for the FAO tried to measure the impact of remittances on the local economies of six municipalities in Nicaragua’s dry zone: Villanueva, San Francisco, La Conquista, Tipitapa, Posoltega and Santa Teresa. Remittances account for 60% of monthly family income in these municipalities, but even at that, the poverty levels are so high that most of those receiving remittances said they used them only to cover basic food costs.

The difficulty of cross-tabulating variables in a country like Nicaragua

Cross-tabulating the variable of households with or without members abroad with other variables corresponding to certain types of investment could help reveal a correspondence between migration and the diversification of income sources, risk reduction and even increased status within a reference group. By doing such a cross-tabulation of the last living standards survey, conducted by the Improvement of Living Standards Measurement Surveys project (MECOVI) in 2001, we discovered that urban households with members abroad had a clear percentile advantage over those without in a number of different categories. This included an advantage of almost 11% in ownership of concrete or cement block housing, 8% in housing in good repair, 17% in housing with more than two rooms, 15% in housing with tiled floors, 5% in housing with floors in good repair, 7% in possession of a toilet, 10.5% in use of gas for cooking and 15% in availability of a telephone.

The gaps with respect to those same variables are considerably smaller in rural areas. This could be because the remittances received in the countryside are more meager and contribute to subsistence more than investment, but focusing on other investment areas belies that supposition somewhat. For example, rural households with emigrants had an 11% advantage over those without in harvesting agricultural products in their backyard. It is also possible to draw conclusions about the ecological impact of remittances, given that 5% fewer rural households with members living abroad cut down trees for the sale of firewood or its consumption at home than those without members abroad. But it cannot be inferred from these figures with any real certainty that there is a correlation between migrants and investments or risk reduction, since we have no “before” to compare with the current situation. We will have to wait for the next survey to make comparisons on a broad enough basis, using MECOVI 2001 as a baseline survey.

There is a need for much more research conducted at different moments and considering many more variables. The problem lies in isolating the key variables in each theory from those that are irrelevant. For example, the number of Nicaraguan emigrants strongly increased in 1998. The new migration economics theory would say that it was a reaction to reduce the risks linked to Hurricane Mitch, which might appear to be a very clear correlation. But it is very hard to isolate the Mitch variable from others that were also present during that year: increased unemployment, despair, etc. Isolating variables in a country like Nicaragua, whose path is littered with all kinds of deprivations that encourage human mobility, is very difficult. In Nicaragua, we have a monopoly on the sweepstakes tickets when it comes to migration.

The segmented labor market theory:
They respond to demand in the North

Both the neoclassical theory and the new migration economics focus on micro-level decisions. Another theory, that of segmented or dual labor markets, distances itself from decisions taken by individuals and small groups to focus on the demand for labor from industrialized societies. Theoreticians from this tendency argue that migration is caused by the permanent demand for migrant labor inherent in the economic structure of developed nations. Here, the causes are not factors pushing people away from their countries of origin—low salaries, high unemployment—but rather those pulling migrants to the countries of destination, such as a chronic and inevitable need for foreign workers for certain tasks.

This demand for immigrant labor is caused by four problems characteristic of advanced industrialized societies. The first is structural inflation: wages are linked to social prestige, which triggers a chain reaction when wages are increased among the lowest social strata, upping the cost of attracting workers to low-paid jobs. As it becomes increasingly difficult to do so, the employers seek cheaper and simpler solutions, such as contracting migrants who will accept lower wages.

There are also motivational problems: the main aspiration of the migrant worker stratum is most likely to be the least qualified jobs, because unlike the natives they only care about the wage as income and not as an indicator of status or social prestige. They measure their prestige not in the host country, but in their community of origin, where the remittances they send back and what is achieved with them have more than enough impact and generate status.

