San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Future of U.S. Immigration Reform Uncertain

Jenny Corea, like tens of thousands of other Nicaraguans, makes ends meet each month with money sent to her from family members living and working in the United States.

Each month, Corea goes down to the local Western Union office in Granada to receive $160 from her two adult daughters who live and work in Los Angeles. One daughter is a secretary and the other works in childcare.

That money, which represents the average per-capita income of two people in Nicaragua, is a vital part of Corea’s household finances. Though her husband has a job that provides a modest paycheck, Corea also cares for her 97-year-old aunt, María Teresa López, who has witnessed almost a century of change in this storied colonial city.

“The money helps buy medicine and food each month,” Corea said, sitting in a rocking chair next to López, who watches life go by on the street outside. “Sometimes my daughters send more if there are extra expenses that month.”

Remittances sent from family members in the United States, Costa Rica and El Salvador have become a crucial element of Nicaragua’s nascent economy, accounting for $1 billion in 2006. By comparison, the country’s tourism industry, which has become the driving economic engine in the past three years, generated only $239 million in foreign income last year.

Roughly 20% of all Nicaraguan households depend on remittances, according to a 2005 household survey.

So any talk of immigration reform in the United States or Costa Rica means possible economic consequences not only for the 1 million Nicaraguans living abroad, but also for the 200,000 Nicaraguan households that are dependent on money sent home by family members abroad.

Immigration Reform Stalled

The U.S. Senate last week rejected a motion to limit debate on President George W. Bush’s immigration reform bill and put it to final vote within 30 days, leaving the future of the bill in serious doubt.

The June 8 vote against limiting debate on the bill means that lawmakers now can present one amendment after another and make it impossible for the bill to be approved this year, legislative officials said, according to wire reports.

Faced with such a scenario, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to pull the bill from the floor, though he said it could come up again in the coming months.

With the U.S. immigration-reform debate on hold, here in Nicaragua the issue can be analyzed only in the abstract.

Economist Néstor Avendaño says he thinks U.S. legal reforms to regulate and normalize people’s migratory status is a positive step that will ensure the stable continuance of remittance money sent back home. Avendaño says a slumping U.S. economy, with growth forecasts of only 2.2% this year, will most likely affect remittances more than any potential reform to U.S. immigration policy. But not everyone will be able to get legal.

Migrant rights activists claim that some 20% of the 420,000 Nicaraguans living in the United States are undocumented. Many of those undocumented migrants, according to Martha Cranshaw, head of the Nicaraguan Civil Society Network for Migrants, come from rural parts of the country where they were never issued a birth certificate or state identification card. In other words, those people don’t have any legal documentation in Nicaragua, which would make it impossible for them to apply for legal residency or a guest-worker permit in the United States.

Cranshaw says the proposals for U.S. immigration reform seem to be geared toward temporary workers to meet the fluctuating needs of the agricultural and construction sectors. The question, she says, then becomes procedural: How would the law be applied if eventually approved? Immigration reform, she said, can often become a hot political or social issue that doesn’t take into account the country’s economic reality.

For example, she noted, Costa Rica last year passed a tough new law to crack down on illegal immigrants by allowing police to conduct worksite raids and direct deportation without any due process. The law was blasted by rights activists and leaders of the agricultural sector, who argued that Nicaraguan migrant workers are vital to collecting the harvests of coffee and other crops.

Another strong critic of the law is Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who inherited the legislation from the previous administration but has essentially given the order to ignore the law.

“The worst that could happen to our national interest and the interest of immigrants is that the law be applied strictly,” said Mario Zamora, Arias’ head of Immigration (TT, Sept. 8, 2006).

The Arias administration, rather than enforce a law it doesn’t like, has introduced its own immigration reforms to the Legislative Assembly.

And now it appears that U.S. President Bush might be hard pressed to get his immigration law passed in a country that is already looking ahead to new leadership under the next administration.


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