Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 274 | Mayo 2004



Migrants: Prejudice, Myopic Vision and Apathetic Policies

A beautiful 30-year-old song pleads, “Don’t call me foreigner because I was born far away or because the land I came from has another name....” So what do we call our compatriots currently living as “foreigners” in Costa Rica or the United States? How do we view, judge and analyze them?

José Luis Rocha

A large number of sources feed and reproduce the collective view of migration, and particularly of migrants. Researchers, politicians, international cooperants, NGO officials, journalists and the general public all sketch out, disseminate and assimilate a determined “portrait” of migrants, both male and female. Some depict them as deserters, s people who have given up on their country of origin. And many people in their countries of destination think of them as spongers or even as a threat of one sort or another. How can we begin to challenge these stereotyped “portraits”?

The “migraphobia” virus is
detected in prejudices and policies

Some of the portrayals circulating in individual minds, the media and analyses include certain data and theories used to explain the causes of migrations. But they often take selected fragments of these theories or concentrate on specific aspects, perceiving them as “the whole.” In the end, these limited visions produce portraits that are quite grotesque, and the prejudiced images transmitted, these fragments of reality, are used to formulate overall judgments. While only talking about what is visible at best, they nonetheless become the framework for what can or cannot be proposed and implemented. All of these prejudices influence policies and can even lead to a policy of not proposing anything. The world of perception is very important, as it conditions the world of policy.

According to Lelio Mármora, an official of the International Organization for Migration (IOM): “The state’s specific and determined perception of migrations will form the basis of their policy design and their subsequent action plan.” Referring to prejudices, she adds that “these kinds of reality-distorting mechanisms will negatively influence any objective definition of policies and the possibility of their viability. A clear awareness of the existence of prejudice and of the ways it is manifested and reproduced is fundamentally important in the establishment and development of international migration policies.”

There is a notorious absence in Nicaragua of any migrant policy, a void partly explained by the prejudices and perceptions surrounding migrants. When statistics are exposed to ideological packets that include “migraphobic” viruses, the result can be a political apathy that is very prejudicial for the migrants.

Nicaraguans naturalize more for political reasons

Nicaragua’s first mass migrations were political, involving people seeking asylum in Costa Rica and the United States during the eighties. The Reagan and Bush administrations and the Miami Cuban exiles had a political interest in getting ipso facto recognition for them as political refugees, and determined the favorable policy applied to them. Those who first obtained refugee status or political asylum in the United States found it easier to become permanent residents or even citizens, which in turn paved the way for the later migrant flow.

According to US Immigration and Naturalization Service statistics, 11% of Nicaraguans residing in the United States obtained citizenship during the nineties, a record among Central Americans at the time. One likely explanation is the US commitment to help its citizens recover properties confiscated by the Sandinistas. Even more revealing is that the number of Nicaraguans deported was equivalent to only 8% of those who naturalized, while deported Hondurans represented 61% of those who naturalized, and Guatemalans 30%.

Political history thus established a tendency in which deportations affected Nicaraguans less and naturalization benefited them more. Cold War interests conditioned the US government’s perception of why they migrated and paved the way for their insertion and assimilation. The fact that the first waves of Nicaraguan migrants to that country were mainly from the middle-classes also goes some way towards explaining the social sector that continues to migrate there.

Labor-related issues obviously have a lot of weight in the more recent migrations, but they are not the only factors behind the drive to migrate or the situations in which the migrants are caught up. As we see, policies and politics also play a role, and those policies can be affected for better or worse by legislators’ perceptions and stereotypes. Playing down their impact leaves these perceptions intact and only perpetuates the apathy.

Emigrants are people who gave up on their country

One of the main accusations leveled against emigrants—although rarely explicitly formulated—is that they “threw in the towel.” They failed to fight for their country’s development, for a new Nicaragua, for their homeland, for democracy, to defend the conquests of the revolution, to build the kingdom of God… Despite their “obligation” to create development at home, they set off in pursuit of an individual solution. In this sense, emigrants are seen as people who swapped their country for another because they gave up on the hope of changing it.

