Canada’s Central American Connection

An interview with author and academic Maria Cristina Garcia about Canada's relationship with migrants from Central America.
By: /
August 27, 2014

For the past several months, stories of unaccompanied minors making the overland journey from Central America to the United States have caught the attention of the media, the public, and policymakers. In 2014 alone, an estimated 50,000 children arrived at the U.S. border, prompting the United Nations to ask for their international protection, instead of deportation.

OpenCanada contributor Robert Muggah recently detailed the often violent conditions causing many Central Americans to flee, some of which can be directly linked to gangs deported from the United States and the unrest caused by a militarized drug war.

Such turbulent times are not new to Central America however, as author and academic Maria Cristina Garcia points out. The Cornell University professor recounted the history of political upheaval and consequent migration in her book ‘Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, The United States, Canada.’

She spoke with OpenCanada managing editor, Eva Salinas, about Canada’s history of accepting Central American migrants, of the need to update the definition of refugee, and on the need for a regional response to this current humanitarian crisis.

Migration from Central America to the United States and even Canada is not new with this recent wave. What have been the major milestones?

Central Americans have been migrating to the United States and to Canada for decades now. The wars in Central America displaced a significant percentage of the population from Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and also Honduras, and many of those were uprooted to temporary refuge in neighbouring countries like Costa Rica and Honduras but others travelled further north to Mexico, the United States and Canada. An estimated 2 million of those who fled from Central American from 1974 to 1996 settled in one of these three countries.

Since the 1996 peace accord, the migration of Central Americans has continued, not diminished as was hoped, and it has continued because of the ongoing criminal and political violence in these countries as well as natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the Salvadoran earthquake in 2001. These disrupted the economy, exacerbated the poverty in the region and in countries that were just barely recovering from civil war.

So by the year 2004, Salvadoran officials were estimating that one fourth of the Salvadoran population lived in the United States. These communities, they’re large, they’re vibrant both in the U.S. and in Canada, and they send billions of dollars in remittances to their homeland each year. And now because they are established communities, that are a generation old, they serve as magnets for a new generation of migrants.

With regards to the wave of unaccompanied minors migrating across the Mexico-U.S border, how does that group differ compared to the first waves, either country of origin or in their motivations?

It is important to say that in some ways this current migration is a legacy of the civil wars. Today’s asylum seekers are different in the sense that they are coming primarily from the so-called northern triangle, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. It’s a region that has barely recovered from war and now it has the highest homicide rates in the world. The groups that engage in the criminal and political violence are complex but much of the journalistic attention has been on organized gangs like the Maras and Barrio 18 (Eighteenth Street Gang) that extended their numbers and their influence in these countries in large part because of the aggressive deportation policies of the United States.

Much of the attention has been on migration into the United States, what historically has been the movement to Canada? 

Until the 1970s, Canada did not have a tradition of immigration from Latin America. Some have attributed it to geography but it is more likely due to the lack of diplomatic presence in the region and the limited trade relations until the essentially of the administrations of Pierre Trudeau. Canada's first experience with accommodating large number of immigrants from Latin America came in response to the Chilean refugees who were fleeing the rightest dictatorship. And then later thousands of Central Americans undertook the overland journey to Canada because of its more generous asylum policies.

Were these policies deemed ‘generous’ in contrast to the United States?

There was a higher approval rate. In the 1980s, less than five per cent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers received asylum in U.S. and so most people who came from Central America during this period opted to remain as anonymous as possible to work in the underground economy until conditions in their country improved and they could save to return home. Others fearing deportation or told that peace would not be restored to their country any time soon travelled further northward to Canada, because even though Canada was accommodating smaller numbers of Central American refugees, those that petitioned for asylum were more likely to receive it in Canada.

And now far fewer are coming to Canada.

September 11 (2001) was the game changer. After 9/11, the U.S. and Canada and also to a certain extent Mexico began working on these smart border initiatives to make our borders less permeable, as there was concern with national security. So as a result, it has become much more difficult to even cross a border and enter into U.S. and Canadian territory and petition for asylum.

In your book you said in the 1980s, Canada and the U.S. were reluctant to see the regional impact or links to the political unrest in Central America; the U.S. suspected Soviet-Cuban interference and Canada saw the civil wars as homegrown. Is there still a reluctance to see those regional links today?

Yes and no. I think since the peace accord in 1996, representatives from around the region have been meeting annually as part of this regional conference on migration known as the Puebla Process to discuss issues of mutual concern, and migration and the trafficking of labour and the trafficking of bodies is of mutual concern. So at least there is this symbolic commitment to working together to address these issues and sometimes nations are more successful than others. Whether that translates into domestic policy in Canada and Mexico and in the U.S., sometimes you see it and sometimes you don’t.

You do see our leaders pay at least lip service to the need to work together; it’s just that unfortunately most of the evidence that I see for working together focuses on detention and deportation and not on accommodating refugees that need protection. So most of the cooperation focuses on the enforcement of law, on the strengthening of borders, rather than on recognition that there’s a shared responsibility to accommodate refugees or to afford some kind of temporary protective status to those who have been displaced.

In what other ways could these states cooperate?

In some ways, this is new territory. There is a wide range of models that could be explored; it’s just that most nations respond according to domestic interest. So you see cooperation on some issues, say on narco trafficking, on sharing information for intelligence; you see a lot of cooperation on trade policies. So there are issues where nations in the region come together and carve out a response that is mutually beneficial.

