It’s just after 9 a.m. in La Merced park at the mouth of Second Avenue in downtown San José and the sun is out. The church steeple doesn’t offer any shade to those in the park below, but Alberto Cabrera found a seat under the shade of a tree.
Cabrera, a Nicaraguan immigrant with residency, has lived in Costa Rica for 19 years working mostly as a welder.
“I was 27 when I came. I found a job in three days so I stayed. I liked it; I made money – not a lot, but it was worth it,” he said.
Compared to the harrowing tales of Central American migrants fleeing poverty and gang-ravaged communities to the United States, including an estimated 90,000 unaccompanied child migrants by the end of the year, Cabrera’s straightforward story sounds idyllic.
Despite being the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, Nicaragua is not counted among other Central American countries sending thousands of immigrants to the U.S. According to 2012 figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 55,307 Guatemalans were caught crossing the southwest U.S. border, along with 48,984 Hondurans and 37,197 Salvadorans. The U.S. Border Patrol caught a scant 2,413 Nicaraguans that same year, a figure than has remained largely unchanged during the last decade.
But just because Nicaraguans are not traveling to the U.S. in huge numbers does not mean they are not migrating elsewhere. Instead of traveling north, Nicaraguans have been going south to Costa Rica in search of economic opportunity. Distinct immigration trends, policing strategies and a neighboring country looking for cheap labor have set Nicaragua on a different path from the rest of a troubled region.
Nicaraguan immigration has deep roots in Costa Rica that go back to the 19th century, Carlos Sandoval, a professor at the University of Costa Rica who studies Nicaraguan migration, told The Tico Times in a telephone interview. The professor said that many Nicaraguans trying to get to Panama to work on the canal ended up staying in Costa Rica, helping to build the railroad between San José and Limón, or working in the booming banana industry.
Sandoval noted that the most recent wave of Nicaraguan migration coincided with the civil war and, later, the implementation of neoliberal reforms during the 1980s and 1990s.
“While the region entered into a period of greatest electoral stability after the signing of the peace accords in Central America, social exclusion increased,” Sandoval observed.
Quxabel Cárdenas, coordinator for the immigrant rights group Enlaces Nicaragüenses, told The Tico Times in a telephone interview that there are many advantages for Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica they couldn’t find in the United States. Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans share the same language, Catholic religion, and a porous border that allows migrants to travel easily back and forth for work or to visit family.
Several Nicaraguans in Costa Rica with whom The Tico Times spoke said they regularly travel back to Nicaragua. Figures from the Immigration Administration support the image of a fluid border. In 2013, over 480,000 Nicaraguans crossed the Costa Rican border.
In 2013, 287,766 Nicaraguans lived in Costa Rica, according to the Immigration Administration, but the actual number of Nicaraguans working and traveling to Costa Rica through informal means is likely much greater. Several sources consulted for this article estimated that there could be many more Nicaraguans living and working in Costa Rica without residency or work permits, bringing the actual population to between 350,000 and 400,000.
Cárdenas said that many Nicaraguans find informal employment in Costa Rica working the fields of cash crops like coffee, pineapple and bananas, in the construction industry or as domestic workers in people’s homes.
“Nicaragua has seen mostly a labor-driven migration, not for reasons of violence,” Cárdenas said.
Nicaraguans might be leaving their homeland looking for work, but many of their Central American neighbors are fleeing some of the worst violence in the world. According to a 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report, Latin America had the highest homicide rates in the world. The corrosive effects of the international drug trade and organized crime are widely blamed for the violence.
A recent report on Central American immigration from the Inter-American Dialogue identified violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as the greatest driver of immigration during the last four years. In 2012, Nicaragua and Costa Rica had the lowest homicide rates in the region at 11.3 and 8.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively, according to UNODC. Both countries have been spared the destabilizing effects of transnational gangs, known as maras. (Read an excellent essay in Spanish on the evolution of the word “maras” at El Salvador’s El Faro here.)
Nicaraguans feel safer than any other Latin Americans, according to an August 2014 poll from Gallup. The poor Central American country rated higher than Costa Rica, Uruguay and Panama, among others. Nicaraguans’ sense of safety also saw the greatest improvement between 2009 and 2013, the two dates Gallup collected responses.
Some of the roots of this transnational organized crime lie in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, California.