Many NGOs smell “migration promotion” in any measure that helps guarantee minimal respect for migrants’ human rights. They detect future “crises” and the failure of their local development projects because they won’t be able to hang on to their “key stakeholders.” They suffer as they watch their “target population” slipping through their hands and their “beneficiaries” finding other non-collective and more sustainable ways of improving their living standards outside their communities.

Generally speaking, politicians find it hard to understand why Nicaraguans decide to leave a country that doesn’t look too bad to them after a few glasses of Chivas Regal. The Left tends to view as “traitors” those who leave for the “Switzerland of Central America,” as Costa Rica has been dubbed, or the land of the “enemies of humanity,” as the FSLN anthym famously described the “Yankees.” Those on the Right, meanwhile, see no real reasons for leaving a country that has emerged from the “dark night,” as Pope John Paul II metaphorically described the revolutionary eighties. Why would they possibly want to leave a country experiencing the Bolaños government’s “new era,” with a government supposedly “of the people and for the people,” in which, as President Bolaños pointed out, teachers can engage in private business if they can’t make ends meet with their miserable salaries. They just don’t understand that following the President’s campaign advice of “rolling up their sleeves” can’t solve everything, particularly for those who don’t even have a shirt.

Certain priests and pastoral agents adopt the same position, although for different reasons. Their basic vision is that “we have to produce results where God put us and build the Kingdom of God here rather than anywhere else.” Their communitarian vision of development has no place for individual adventure. Like Hegel, they see individuals that abandon collectivity as rents in the precious social fabric of history being woven. This parochial vision, the very opposite of universalism, reduces them to a microproject of very limited scope.

They also fear the importation of certain values, customs and lifestyles from the communities that take in the migrants. This cultural exophobia views uneducated emigrants living in other regions as deserters from their mother culture. The changes they adopt abroad often include greater independence from the priest figure and a more democratic style of Christianity less conditioned by the clerical hierarchy, which only increases the alarm, while prejudices and fears are dressed up with rationalizations that tend to demonize migration.

Anathematizing migrants in
an unfair and sterile vision

Many institutions—political parties, NGOs and religious denominations—coincide in stressing the migration-linked loss of human capital. Backed up by statistics, they show that the schooling of Nicaraguans who leave the country is higher than the national average. They do not, however, go as far as to propose increasing the educational level of those who stay behind. Instead, they throw up their hands in horror at the deserters who deprive us of their skills, without noticing that migrants see their academic opportunities constricted in their countries of destination, a statistic also available to those who care to look. This selective blindness is a symptom of the “migraphobic” virus, in which data is used to present one aspect of reality as if were the whole picture, or at least the most important factor.

These personalities and institutions also coincide in demanding the sacrifice of individual and family volition. But the act of migrating vindicates the sacred right to life and liberty. Over a decade ago, when the Eastern European socialist states were collapsing, German-Costa Rican philosopher and economist Franz Hinkelammert charged that concrete human beings have always been sacrificed on the altar of great ideals, be they socialism, the Kingdom of God or democracy. Many are now condemning migrants in the name of the same ideals.

The worst thing about this anathematizing vision of emigrants is its sheer sterility, as it fails to produce either progress, the Kingdom of God, socialism or development. And above all, it exempts those with the power and resources from producing policies on behalf of emigrants and their relatives or those that would increase the positive effects of migrations and reduce the negative ones.

Migrants are spongers, parasites and opportunists

Meanwhile, migrants are seen as spongers in the country of destination. They are portrayed as parasites living off the economic boom generated by the natives and a burden on the welfare state. Migrant women are seen as an even greater burden due to their demand for reproductive health services, the fact that they are more likely to build solidarity networks that increase the migration of relatives and neighbors and because they often come with children who require education and health services.

The Costa Rican version of this vision relative to Nicaraguan migrants ignores the contribution Nicaraguans have made to the Costa Rican economy. It conceals the fact that the dynamism of Costa Rica’s agroexport economy and service sector development has been based on abundant and capable—and cheap—Nicaraguan labor. Like any prejudiced vision, it again takes one aspect of reality—the immigrants’ demand for social services—and turns it into a “complete” picture that actually offers a distorted image.

