US sanctions and economic conditions drive Nicaraguan migration, while Washington blames repression

Blaming migration on “repressive dictatorships” allows Washington to pretend that its policies are helping Nicaraguans, when in fact they are impoverishing them.

This article was originally published on November 23, 2022 by COHA.

Why are more Nicaraguans heading north to the United States looking for jobs? Until July 2020, numbers were tiny. But in the last 1½ years numbers have increased sharply. Suddenly this has become a story, and government detractors argue, with little evidence, that people are fleeing political repression. “They’d rather die than return to Nicaragua,” is a typical headline.

Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan based in Washington who strongly opposes the Sandinista government, told The Hill, “Nicaragua’s dictatorship is criminalizing democracy and fueling migration to the U.S.” Then, on September 20, this became the official explanation when White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said Nicaraguans are “fleeing political persecution and communism.”

But is this true? Or is the issue being politicized as part of the heated debate about migration? The reality is more mundane: the biggest drivers of migration are economic, not political. Blaming migration on “repressive dictatorships” allows Washington to pretend that its policies are helping Nicaraguans, when in fact they are impoverishing them.

Migrants’ stories in Nicaragua give a more rounded picture

Migrants’ stories collected at the U.S. border are inevitably conditioned by migrants’ vulnerability and needs when confronted by law enforcement or looking for help from border communities. Talking to the families of migrants here in Nicaragua, as those collaborating in this article have done, gives a more rounded picture.

In Ciudad Sandino, a city just north of the capital, or in Ciudad Dario, in northern Nicaragua, anecdotally it appears there is hardly anyone who hasn’t had a family member leave for the US. The message is that they are motivated by the success stories of people getting jobs and being able to send back $500 or more each month: enough to maintain a family here. The few foreign media who speak to Nicaraguans here confirm the impression that economic opportunities are the main driver.

This is also evidenced by the rapid growth in amounts sent back to family members. Nicaragua’s Central Bank reports remittances to the country totaled US.$862.2 million dollars during the third quarter of this year, 63.6% growth over the same period in 2021. They have become one of the biggest sources of national income and most are going directly into the pockets of poorer families.

Migrant success stories

Karla from Esteli told the story of a brother and sister who migrated. “Luis Enrique had a friend in Houston and heard it was all easy and the pay was good. So he paid the coyotes $2,500 and they got him to Cancun first. He was stuck in a house for a month and couldn’t leave and used up the money he had with him. He finally made it to Houston and after about three months has work. For years, my brother migrated to work every year either to Costa Rica or to El Salvador. But there hasn’t been work in the last few years.” Her brother is a Sandinista government supporter.

Karla said that Flor, also a Sandinista, did the same thing. “When she got to the US, she turned herself in to border officials and told them she had a place to stay in Minneapolis and they flew her there. She didn’t have work lined up, didn’t have appropriate clothes, not even a coat. She then needed about $250 for false papers in order to apply for jobs. She eventually got the further help and clothes she needed through church contacts, and later found work. She says if she had known how hard it would all be she wouldn’t have gone.” Flor apparently wants to pay off all her debts and return to Nicaragua.

A Managuan hairdresser tells the story of her brother, Sergio: “He left with his whole family 14 months ago.  He lost his job just before the COVID crisis and was looking for work here as a driver. His wife had relatives in the US. They sold everything, took a flight to Guatemala and with help got into and through Mexico up to the U.S. border. They informed border authorities that they had relatives willing to take them in.  Sergio is now working in Las Vegas and his two children are attending school.”

A professor at Managua’s UNAN university with connections in the United States recounts the story of three nephews from prominent Nicaraguan families: “They were all graduates of the Lincoln School here in Managua, and all got partial scholarships to study at the Wharton School of Economics, Boston College and the University of Richmond. Two of them, who studied a couple years behind the first, easily obtained work permits to stay in the US. One, who is an industrial engineer, has been working there for four years now.”