The third problem is economic dualism: In capital-intensive workplaces, the employers tend to need workers with higher skills, so they invest in their training and pay the whole range of benefits because they are interested in keeping them. In labor-intensive workplaces, such as the agricultural sector and sweatshops that have not migrated to the very countries of origin of so many migrants, the employers seek the least possible payout for social and unemployment benefits, not to mention wages, and hence seek migrants.

Finally, there is a problem related to demography and labor supply: the supply of workers willing to accept low wages, unpleasant conditions, extreme instability and limited opportunities for promotion previously came from among women and adolescents. But both groups now have alternative options: women are accessing better-paid jobs and are interested in status, while young people are absorbed by the academic system and seek swift upward social mobility. This virtually limits the supply for this employment segment to migrants.

Although compatible with the previous models, the segmented labor market approach has very different implications. In this theory, international labor migration is demand-based and activated by the employers in developed societies. The low wages in the country of destination may fall even more with an increase in the migratory wave, given that social and institutional mechanisms that prevent increases in low salaries do not protect them from any decrease. This theory leaves very little room for governments to influence migration through policies that produce small changes in wages and employment rates. Migrants satisfy a structurally constructed demand for labor in modern and post-industrial economies, and influencing that demand would require monumental changes in the whole economic organization.

Nicas in Costa Rica: at the bottom of the labor pyramid

Although no researcher has sustained that Nicaraguans migrate to Costa Rica attracted by a labor demand from certain Costa Rican industries or productive sectors, several researches have held that, even if not formally recruited, Nicaraguans are satisfying the needs of clearly identifiable economic areas. Carlos Castro Valverde found that the Costa Rican free trade assembly plants (known as maquilas) and the construction and agriculture sectors absorb a great deal of Nicaraguan labor. Costa Ricans are less inclined to work in these sectors because other opportunities are open to them.

According to Castro, 12.1% of the Nicaraguans registered in the households survey in that country are working in construction, double the 6% of Costa Ricans working in that sector; and almost a third of the Nicaraguans are working in the agricultural sector (29.6%), which is substantially higher than the 19.9% of national workers. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan women have a huge presence—62.2%—in the service sector, twice the proportion of Costa Rican women working in that area (31.4%).

In this context of segmented labor markets, Costa Rican employers view Nicaraguans as candidates for lower wages, making them a very attractive labor source. Castro estimates that “the average income of Nicaraguan immigrants is 78,457 colons ($253), which is 30% lower than the average income of the Costa Rican population. The immigrants’ average income is 11.5% less in construction and 17.9% less in industry. Nicaraguans are paid less than half the income of Costa Ricans in the service sector, largely due to a division of labor in which the former work in unskilled services such as domestic labor, while the latter are involved in skilled jobs such as public sector services and private financial and computing activities.”
All of this fits in with the theory of segmented markets: lower wages, the tendency to predominate in certain occupations, migrants in jobs that nationals tend to look down on, and the positioning of migrants at the bottom of the labor pyramid. The only fundamental exception is that the theory sustains that migrant worker flows are due more to formal recruitment mechanisms than to individual decisions. Is this what really happens? Perhaps there are forms of informal labor recruitment. This issue needs to be researched in greater depth and more evidence collected.

The world systems theory:
They move from the periphery to the center

According to the world systems approach, international migration has little to do with different wage levels or employment rates between countries and is fundamentally the result of the structure of the global economy and the creation of markets. The penetration of capitalist economic relations into peripheral societies creates a population inclined to migrate towards the capitalist center. Moved by the desire for profit, the owners and managers of big capitalist firms go into poor countries on the system’s periphery in search of land, raw materials and labor and consumer markets. In the past, this penetration was guaranteed by colonial power, but it is currently facilitated by neocolonial governments and the transnational firms that perpetuate the local elites’ power. This penetration alters the socioeconomic and cultural conditions in such a way that the movement of labor in the inverse direction to big capitalist investments is an unavoidable result.

