San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Solís Q&A

President Solís: 'If you want to get through a border, you'll be able to sooner or later'

On the very front of Luís Guillermo Solís’ desk in his Casa Presidencial office, there’s a small but telling ode to U.S. politics. Perched on the desk is a replica of former U.S. President Harry Truman’s famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign, which Truman often said served as a reminder that he had the final say on the country’s most important issues.

Solís, who has been confronted with perhaps the most serious immigration crisis in Costa Rican history during his presidency, said he draws similar assurance from the sign on a wooden frame he bought in Key West, Florida.

A former history and political science professor who is well-versed in the intricate migratory patterns that have shaped the influences of his own country, Solís is also adept in his understanding of the region’s broader immigration history. Recently facing heavy waves of Cuban and Haitian migrants, Solís and Costa Rica have been at the front lines of a consequential dilemma: while migratory flows continue and the region seemingly becomes more divided over immigration, the polemic issue is sure to continue, with “the buck” continually stopping at Solís’ doorstep.

Solís sat down with The Tico Times recently to discuss some of the successes and failures of migratory policies in Costa Rican and the region as a whole, as well as Costa Rican attitudes toward migrants and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s oft-publicized comments about building a wall on the southern border with Mexico. Excerpts follow.

The United States is at a point politically where it’s talking about building walls and initiating mass deportations under the Trump administration. What kind of effect would such policies have on a country such as Costa Rica that’s at the front lines of these immigration waves? 

We must wait to see what the policy is. What we have up to now is just indications that the policy could become stricter, but we don’t have any assurances of what the policy is going to be, and we shouldn’t speculate about it.

The president-elect has himself talked of a wall. Clearly, migration has been seen as a threat by the United States in the past, and other walls have been built. There is a very strict policy of not allowing so-called “illegal aliens” to get into the United States.

The truth of the matter is that the United States is also a nation of migrants. This was a fundamental idea in the American psyche and in the American concept of itself. The United States was proud of its immigrants, so much so that the Statue of Liberty became the symbol of the country, which was placed at the point where most of the migrants arrived… migrants have in fact come to the United States regardless of what the policy has been. Ultimately, if you want to get through a border, you will be able to do it sooner or later. It’s difficult to assure that you’re going to have an absolutely invulnerable border. It just doesn’t work that way.

You mentioned that the policy is still up in the air, but of course, the dialogue alone taking place in the United States has had some effect. You’ve commented in the past that you’d like to see more solidarity out of Central America when it comes to migratory issues. How can Central American countries get on the same page, especially with the U.S. saying it wants to build a wall? 

That’s a very good question. We have not been able to do that because it’s very difficult to forge our regional policy. In the case of the current trend of migrants, that [conversation] must include – not should include, but must include – Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and other countries that are not members of the Central American Integration System (SICA). It’s a big challenge. How do you do that? Well, through political dialogue, through common policies, through legislation that may be required to have a standard in the region.

So far, we’ve been pretty much surpassed by the phenomenon and it doesn’t look pretty. It’s also true that these flows are rather new. The [migratory flows] from the past do not resemble the present. Secondly, the dynamic of the flows varies. We have seen a severe reduction in incoming migrants from Panama, and Panama has experienced a very significant reduction of incoming migrants from Colombia. We are trying to find out why this is happening.

Costa Rica President Luis Guillermo Solís, center, with a group of Cuban migrants at the Juan Santamaría International Airport, outside San José, on March 11, 2016.

(Courtesy of Casa Presidencial)

Those patterns are new. What’s not new for Costa Rica is seeing thousands of Cubans. During Rodrigo Carazo’s presidency (1978-1982), thousands of migrants were flown in from Cuba to Costa Rica and granted visas, and you’ve also set up tent camps and flown migrants out. Do you think that Costa Rica has an obligation to be a bastion of peace for migrants?