But in the case of humanitarian crises and the flows of labour, you don’t see as much cooperation except in detention and deportation. When you look at the Central American refugee crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, it took a long time for nations to acknowledge that they needed to work together to address the root causes of the migration but also to come up with a humanitarian response.

Asylum seekers in the '80s were mostly called refugees, now this group is seen as migrants. Is the term ‘refugee’ fixed, or politicized?

The word refugee is used quite freely to identify people who have been displaced for political reasons but legally it has a very particular definition and here in the U.S., you have to prove that you have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion.

There are certain hoops you have to jump through in order to prove that you are a refugee, and unfortunately our immigration law here in the U.S. makes the distinction between a refugee and immigrant, and an immigrant is presumed to be migrating for economic reasons, a refugee is presumed to be migrating for political reasons but those distinctions, those dichotomies often times are false.

They are arbitrary because there’s a very thin line between political and economic motivations for migration. If a person can’t earn a livelihood and decides to cross an international border in search of new opportunities, you could argue that that act is a political statement. Some people disagree with me about that, but in many cases there’s a very thin line between political and economic motivations for migration.

In this case the UN has called for the unaccompanied minors to be called ‘refugees’. Does calling them migrants make them easier to deport?

The UN for some time now has recognized that its own definition of refugee does not meet the realities of today's world. And there are some international conventions that have a much broader definition of refugee. I am thinking for example the Organisation of African Unity, the Cartagena Declaration, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), they have a broader definition of refugee that takes into account that people can be displaced not because they have been individually persecuted but rather they are fleeing a climate of violence. They recognize that a climate of violence can displace people and make them refugees.

Is there public support for differentiating between refugee and migrant?

I think many Americans are enormously sympathetic to the plight of the unaccompanied minors. The images of children being led by their attorneys through immigration courts, or being detained, packed together by the dozens in detention centres or in shelters, is heart-rending. It is just absolutely heart-rending. And there are many Americans who feel that it is important to bend the law, if not break it, to allow these unaccompanied minors to remain in the United States, either on a permanent basis or under some type of temporary protected status.

But then there are other Americans who feel that for some time now, our borders have been entirely too permeable, and as sympathetic they might be to the plight of these children, they feel that we just can’t take in anymore; and that we have laws for a reason and that we can’t be bending or breaking these laws no matter how sympathetic we might be. That it’s important to protect national interests over anything else.

And you know how one reconciles those two perspectives to the satisfaction of both is, well, I don’t think it’s possible. I do think that Obama administration needs to have the political will to accommodate these unaccompanied minors. When you look at moments when we’ve been generous, when we’ve opened the door, when we’ve provided humanitarian assistance, we have never been ashamed of those gestures. And so at the very least we need to allow the unaccompanied children to at least make a claim either for asylum or for temporary protected status and give them that chance. I think it is our international obligation and I think it is the right thing to do.

One country’s immigration policies can often influence a neighbouring country and its policies. What are some examples of that?

During the 1980s, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada each responded to the Central American refugee crisis based on its own state interests, but each was then forced to readjust its policies to deal with the consequences of the policies that were enacted by their neighbours. When the U.S. congress passed the 1986 immigration reform and control act, it created a border rush of Salvadorans who sought refuge in Canada to avoid deportation and forced Canada to redesign its refugee determination system. So that’s just one example.

It would seem the common policy reaction then would be to tighten borders, but what about moving in the other direction, to being more accommodating?

Initially, when Central Americans were coming to Canada and asking for asylum, I think it was a matter of pride for many Canadians to know that their country, the recipient of the Nansen medal, has this humanitarian tradition that was celebrated worldwide. It became part of Canadian national identity to know that Canadians were responding humanely with generously to the plight of refugees.

That began to change by the late 1980s as the numbers increased, as backlogs in the asylum bureaucracy expanded. There was a growing demand in some sectors in Canadian society to tighten the policy; there was this concern that undocumented immigrants who were not ‘bona fide’ refugees were taking advantage of Canada’s generosity to gain a foothold into Canada. So there was this reaction against those initial generous policies.

Is there a humanitarian crisis now?

I think so, yes, absolutely. When parents are sending their children ahead to the United States because they fear that their sons will be recruited by gangs, that their daughters will be raped by gang members, that their businesses will be destroyed, because they can’t or refused to pay extortion, when police officers are forced to flee because they can’t receive protection from their own state against the criminal violence, when you have clergymen and NGO workers and when you have doctors and lawyers who are fleeing the region because lives have become insupportable, unsustainable, that is a humanitarian crisis.

Some news media outlets have conducted interviews with a few carefully selected people who make it seem as if they have migrated primarily for economic reasons but as I said earlier even in those circumstances, if one can’t earn a livelihood because your livelihood has been threatened because you’ve been displaced, that’s a politically motivated migrant.

Legally, then, what are the options?

The U.S. is considering opening an office in Honduras, where people can request refugee status from within their country. How many people will be admitted to the U.S. under refugee status will probably be very, very small, but it will give people the opportunity to apply without making this overland journey. So that’s one recourse that the Obama administration has been exploring but there are other possibilities, certain asylum, allowing people to make a claim through the asylum bureaucracy; the immigration act of 1990 created a temporary protected status that is also another option. So, there are certain recourses for these states to respond to this humanitarian crisis, which policy they will choose to adopt, we will see, it is still unfolding.

Could the U.S. make a formal request for Canada to take some of these minors?

I’m sure that the U.S. Justice Department is exploring all kinds of possibilities, so I wouldn’t be surprised, though I haven’t read anything to that effect in the news.

But this is an opportunity for regional cooperation, whether nations choose to respond regionally rather than individually, we will see.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.