People are now subjected to the global market economy just as land and raw materials were in the past. In the words of Catalonian sociologist Manuel Castells, if there is a global economy, there should also be a global labor market and global labor. When writing his book, The Information Era, Castells, using figures from the eighties and early nineties, argued that this proposal was not being fulfilled in its literal sense, given the labor market’s limited mobility. In 1993, only some 80 million workers—1.5% of global labor—were working outside their country of origin. Even with the free movement of citizens within European Union member countries, only 2% of Europeans were working in another EU member country.

Castells relativized the existence of a global and unified labor market by observing that institutions, borders, culture, politics and xenophobia continued to confine the vast majority of workers to their nation of origin and that mass population displacements caused by wars and hunger are more important. But he stressed an historical trend towards increasing labor interdependence on a world scale through three mechanisms: global employment in transnational corporations and their associated cross-border networks; the impact of international trade on employment and working conditions both North and South; and the effects of global competition and the new flexible method of managing each country’s labor force.

Migration in Nicaragua’s rural zones

Castells did not sufficiently develop how these mechanisms are gradually but consistently displacing labor, thus helping weave a globalized labor market. The invasion of trans-national companies stimulates migratory movement in various ways. To be more competitive, landowners in poor countries acquire more land, mechanize agricultural work, introduce high-yield seed varieties and apply industrially produced inputs. All of these transnational-inspired novelties make a large part of rural labor redundant and also leave small producers at a disadvantage by reducing the prices of agricultural production. Those displaced seek employment in other areas of the country as well as abroad.

This displacement could partly explain why 20% more males than females emigrate from rural areas of Nicaragua while the percentages of males and females emigrating from urban areas are much more similar. A greater number of people still emigrate abroad from the cities, because those leaving the countryside tend to move first to a city inside the country, but this pattern is changing. Between 1986 and 1990, 85% of those who emigrated left from the cities, but this dropped to 75% between 1991 and 1993 and to 71% between 1994 and 1997. According to the 2001 National Health and Education Survey (ENDESA), only 66% of those emigrating between 1998 and 2001 were city dwellers. It should also be borne in mind that the 34% emigrating abroad directly from rural areas is only part of a considerably greater volume of people leaving the the countryside for that same period, with the others still migrating internally to the cities first. This growing outflow of people from our countryside is considerably reducing the rural population’s overall weight and is a symptom of well-known changes caused by various factors, of which rural unemployment, most recently aggravated by the coffee crisis, is undoubtedly the most drastic.

The penetration of transnational companies and their methods into rural areas undermines the peasant economy’s structures, which are based on reciprocity and established roles, replacing them with a labor market rooted in more individualistic conceptions and private profit, cultural features that trigger the uprooting of peasant populations. The increasing monetization of the economy tends to bring about the disappearance of the traditional institutions based on family networks and community solidarity that have provided the social infrastructure for many other exchanges. Wages as the exclusive mediator of all labor purchases erodes such rural institutions as the practice of bartering for services with no monetary exchange involved. Although this deterioration of the peasant economy’s structures is perhaps not quite so attributable to the transnationals in Nicaragua’s case, it is already palpable.

Free trade zones uproot and encourage migration

The penetration of transnationals has other better-known effects in Nicaragua. Maquilas, for example, demand a predominantly female work force that leaves men out in the cold. The Presitex free-trade garment assembly plant located in Sébaco, on the road to Matagalpa, provides 2,000 jobs, only 13% of which are filled by men; a similar percentage to that found on the national level among other maquila companies. Of the female employees in Sébaco, 66% are between the ages of 18 and 30, which is also the critical age for migrating: 48% of Nicaraguan emigrants are between these ages when they set off. Given that this factory was only established in February 2000, it is too soon to calculate whether it will influence male emigration from the zone, but a tendency is predictable.

Some of the maquilas and other foreign companies also produce goods that compete with those manufactured by local industry while familiarizing their workers with certain goods not within their financial reach. In short, these companies displace labor while at the same time whetting the national appetite for a new range of consumer goods. The result is an uprooted population group prone to migrate because it cannot attain the living standard to which it aspires and ideological links have been forged with the places from which the capital originated.

