DAVIS, Calif. — Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America have fled to the U.S. border in the past few months to claim asylum or otherwise cross into the country.
What has been commonly referred to as the next “border crisis” is the result of increasing violence and political instability throughout the chain of countries south of the United States. As a result, the so-called border children have been flooding north from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, but not Nicaragua.
Between October 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, U.S. Border Patrol officials apprehended a mere 178 UACs from Nicaragua versus the 16,546 from Honduras, the nation with the most child migrants to the U.S.
The stark contrast in these numbers is no coincidence, and it ultimately reflects the different issues faced by various Central American countries, who are often regarded as being so similar.
Nicaragua stands out from the pack with notably low rates of child emigration to the U.S., and the reason behind this unique case has been under recent discussion. What makes the phenomenon even more striking is the fact that Nicaragua is the poorest nation in Central America after Haiti.
As it turns out, Nicaragua’s case is the outcome of recent history, international policy, immigration trends and politics. To get to the bottom of Nicaragua’s underwhelming number of UACs in the current upsurge, it is best to start a few decades back.
In the 1980s, Nicaragua endured a civil war fought between the nation’s Sandinista socialist government and the rebel opposition. As a matter of fact, almost all Central American nations were involved in civil wars during the 1980s. The main difference was that the United States supported the Nicaraguan opposition and, similar to Cuba, adopted a very open immigration policy for the Nicaraguan people.
As a result, many Nicaraguans were granted American citizenship throughout that period as opposed to those coming from other parts of Central America. This key factor distinguished different immigration trends from one country to the next; Nicaraguans were not subjected to rejection and deportation like their neighbors.
The cycle of emigration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and the subsequent deportation from the U.S. gave rise to the gang violence that is now the basis for UAC immigrants from those countries today.
Contrary to the assumed nature of the Sandinista government as an enemy of the U.S., the new socialist order took priority in establishing a safe and secure state by focusing on anti-corruption and police reform.
“They had just gotten rid of a repressive dictatorship,” Jeffrey Gould, a historian of Nicaragua said in an interview with KPBS, “so when the Sandinistas took over, they set out to create a different kind of police force, in tune with the local population and their needs, rather than being oppressive.”
“I never really witnessed a society in which people got along so well with the police,” Gould continued.
On the other hand, many Central and Latin American countries deal with police corruption and gang violence as some of the main issues they face on a daily basis.
In a 2010 poll, 44 percent of El Salvadorans, 35 percent of Guatemalans and 25 percent of Hondurans ranked crime as the most important issue facing their respective countries, while only 1 percent of Nicaraguans felt that way.
While tens of thousands of border children flee their homes in search of safety and better opportunities without as much as a companion, it is important to consider the motives behind emigration rather than simplifying the issue down to immigration opportunity.
Gang violence, police corruption and political instability are some of the most detrimental issues faced by Central Americans today and are also much of the source of the border crisis in the United States. Nicaragua’s comparable stability, despite its low GDP, is a clear lesson on how the quality of life is measured by more than just dollar signs.
– Edward Heinrich