Not surprisingly, the people leaving are often well-educated and, in many cases, have jobs in Nicaragua. Far from fleeing repression, they are running toward the “American Dream.”

But what has changed in the last 18 months to make chasing the dream more attractive? Here are the main reasons.

US attitudes towards Nicaraguan migrants have changed

Before July 2020, Nicaraguans hardly registered in “encounters” at the U.S. border. Now there are more than 13,000 registered in a typical month, although they still make up just 6% of the total. But for Washington, focusing on Nicaraguan migrants is a win-win. The U.S. has a need for low-wage workers, with “Now Hiring!” signs outside many businesses. But simply opening borders to allow in migrants to work would be hugely unpopular.

However, allowing in Cubans, Nicaraguans and, until recently, Venezuelans who are “fleeing communism” is more politically acceptable, and Nicaraguans are well aware of this. In September, President Biden defended his management of the southwest border by reference to migrants from these countries, saying that sending them back “is not rational,” even though two-thirds of undocumented migrants are from other countries.

Most undocumented Nicaraguans are being allowed in whether or not they claim asylum (see below). However, the fact that some make asylum claims feeds the stories of waves of refugees fleeing repression and reinforces the U.S. narrative about Nicaragua as a “threat” to the United States. Claims of repression also make it easier to persuade border communities to help and to show solidarity, as is clear from an interview with the head of one migrant aid group who explains how people respond more generously to the needs of those arriving from “broken regimes.”

As one of the stories retold above demonstrates, young people from Nicaragua’s elite, who often speak good English, are also finding the door open to migration. Those on student visas are now allowed to stay once their studies end and migrants who can afford to fly to the U.S. (e.g. on tourist visas) seem able to regularize their stays readily, for example by claiming asylum.

Border control practices differ for Nicaraguans

Unsurprisingly, politics determines the practices followed in dealing with undocumented migrants at the southwest border. In 2020, migrants from Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” countries (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) accounted for two-thirds of all border encounters and these countries still account for half the total in 2022. But their success rate in crossing the border is heavily limited by current U.S. laws and border practices.

So far, this fiscal year about 299,000 people from those nations have been expelled at the border under what is known as Title 42 which, as Tom Ricker explains, is deliberately discriminatory. But Nicaraguans (like Cubans, and until recently, Venezuelans) are treated differently, under Title 8, with only about 9,000 returns of people from those countries. Those allowed to enter the country are sent by bus or plane to wherever they have family or friends, with the government footing the bill, while their migration cases or asylum claims are being processed.

However, there is a sense that favorable border policies could change at any time, as they have recently for Venezuelans. Washington is pressing Mexico to take Nicaraguans returned at the border, as it does other migrant groups, but so far Mexico has resisted this. Nicaraguans know things might suddenly change and this gives them more incentive to try their luck now.

Migration made to look more attractive to Nicaraguans

A very important “pull” factor is the way that migration has been made to appear so attractive within Nicaragua, encouraging the idea that “everyone’s going.” Articles give advice or provide “migration kits,” young people receive frequent adverts on their smart phones, some appearing to be from official U.S. sources, saying they have been “selected” for a work visa or showing how to apply for work visas in specific trades. The US embassy promotes its new “visa wizard”. Facebook posts show people receiving swimming classes “to cross the Rio Grande.” A news item says, “They keep leaving. Only us old people are left;” another interviews people from “deserted” communities in Chinandega. Rightly or wrongly, there is a climate of opinion that the U.S. is “open” to Nicaraguans and you should leave soon while it lasts.

Until recently, there were also few ways for Nicaraguans to get help to make the journey and cross the border. This began to change as people from all over Latin America began to pass through Nicaragua on their way north, and it is now big business. There are Nicaraguan coyotes who will arrange the journey, there are buses taking groups of migrants to Guatemala, and there are loan sharks (including, recently, Colombians) arranging finance to pay the massive costs. As the BBC said recently, “smuggling migrants to the U.S. is big business.”