Two other elements combine with this urge. The first is the demand for migrant labor in global cities, Los Angeles and Miami being the cities of choice for Central America’s emigrants. The second is the facilities, or infrastructure linkages, that enable one to move. The highways designed to facilitate the transport of merchandise from North to South also reduce the costs and speed up the transport of people from South to North. After all, the global village is based on communication routes.

The irresistible lure of the American way of life

Cable television companies have been increasing their coverage in Nicaragua, such that even a town as far from Managua as Matiguás—which is actually more culturally than geographically removed—has some 500 houses connected to cable by a local supplier. Those with cable TV in that town will become increasingly more familiar with US humor, attire, domestic appliances, vocabulary, diet and, generally speaking, the whole American way of life than they are with that of their compatriots in Rivas or Managua.

Media publicity instills a taste for the consumption of many goods that Nicaragua imports but does not produce. Young people look for brand-name pants, T-shirts and caps, which may be made in Bangladesh or even in Managua’s Las Mercedes free trade zone, but carry the US label. The movies shown in Nicaragua display the American way of life in brilliant and even lurid colors, packaging in celluloid a way of life that feeds these ideological links. The “Miami boys,” youngsters brought up in the States who came back after the revolution was safely dispatched, are the heralds of a new way of life that is sweeping many others away. They litter their conversations with English words, expressions, phrases and even distortions. The urban centers are more exposed to this kind of influence, so it is not surprising that the 2001 ENDESA survey revealed that 90.3% of Nicaraguans who had emigrated to the United States were from the urban sector, compared to only 60% of those who went to Costa Rica.

In summary, the world systems theory sustains that migration provides continuity to the political and economic organization of an expanding global market. In this theory, international migration is the natural consequence of the formation of the capitalist market: the global economy’s penetration into the peripheral regions is the catalyst for human mobility. The international flow of merchandise and capital is followed by an international flow of labor that moves in the opposite direction. Capitalist investment fosters changes that create an uprooted and mobile population with cultural and material links to the countries from which the capital originates.

Why go to the States? And why to Costa Rica?

International migration is very common between industrialized countries and their former colonies due to the cultural, linguistic, commercial and communications links woven during the colonial period, completely free of competition. In his book Harvest of Empire, Puerto Rican-US journalist Juan González sustains that the links between the countries that generate migrants and those that receive them have been forged by a long history of trade, political and military relations. And there is plenty of evidence for this thesis: Cuba and Spain, Algeria and France, Morocco and Spain, Latin America and the United States and Turkey and Germany, to name but a few.

Nicaraguan migrants have mainly ended up in Costa Rica and the United States. The latter was largely a political destination during the eighties, but the reasons for emigrating are now economic and Costa Rica is the main target. Nicaragua has a long history of stormy and difficult relations with both countries. It has been connected to the United States through the latter’s multiple invasions; the US Army’s creation of the National Guard; the US government’s sup-port for local Nicaraguan elites; the Somoza dictatorship and the counterrevolutionary army of the eighties and the fact that 27% of Nicaraguan imports come from the United States and 32% of its exports go there.

Political, military and economic relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica have also been marked by notable trends and events. Costa Rica has historically been a destination for Nicaraguan labor, at least since the installation of the banana companies in that country; Nicaragua ceded the territories of Guanacaste and Nicoya to Costa Rica, provisionally in 1825 and definitively in 1857; armed Nicaraguan encampments were set up on Costa Rican soil during the struggle against Somoza in the seventies and again in the struggle against the Sandinista government in the eighties; and the Costa Rican Palí supermarket and Musmani bakery chains have become ubiquitous in Nicaragua during the past few years.
According to the world systems approach, governments can only influence the volume of migration by controlling corporate investments and the flow of goods and capital, since migration depends on globalization and the market economy. Such policies, however, will probably never be implemented. The trade disputes they would trigger, the risk of a world recession and the political resources the transnationals could mobilize to neutralize them make any such policies unthinkable.