Immigrants as a threat: Criminals and prostitutes

Another very prejudiced and widely disseminated image is that of immigrants as criminals. It is true that immigrants who have found it hard to adapt feed the youth gangs. Exophobia is a typical reaction among minorities who find themselves at a disadvantage in a hostile setting. Turkish youths face off against young neo-Nazis in Germany and Central American youth gangs operate in the Los Angeles neighborhoods. The immigrants’ path towards participating in established, socially acceptable and politically correct activities is strewn with pitfalls, whether in Costa Rica, the United States, Europe or any other country.

US prisons have historically been packed with migrants and their immediate descendents: the Irish in the 19th century; Italians at the beginning of the 20th; and Latinos at the end of the 20th and beginning of this one. In all probability, they aren’t always sent to prison for committing more crimes, but rather because they find themselves under closer police scrutiny, receive harsher punishments and don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves as well as most whites.

If the men are viewed as criminals, the women are seen as prostitutes, or in the best of cases “easy.” Xenophobia distorts real problems. Magnified and generalized, they make migrants appear to be a real threat. The media play a regrettable role in disseminating such pejorative stereotypes of immigrants. There is also a great deal of cryptic material in Hollywood films about aliens from outer space that plays on these perceptions, suggesting that “aliens”—in the migrant sense of the word—are invading the country in real life as well with the malicious intention of taking power and doing away with human—read Caucasian—beings. National security is under threat. It’s surely no coincidence that the movie Men in Black opens with the unmasking of an alien that was trying to pass itself off as a Mexican wetback crossing the border.

Racism against immigrants

The “solution” dreamed up by the governments receiving immigrants is to apply a segmented globalization in which financial flows and commercial products are free to travel, but to avoid governability problems labor isn’t. In addition, immigrants who contaminate a country’s governability can also contaminate its race. Racist xenophobia suggests that certain moral features are indissolubly linked to physical features. Many white people in countries that receive black immigrants use the same logic that produces such gems as “All blacks are thieves, but not all thieves are black.” Costa Rican logic contrasts Nicaraguans with brown skin, indigenous features, wavy hair, no money and a violent streak to “its own” middle-class white locals with European roots and a peaceful nature. As lucidly shown by Costa Rican sociologist Carlos Sandoval, the very construction of Costa Rican national identity is involved in disseminating such images.

Punce Negroide, a character in Salvadoran writer Salarrué’s book of ingenious Cuentos de Cipotes [Kids’ Stories] anxiously asks why God made some white and others black. His mother tries to make him understand that blackness is not a bad thing, but runs into a cultural wall that blocks her son’s ears. Racism must be confronted in all its forms, but unfortunately the cultural effects of centuries of colonization cannot be erased in one stroke. Racism is very deeply assimilated and operates against immigrants. Nicaraguans who have established themselves as businesspeople in Costa Rica are no more open to their poor compatriots. Their own physical appearance tends to fit in with the prototype of a Costa Rican citizen, and they are probably as prone as local politicians to accept that immigrant plebeians represent second-class citizens.

Persecuted in Costa Rica;
forgotten in Nicaragua

These prejudices, images, theories, visions and perceptions have generated legal and operational apathy in Nicaragua and are producing hostile laws and repression in Costa Rica. The proposed reforms to the migration law currently under discussion in Costa Rica represent a low blow to the Nicaraguans and Colombians who account for the majority of that country’s immigrants.

The bill would criminalize undocumented immigrants; restrict their rights; create conditions for the apprehension of male and female immigrants; slap punishments of five months wages and six years in prison on those who house or offer work to undocumented immigrants; and raise the cost, further complicate the procedures and increase the requirements involved in obtaining residency. Immigrants would have to have family links with Costa Ricans and a work contract guaranteeing a wage of at least 200,000 colons (the equivalent of US$468 using May 2003 as the exchange-rate base).