I hope so. We have to remain humanitarian. We have to recommit ourselves again and again to the principles and values we cherish in terms of the defense of human rights. We do have to be very careful not to confuse migrants with refugees or with asylum seekers, and to differentiate historical flows. During President Carazo’s administration, most of the region was ruled by military governments; that’s not the case anymore. The laws ensuring certain humanitarian conditions for migrants did not exist then; they exist now. Most of the migrants we’ve seen come into Costa Rica in the last year didn’t want to stay here; they just want to pass through. So the kinds of policies that we have to enact to protect them from  harm are shor- term measures because they are not going to stay in the country for a long time.

We have an obligation under international law to protect children… including ensuring each child is traveling with his or her parents. The only way to ensure this, in the absence of documents proving the identity of parents, is to do genetic tests. That takes months, because we don’t have the labs [in Costa Rica]. We have to send the tests somewhere else… The law doesn’t allow us to keep them imprisoned, and you cannot put children in jail at any rate. So it’s very complicated. They don’t stay here and they don’t want to be here… but the way in which we treat them has to be humanitarian.

When you were speaking in Washington, D.C. you said, “Not all expensive democracies are good, but all good democracies are expensive.” Costa Ricans see footage of shelters being sent up and planes being brought in for people from other countries. Do you think you’ve done a good job of convincing Costa Ricans that this was the right thing to do?

I think that most people believe so. Some people say, “Why are you giving them food? Why are you giving them shelter? What about our own poor people?” There is always some criticism. But by and large, people have not only supported our policies, but have felt proud of the fact that the migrants feel very happy here.

I visited, without any preparation, the camp near the border of Nicaragua at La Cruz [when I was in the area] to view the impact of Hurricane Otto. We just decided on a whim to go into the camp. I couldn’t believe it. It was just like a big party. The welcome they gave me was amazing. They [handed] me their children and took photos. They were extraordinarily happy, and it’s not like that was a five-star hotel. This is a tent camp, but they were very grateful. Even people in La Cruz, which is a very poor community, waited and were patient. They didn’t like it, necessarily, but they knew that they had to endure it and they did so with generosity.

On the other hand, you have reactions in San José vis-à-vis the Nicaraguan community with the national anthem issue, which I thought was horrendous. Appalling. I was truly disappointed when I saw the kinds of things that were said against Nicaraguans. Unacceptable. But with migrants, I think the national community was very gracious and tolerant.

It goes back to Costa Rica’s history as a refuge of peace for the region. 

Absolutely. I must say that the Cuban bridge was flawless. Once it was finally designed, it worked like a Swiss clock. It was just amazing. The way in which we were able to overcome the Central American reluctance to allow them passage through their own territories was extraordinary. I [was brought to] tears when I saw the kinds of expressions of gratitude of the Cubans. [The day following this interview, which took place on Jan. 11, the administration of President Barack Obama announced it would end the so-called ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that allowed Cubans who reached the U.S. to apply for residency after one year, which had motivated many of the Cuban migrants that passed through Costa Rican in recent years.]

It was a big operation, and it was not easy. We had no experience with these kinds of flows. Never before had we had a flow of migrants like the ones we had here. We had them in the 1980s but it was a different concept. There was a war. They were refugees. And they came by the thousands, but we never had 8,000 people here from Nicaragua. We had 2,000 in refugee camps then.

This experience was fundamental, and I think we have to prepare for this in the future. One of the things I undertook as a responsibility of this administration was to prepare the country as much as we can to ensure the new administration, when it’s elected, finds what I did not find: The legal framework that would allow us to do these things legally. For example, to finance some of these operations in a different way than we did the last time. We did what we did because the Comptroller’s Office was very understanding of the problem, but technically, some institutions could have been in conflict with the specific law that generates resources.

Stay tuned on Monday, Jan. 16 for our special feature on the history of immigration in Costa Rica.