The perpetuation theory:
They go and keep on going

The reasons the migratory movement is perpetuated in time and space can be very different from those that caused its initial explosion. And although the search for improved income, the desire to reduce risks and market penetration may continue to push emigrants broad, new conditions emerge during the course of the migratory movement that become independent causes. Such is the case with the expansion of migrant networks and of institutions that support the development of transnational mobility.

Migrant networks consist of links connecting migrants, their relatives and even non-migrants in the communities of origin and destination. They are a very efficient incentive for migration because they reduce the costs and risks of the migratory movement and increase its net benefits. These networks generate a social capital that helps people access jobs abroad. Once the number of migrants reaches a critical level, the networks expand, reducing the costs and risks and multiplying the number of migrants even more, giving rise to an ascending spiral of more networks and more migrants.
Although the concentration of Nicaraguans in certain Costa Rican neighborhoods has been analyzed more as a form of residential segregation, they are the best material expression of these migration networks and greatly increase the probability of future migrations. Nicaraguans make up 85% of the residents in the La Carpio housing settlement in southeast San José. It is a Nicaraguan bastion. Its 25,000 Nicaraguan inhabitants equate it with the size of the city of Granada at the beginning of the seventies. Concentrations of this kind make Nicaraguans more visible than their dissemination across wide areas.

With 12% of Nicaragua’s households already having migrants, the probabilities of the migratory movement continuing and increasing are very high. Looking at how many Nicaraguans have a close relative abroad would give us a better idea of the impact and possible contagion of the migratory trend. Unfortunately, the national surveys conducted in Nicaragua have not explored whether, for example, migrants left behind daughters and sons whom they later might send for. We do, however, know that 51% of emigrants are children of the head of household and could eventually encourage and facilitate the journey of their siblings or parents.

Children get their parents
and other relatives into the US

Migrant networks are strengthened when some of their members get their residency in the country of destination legally recognized. The legal status that many Nicaraguans were able to acquire as refugees or political asylum seekers in the United States during the eighties makes a multiplier effect more probable. More recently, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), approved by the US Congress in November 1997, granted legal residence to 55,000 Nicaraguans who had entered the United States before December 1, 1995. Although this is a ridiculous figure relative to the number eligible to apply (some 160,000), it unquestionably had an impact and many Nicaraguans legalized their status and then brought their closest relatives over.

In 1999, following Hurricane Mitch’s devastating passage through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, perhaps fearing that this disaster would exponentially increase the number of immigrants, offered an amnesty that allowed the 160,000 Nicaraguans who could demonstrate that they had lived there since before 1998 to legalize their residence.

According to MECOVI 2001, 17.4% of the Nicaraguans who migrated between 1998 and 2001 were grandchildren of heads of households, compared to just 3.7% of those who migrated during the 1994-1997 period. Are they in fact the children of migrants who have already set themselves up in the new country, with or without legal status, and now have a relatively stable situation? Immigration policies that promote migrants’ reunification with their relatives also reinforce the network-building process.

The fact that the vast majority of Nicaraguans have emigrated in the past six years enables us to predict that the true dimension of the networks’ multiplier effect will not be seen for a few years yet. It is almost a law of migration that the more years an emigrant has been established, the more likely his or her relatives are to follow the example. There is also room for the hypothesis that this particular boom is partly the effect of previous migratory waves.

After a certain point, migration becomes self-perpetuating. Each migration creates a social structure that makes it sustainable; each migrant wave reduces the costs for the next; each new migrant expands the network and reduces the risks for those linked to him or her; and each increase in the migrant mass makes leaving more attractive to those still living in the country of origin. Migrants even offer their relatives and friends loans to migrate. As the displacement acquires fewer risks, migration offers a sure source of income and real payment possibilities. Thus a decade after the first migratory wave, communities that experienced a small explosion of migrants are emptied of members within a certain age range: aunts send for nephews and nieces, sisters send for their brothers, friends bring over friends. Kinship and friendship are placed at the service of migration.