The Costa Rican government displays a wide variety of positions. Speaking on a radio program, the deputy government minister called on the Costa Rican population to support the detentions his ministry was carrying out. The country’s ombudsman, on the other hand, called for respect for the human rights of the detainees, regardless of their nationality or documentation. The most lamentable factor in the recent raids on and detention and expulsion of Nicaraguans was the apathetic intervention of Nicaragua’s governmental authorities, which amounted to nothing more than a few gestures perhaps inspired by political proselytism. These included the February visit of Nicaraguan Vice President José Rizo to inhabitants of the Nicaraguan settlement called La Carpio in San José following bitter criticism of his total indifference to compatriots who were being persecuted the same day he was in the Costa Rican capital to see Luciano Pavarotti sing.

The case of Rosita, the nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl who was raped by a Costa Rican and ended up pregnant provided a test for the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican institutional structures responsible for attending to migrants. Both failed. While the Nicaraguan Office of Human Rights Ombudsman did act commendably, it had to improvise given the lack of procedures or structures for dealing with such cases. There are no special policies for women, who suffer the greatest violations of their human rights, or to guarantee education to migrant children and adolescents. And there are no reinsertion programs. In fact, there is little more than repression in Costa Rica and indifference in Nicaragua.

Forums and debates have been organized, but no institutional frameworks have been put in place to defend migrants’ rights, guarantee them minimum conditions in their countries of destination, reduce the risks associated with their journeys and insertion or legalize their status. So while Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council is busily organizing elections that Nicaraguan analyst Andrés Pérez-Baltodano accurately described as “the five-yearly impunity raffle,” it has failed to address the issuing of identity cards needed by emigrants as a first step towards legalizing their status and improving their conditions.

The Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) turns its eyes and hands to Miami in search of campaign funds, while the FSLN continues to censure those who left, despite the fact that retired General Humberto Ortega, a former National Directorate member and brother of the party’s general secretary, lives in Costa Rica. He doesn’t even notice the emigrants with no access to the “box seats” reserved for the elites like himself who walked away wellfrom the struggle for justice quite well-heeled. Both parties, trapped by their own prejudices, are indifferent to the country’s emigrants.

El Salvador sees its emigrants as “distant brothers”

In contrast, Salvadorans have reached a higher state in dealing with their emigrant population. Their government stands out in the region for having a migratory policy that involves significant practical formulation and planning. Its actions favoring migrant Salvadorans cover five different areas: lobbying, human rights, immigrants’ associations, the fostering of relations between these associations and municipal governments and a media campaign.

The Salvadoran government carries out intense lobbying of the US government to avoid the deportation of people who have illegally migrated to that country. It promotes the human rights of its emigrants in countries en route to the United States, particularly with the Mexican government. And it has built closer relations with associations of organized migrants in the United States, seeking to better orient the use of remittances they send back to relatives in El Salvador.

The government is working hard to foster relations between the migrants’ associations and local governments from their own municipalities back home. So much so that outgoing Vice President Carlos Quintanilla was considered the President of Salvadorans living in the United States and became an effective and permanent ambassador for Salvadorans living abroad. It has also mounted an intense campaign in different Salvadoran media to highlight the value and contribution of those who it affectionately terms “distant brothers.”

“Welcome home”: One of many programs

The Salvadoran government also has active migrant support programs such as the Program to Disseminate Information on the [US] Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which has been particularly noteworthy since it started up in 1999. Implemented by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the program produces and distributes easy-to-read leaflets titled “NACARA: a step to step guide for Salvadorans” and provides a free telephone information service and a web site dedicated to the issue.

Another example is the “Welcome Home” program, which coordinates the efforts of the government, churches, NGOs, private enterprise, the academic sector and the IOM. The program provides initial support to Salvadorans returning home, including the following services at the airport: orientation guidance, temporary shelter and assistance, emergency medical care, the issuing of documents, support for educational reintegration and the supply of a package that covers the returning emigrants’ basic needs.