José Luis Rocha, writing in the Nicaraguan journal Envío, noted that differing Nicaraguan migration patterns both to the United States and Costa Rica have played an important role in how Nicaragua has so far avoided home grown maras.
Many Nicaraguan migrants during the country’s civil war decided to migrate to Florida instead of Southern California, where other Central Americans congregated. A 2012 report from UNODC noted that two of the isthmus’ most infamous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, originated in East Los Angeles. But the report goes on to suggest that their presence in Central America was “almost certainly a result of the wave of criminal deportations” from the United States that started in the late 1990s.
Dennis Rodgers, a professor at the University of Glasgow who studies youth gangs in Nicaragua, pointed out in an email to The Tico Times that thanks to the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, some 180,000 Nicaraguan migrants were able to legalize their status in the U.S.
NACARA also covered Guatemalan and Salvadoran migrants, but under the act, Nicaraguan and Cuban applications were expedited thanks to fewer administrative barriers. This allowed Nicaraguan families, especially in the middle class, to legally emigrate to the United States and bring their families. Meanwhile, many other Central American families were broken up by U.S. immigration restrictions, something that has contributed to the recent influx of child migrants along the U.S. border.
According to the 2011 U.S. Census, there are some 395,000 people of Nicaraguan origin living in the U.S. The Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project reported that four in 10 Nicaraguans arrived in the U.S. since 1990 and that 53 percent of Nicaraguans in the U.S. are citizens, a much higher percentage than other Central Americans. Only 22 percent of Hondurans in the U.S. are citizens compared to 23 percent of Guatemalans and 29 percent of Salvadorans.
Along with sidestepping the epicenter of some of the most notorious gangs in Central America, Nicaragua has taken a distinct approach to law enforcement. Experts have pointed to Nicaragua’s community policing strategy as an effective alternative to the “iron fist” approaches that many Northern Triangle countries have taken to deal with gangs. Instead of arrests and repression, police re-direct youth to community work and other positive activities.
“This is one of the most important factors that they have done, in my opinion, despite the level of poverty, it’s a country where maras and gangs practically don’t exist,” Fernando Protti-Alvarado, Central American regional representative for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, told The Tico Times.
But that community policing strategy also has a downside, including repercussions on neighbors who don’t overtly support the Sandinista government, and arbitrary detentions based on gossip and rumor. Police also are commonly criticized for their less-than-professional investigative behavior and, of course, corruption.
But back in La Mercedes park, Francisco Molina, a Nicaraguan who has lived in Costa Rica for 23 years, boasted that the Nicaraguan police are the “best” in Central America.
“The police are respected [in Nicaragua],” Molina said as he sold ice cream out of a small cart. “If there’s some drunk in the street the police will take him and put him to work.”
But statements like that should be taken with a grain of salt.
Nevertheless, Nicaraguans can rely on the relative safety and job prospects in Costa Rica, but a rising cost of living and the lingering effects of the global financial crisis are creating disincentives for Nicaraguans to migrate to Costa Rica.
“When I came here everything was cheap. It was easy to buy food, clothes, ride the bus. Everything’s gone up, it’s changed a lot,” Cabrera said.
A Nicaraguan woman who gave her name as Rosario because she did not have a work permit said she had been traveling to Costa Rica for seven years to work short-term jobs.
“Life is really hard here now. They’re asking for a lot of papers these days, [asking] if I have a work permit, residency. I don’t have any of this, just my passport,” she said.
“God willing, I’ll go back to my country next week. To be here without a job, eating, paying rent, no way. Better to go back to my country. It’s hard there too, right now, but at least I’m just paying for the water and lights there,” she added.
Rosario is representative of the changing face of Nicaraguan migration. Sandoval noted that historically Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica was mostly made up of men traveling to the countryside to cut sugar cane or work in other cash crops. Today, many more women are making the trip south to Costa Rica and working in urban areas, especially in the domestic service sector.
Despite the lack of prospects back in Nicaragua, many of the migrants with whom The Tico Times spoke said that they would return if President Daniel Ortega’s government were able to break ground on the Chinese-backed transoceanic canal, reversing the flow of immigrants that brought so many to Costa Rica a century ago.
“There’s going to be a lot of work in Nicaragua when the canal starts. I’ll go back. A lot of people will,” Molina said. “This place will be empty.”