Although compatible with the approaches based on individual decisions or household strategies, this theory, too, has different implications. Because the extension of migratory networks increasingly lowers the costs and risks, the migrations stop only when all of those who want to migrate have done so. The migratory flow does not significantly depend on employment rates or wage differences, as the trend is more influenced by the decreased costs and risks than low wages and employment rates in the country of origin. Migration thus becomes independent of the factors that originally caused it by institutionalizing itself through migrant networks.

Networks, new institutions and
the inability to control the trend

The theory of the perpetuation of migrations is the one most skeptical of the capacity of the state apparatus to control them. Governments cannot expect their policies to control migrant flows easily once their ascending spiral has been activated because the network formation processes are completely outside their sphere of influence. Migrations open spaces for other multiplying mechanisms, with institutions that support mobility playing a role in their perpetuation. Such institutions include organizations that protect undocumented migrants, shelters for migrants in transit, lawyers who profit by arranging legal status, coyotes (the guides who help illegal immigrants cross borders), contractors of illegal workers, humanitarian institutions providing social services and legal advice, arranged marriages between migrants and citizens of the country of destination, clandestine transportation and passport and visa handlers.

These institutions represent another component of the social capital on which migrants rely, increasing the flow, multiplying the numbers and reducing the costs and risks. Both humanitarian institutions and illegal trafficking have multiplied throughout the world. In Nicaragua, the migration industry is a faithful reflection of the country’s economy as a whole, with the informal sector for outstripping formal institutions.

Although they could create a social infrastructure that encourages migration, humanitarian institutions are in their infancy in our region. There are only five shelters in the whole of Central America, which are pastoral houses for people on the move. Caritas runs the only shelter in Nicaragua. Located in San Carlos, it can house 20 people, which is very limited considering that an estimated 200 Nicaraguans head for Costa Rica every day.

Among the formal bodies, local and sometimes national radio stations have established themselves as one of the elements that most enliven the networks linking migrants and their relatives. Offering savings on telephone calls, quick announcements and permanent communication, they have become a way to reduce communication costs and encourage cultural links.

The coyotes: A powerful institution

The informal migration sector is the most developed. When governments apply restrictive measures, they encourage people to resort to the “migration black market” mechanism. The number of coyotes has multiplied in the past five years and they have diversified their services, now providing credit and exercising control over the indebted migrants through their relatives. In the city of Chinandega one coyote kidnapped the wife of an indebted migrant as a way to force him to pay.

The prices set by the coyotes have remained stable because the greater the demand for the service, the more suppliers there are. This also makes the coyote structure a source of employment. They charge $2,000 just to cross the border into the Untied States, so it can run over $5,000 to go all the way from Nicaragua. The price for reaching Costa Rica from Nicaragua is considerably cheaper: $50 to cross the border and $250 if the emigrant wants to be accompanied to a local village or town.

But there are dangers; coyotes have even raped some women. Humanitarian institutions are disseminating information on how to apply for visas, passports, etc., to help emigrants avoid the vexations to which they are traditionally exposed. A flier titled “Know the risks of crossing the southern border” has been widely disseminated by the Commission for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America CODEHUCA), which is linked to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) in Nicaragua and to Caritas. But there is need for far more resources to work on this issue and for much more reflection to provide an approach that has a truly positive impact. In their absence, the coyotes will continue to be the most powerful institution supporting transnational mobility.

The theory of cumulative causation:
The more migrants, the more migration

Migration produces many other changes that encourage its growth, a process termed “cumulative causation” by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal as far back as 1957. It is based on the idea that each act of migration modifies the social context in such a way as to make subsequent migrations more probable. Social scientists have studied six socioeconomic factors affected by migration that subsequently stimulate new migrations: income distribution, land distribution, agricultural organization, the culture of migration, regional distribution of human capital and the social significance of certain jobs in the countries of destination.