The ministry also has a program providing Salvadorans abroad with information on events and activities involving their compatriots. It offers voluntary registry for organized communities that want to establish links with their diplomatic representatives and with other organized communities. And finally, it provides information on Salvadorans who have made a name in the United States, including sports stars, business people, artists, intellectuals and professionals.

A third program provides advice on how to apply for the benefits offered to Salvadorans residing in the United States before February 13, 2001 via the US Temporary Protected Status (TPS), an 18-month protection that includes the possibility of getting a work permit for the same period. The ministry’s program includes a free telephone information service, a Legal Migratory Assistance Department and different activities aimed at informing the Salvadoran community, including leaflets,forums and press conferences.

Finally, the “United by Solidarity” Program, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank, the National Electricity and Telecommunications Fund (FINET) and the Social Investment Fund for Local Development (FISDL), is implementing actions to introduce potable water and sewer systems, roads, sports centers, education, electrification, risk mitigation, health, etc. into municipalities with emigrants living in the USA. The program includes the participation of the municipalities in question, international cooperation, ministries, governmental and private entities, community associations and organizations of Salvadorans living abroad.

In short, the Salvadoran government recognizes its obvious interest in establishing communications with its citizens living abroadand has made real strides in providing information and direct primary attention to its emigrant population. It has coordinated notably in the design and promotion of certain programs, particularly “Welcome Home,” which includes the interests of the government, civil society and international organizations. Any inefficiencies aside, the very fact that these programs were formulated and implemented in the first place indicates a clear determination to provide coordinated attention to emigrants.

There’s a long way to go

Nicaragua has a long way to go if it is to achieve the development displayed by Salvadoran emigrant policy. After all, it has not even signed the UN Convention for the Protection of the Human Rights of all Migrant Workers and their Families. In fact, only two Central American countries have signed it so far: Guatemala and El Salvador. It is obvious that it is in Nicaragua’s interests for Costa Rica to sign, but with what moral authority can Nicaragua ask it to when it hasn’t done so?
In the midst of the Nicaraguan government’s apathy and inertia, an initial and essential step is to transform the collective vision of migrants. Let’s deconstruct the image of them as spongers, threats or deserters. Let’s not even think of them as fleeing from unemployment. In the early period of what is now the United States, the image of migrants as heroic pioneers and valiant colonizers played a key role in their incorporation.

But the emigrants themselves also have to open up. Cultural exophobia—the disdain that some feel for the culture of their countries of destination—is counterproductive. Such a position comes from misconceived leftism, a centuries-old chauvinism, the pedantic error of rejecting what you don’t know and the kind of provincialism identified by José Martí (“The villager thinks his village is the world”). Emigrants can find positive influences even in the most difficult circumstances. When Chico, the father of nine-year-old Rosita, came home after nine years living in Costa Rica, the best remittance he brought back with him was a respect for animals and plants.

Transforming the image of migrants is only one step and certainly won’t resolve everything. In Nicaragua, the initiation of creative and favorable policies for the country’s migrants faces many problems, including corruption, lack of state finances, political polarization and those interminable and exhausting power struggles that seem to take up all of the politicians’ time and energy. But a change of image would at least be a major step forward.

Let’s celebrate “the Nica”

Migrants are a cultural vehicle, which makes them technological pioneers in their communities, transmitters of new work techniques and new forms of organization. They propagate the ethic of reward for effort made. Migration is not a bed of roses, but to reduce the adverse effects and increase the benefits there is a need to disseminate the image of migrants as people who are opening a window on other cultures and technologies. Let’s salute the new Marco Polos, including “The Nica,” as portrayed by Nicaraguan-Costa Rican actor César Meléndez, whose theatrical monologue offers a more complex image of Nicaraguan emigrants living in Costa Rica (see the previous article in this issue of envío). In doing so, he manages to rescue that image and dignify it.

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

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“Pardon me, I haven’t come to make trouble”

Migrants: Prejudice, Myopic Vision and Apathetic Policies

“There’s no short-term solution”

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Fifty Years Later: Between Resistance and Servility

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