Contact Michael Krumholtz at

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Mark Kahle

I take note that Solis is a former “history” and “political science” professor. This makes his lopsided lie about the immigration past of the United States and the Statue of Liberty an intentional fabrication.

Immigration policy that was touted in the United States in the 1880s as being open, fair, just, and the epitome of bright examples to follow was extremely restrictive by any standard then or now. The one standard the US did not have was “class” or “wealth”.

There was a 50 cent fee to immigrate. There were no exceptions made. Chinese people were forbidden. “If on such examination there shall be found among such passengers any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge, they shall report the same in writing to the collector of such port, and such person shall not be permitted to land.” Furthermore, if a criminal was found to be on board, it was the fiscal responsibility of the ship that brought the immigrant there to take them back out of the United States. One of the long-lasting legacies of this act is the undesirable category called “likely to become a public charge.” At the time, this status could be assigned to any number of people including pregnant or single women, the disabled, the sick, or the poor. The “‘LPC clause’ originally only kept out persons who were obviously unable to support themselves, but in the twentieth century the executive branch broadened it, first to keep out poor Asian Indians and Mexicans and then to keep out poor people generally.” Basic knowledge and ability with the English language was added soon. Polygamists a Political Radicals were added as were unaccompanied children and anyone that seemed mentally or physically ill. Cursory examinations were instituted.

So you see if Solis wants to purposely mis-characterize (that’s called a lie where I come from) immigration policies and hold up an example that never existed as proof of his position then I wonder what else this US educated (that means he should know very well that he lied) man is misleading Costa Ricans about. This simple lie makes his every word suspect.

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Ken Morris

I miss the point (even the one that Sully says is “absolutely correct”), and therefore don’t understand what Solís is accused of misunderstanding.

My understanding is that for almost its first 150 years after its political founding, the US faced a near-constant labor shortage. Hey, that’s why there were slaves and indentured servants. Someone had to do the work. Initially even drunks sleeping on the park benches in England were rounded up and put on ships to the New World. They sure were surprised once they sobered up. Later the doors were wide open to any warm bodies with 50 cents and a willingness to work, chiefly the Irish and the Germans (and to some extent the Irish were literally enslaved). Some of the guys who fought with Custer couldn’t even speak English. It was pretty much an open door policy.

The exception was non-whites, and to some extent Catholics. Asians were excluded early on–fine for building the railroads but not people the US wanted to actually settle there–and then the outcry was against the slightly darker skinned Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe. This led to the immigration policy of the 1920s that restricted immigrants based upon their existing percentage of the population, essentially a xenophobic policy. Britts still had no problem getting in, but others faced strict quotas.

Meanwhile there were the Mexicans, who kept dealing with changing policies based upon US labor needs. And the lynching rate for Mexicans was second only to blacks.

Then there was the immigration reform of the 1960s, that finally did away with the xenophobic law, and opened the door for Asians and others. However, that and earlier policies were always trumped by political and economic considerations. Capital flight was welcomed, as also were rightwingers. These included not only Cubans, but also later the rightwingers fleeing (and taking their money from) Nicaragua. Interestingly, Iranians were also welcomed in droves during the hostage crisis, while the Vietamese “boat people” were let in. Bottom line is that whoever is on the other side of whatever foreign wars the US is involved in gets let in as a refugee.

The way I see it, the “nation of immigrants” thing in the US is largely 19th century and before, and even that was checkered, but I don’t see what Solís fails to understand about this. He just repeated the myth, which most Americans repeat too, and wasn’t discoursing about US immigration policy historically.

I fail to understand what Solís is alleged to have misundertood

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Mark is absolutely correct. It was the extremely restrictive immigration policies that allowed in only the most likely to thrive to enter the USA. This is what made the USA the innovative powerhouse it became.

And Solis clearly understands this. The question is why is he trying to destroy Costa Rica with lax immigration policy? To retain power? Payouts by those who will profit the most? Or just to keep up proper appearances in the elite circle he frequents?

Great point Mark.

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