Income distribution in a given community is modified by the remittances received. The fact that certain families start to prosper changes the way other members of the community perceive their own economic situation. According to this migration theory, income appraisal is based on a reference group. Many have emigrated out of a desire for their own people to benefit from the bonanza they witnessed in households receiving remittances. All that glitters may not be gold, but even tinsel attracts people. The more emigrants a community has, the more unequal the income distribution, which makes those not receiving remittances feel they are being left behind. Migrations thus induce more migrations.
Land distribution and the organization of agricultural production also stimulate migration. Emigrants from an agricultural background look to acquire land back home, either for reasons of prestige or to invest in it on their return; at least those are the plans.

Sometimes they act on those plans and the new availability of capital changes the cultivation patterns toward more capital-intensive, labor-displacing methods: tractors, watering systems, imported seeds, agrochemicals. In other cases, when emigrants realize that agricultural investments are not as profitable as their labor abroad, they leave their acquisitions idle, thus reducing employment opportunities in the rural area. In both cases, unemployment is the inevitable result. And the unemployment generated by the new distribution of agricultural property and new cultivation patterns encourages new migrations.

Meanwhile, migrations create a migration culture. It is not just that experiencing other habits and customs makes one more likely to migrate. A culture of migration is also generated in the community by the contagious example of others and the stories told by emigrants and their relatives about opportunities, customs and living standards in the countries of destination. This cultural virus produces a migratory epidemic. Migrating takes its place as a community value and even as a right of passage among young people. Those who do not dare to migrate are seen as “chicken” or unenterprising.

The exodus of Nicaraguan human capital

Migration also produces a movement of the more qualified, motivated, educated and productive personnel from the countries of origin to the countries of destination. This dynamic improves the economic and development conditions of the countries of destination, making them more attractive, while reducing the development possibilities in the countries of origin, making them increasingly less pleasant to live in and hence encouraging even more migration.

In Nicaragua’s case, the theory that the countries of destination don’t always know how to reap the benefits of the mobility of our human capital is supported by some figures and questioned by others. It is a well-known fact that Nicaraguan emigrants have a much higher level of schooling than their compatriots who stayed behind: 65% of emigrants from urban areas aged 25 or over went to secondary school compared to only 40% of non-emigrants of the same age range. In rural areas, the difference is even greater, 43% and 10%, respectively. In most cases, Nicaraguan professionals who reach the United States are only hired for jobs well below their professional qualifications. Costa Rica is no better at taking great advantage of this trend; many Nicaraguan doctors and lawyers work as taxi drivers there.

The 2001 living standards survey conducted by Nicaragua’s National Institute of Statistics and Censuses contains figures on almost 900 emigrants, provided by relatives responding to the census. Of the 52 who are university graduates, only 25% are working abroad in jobs that correspond to their professional qualifications. Another 13.5% work as waiters, cooks, nannies and above all salespeople; 19% work as carpenters, cabinetmakers, painters, mechanics, electricians and particularly foremen; and 21% as menial workers, domestics, doormen, launderers, agricultural laborers, security guards and unskilled construction workers.

Of the Nicaraguan emigrants covered by this sample who had finished high school or teacher training, 37.5% had no choice but to join the last category, which means that 36% of all Nicaraguan emigrants doing that set of unskilled jobs hold either a high school diploma or university degree. Adding the previous category and including drivers and factory workers, the number of emigrants in the sample working in such semi-skilled or unskilled tasks who had finished high school climbs to 42% and of those who had finished university rises to 67%. This is an underutilized exodus of human capital that Nicaragua should not allow, even in a context of brutal unemployment.

On the other hand, female Nicaraguan teachers from schools in Rivas and other departments often work as nannies and domestics in Costa Rica. As a result, Costa Rican children will be better equipped to face the world in general and the academic world in particular having been accompanied by people with formal education. It is an unquestionable benefit for Costa Rica, with repercussions for the development of Nicaragua that cannot be measured either immediately or using conventional indicators.

An expansive and unstoppable trend

Finally, the theory of cumulative causation states that the arrival of immigrants changes the predominant perception of certain occupations in a given country. If migrants mainly settle in certain jobs, the native population ends up considering those jobs as typical migrant occupations, thus redefining their social label. The stigma this attaches to such jobs makes them even less attractive to local inhabitants, who see them as culturally inappropriate, a situation that leads to their definitive concession to the immigrants. Once the stigma has spread, not even high unemployment rates can remove it and the governments of the countries of destination may see themselves obliged to retain or even recruit more immigrants to carry out such work.

In this respect, an enormous number of Boston’s janitors are Latinos; it is difficult to find a floor cleaner in San Francisco who does not come from either Central America or Ethiopia; there is an abundance of Honduran and Salvadoran waiters in Washington; and the number of Nicaraguan domestics in Miami is legion. In Costa Rica, Nicaraguan employees are gaining increasing weight in sectors such as domestic work, agriculture and construction. The documentary Desde el barro al sur shows Costa Rican citizens explaining how Nicaraguan migrants work in jobs that the natives look own on and how these jobs come to be considered as “typical Nica jobs.”

The cumulative causation theory fits in perfectly with the network formation theory. The economic, social and cultural changes caused by migration in the countries of both origin and destination strengthen the migratory movement in such a way as to multiply it and make it more resistant to government controls. With over 10% of Nicaraguans living abroad and 12% of Nicaraguan households having some member living outside the country, it should come as no surprise that we have already crossed the line at which migration’s expansive tendency, its cumulative causation, starts to show its effects. A very visible sign is revealed by the survey done in Nicaragua in June 2003 by the M&R firm, with 65% of those polled saying that they would be willing to emigrate to another country if the opportunity presented itself.

No one theory holds all the answers

The neoclassical economic theory explains migrations based on the costs of migrating and the differences in the employment and wage conditions between the countries of departure and destination. Its micro variant presents migration as the result of an individual strategy to maximize income. The theory of the new migration economics considers the conditions in a variety of markets rather than just the labor market, explaining migration as a family strategy to minimize the risks to overall income and to survive capital contractions that affect family production activities.

On another level of analysis, both the segmented or dual labor market theory and the world systems theory ignore micro-level decision-making and focus on those forces acting upon greater levels of aggregation. The former links immigration to the requirements of modern industrial economies, while the latter sees migration as one of the natural consequences of globalization and a market penetration that respects no borders. Finally, the theory of the perpetuation of migrations proposes that migrations produce changes that contribute to their own multiplication, independent of their original causes.
As can be seen, these theories are not mutually exclusive; they simply focus their attention and analysis on different levels (individual, family, national and international). In the real world, individuals act to maximize their income and families adopt strategies to minimize risks, while at the same time structural forces are shaping the context in which all of this is taking place. Migrations cannot be fully explained by citing structuralism, which ignores the role individuals play, or the atomized approaches that ignore how individual decisions are conditioned by socioeconomic, political and cultural structures.

Stuck with all the migratory high cards

We don’t know which direction the migrations will take. Human mobility not only unleashes forces that ensure its own multiplication, it also awakens and ferments racial aversion. Will the xenophobic convulsions that are springing up everywhere have an adverse effect on migration? What impact will the reemergence of racist movements in the United States, or the ethnic trade unions in Miami—particularly the Irish ones—or the myth of Costa Rica’s peaceful, white middle class of European origin contrasted with that of the barefoot, brown Nicaraguan have over time? The question for Nicaragua right now is how to stop this trend when we hold all the cards that win the migratory sweepstakes. Or perhaps the first question is whether we even should try to stop it.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for Nitlapán-UCA and a member of envío’s editorial council.

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