Nicaragua’s economic recovery is threatened by US sanctions

Nicaragua and Honduras are the poorest countries in mainland Latin America. Nicaraguans’ living costs are low – most food is locally produced, electricity (and currently other fuels) are subsidized and transport is relatively cheap. Partly as a result, wages are low too. Higher pay in other countries – traditionally Costa Rica (and to some extent El Salvador and Panama) – have always attracted Nicaraguans looking for better-paid jobs. Of course, the pay differential with the US is greater still.

Nicaragua had only partly recovered from the US-financed violent coup attempt it suffered in 2018 when its economy (like everywhere else) was hit by the pandemic. While economic growth was 10.3% last year and is forecast to be 4% in 2022, tourism has not yet fully recovered.

In part, this is because State Department travel advisory erroneously says that Nicaragua is dangerous, when it is Central America’s safest country. On top of this, Washington is steadily tightening its economic sanctions, affecting both farming (the sugar industry) and gold mining (Nicaragua’s biggest export). It has also restricted loans from the World Bank aimed at poverty reduction. Sanctions have wider effects in discouraging investment. People are well aware of what Washington is doing and fear the worst: they know how the much tougher sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela have produced economic disasters in those countries (and migrants passing through reinforce that message).

Such fears are entirely realistic. The US imposed a complete trade embargo on Nicaragua in the 1980s. Biden’s new nominee as ambassador to the country, Hugo Rodriguez, promised the US Congress that he would “support using all economic and diplomatic tools to bring about a change in direction in Nicaragua.” Articles have appeared suggesting that following the US midterm elections, sanctions will be tightened. A prominent think tank has called for a complete embargo on Nicaraguan imports. Self-serving condemnations of Nicaragua’s government by Nicaraguans living in the United States do not help. (Orozco told one news channel: “Persecution in Nicaragua is so beastly that people prefer to risk leaving than staying and exposing themselves to more repression.”)

Costa Rica offers fewer opportunities to Nicaraguans

The close ties between Nicaragua and Costa Rica have in the past seen huge migratory movements between these neighboring countries, as Nicaraguans went there to work for periods and then returned. Nicaraguans form more than 11% of Costa Rica’s population and can cross the border easily. Before the pandemic in 2020, when jobs were plentiful, especially seasonal farm work, typically 35,000 Nicaraguans crossed the border in each direction, every month. Numbers fell sharply in 2020 and 2021 and, although they have recovered somewhat, are still well below previous levels (this year they average about 20,000 monthly in each direction). Nicaraguans send less money back from Costa Rica: the country accounts for 7.7% of total remittances now, compared with 18% in 2019.

Costa Rica has a lengthy backlog of refugee applications from Nicaraguans, dating back five years (discussed at length in a previous COHA article), although it has repeatedly maintained that most of these are not genuinely fleeing repression but are economic migrants (most recently on November 18). It is seeking outside aid to enable it to speed up the process and regularize the status of up to 200,000 asylum claimants (mostly Nicaraguans), who would get access to jobs and health care if they can prove their claims are valid. However, reports are appearing of Nicaraguans giving up their asylum claims in Costa Rica, preferring to try their luck in the United States because salaries in Costa Rica have not kept up with inflation.

Costa Rica has also tried to encourage Nicaraguans genuinely working in the country to stay. In October, the two governments signed an agreement on the labor rights of Nicaraguan workers in the neighboring country. However, with continuing evidence of the poor state of the Costa Rican economy, its attraction as a work destination for Nicaraguans is unlikely to recover quickly.

Unable to find work in Costa Rica

Juan, currently in Managua, was one of many who worked in Costa Rica before for stretches but who can’t find work there since the pandemic. He’s a talented man with a brother in Costa Rica but he’s been learning English and plans to try to reach the U.S. with his family. It would mean giving up everything… his home… a little land, but he’s decided to go because “the chances are good.” He is a Sandinista, and has no issues with the government.

Frances, a young woman hairdresser from Managua, first went to Costa Rica and had a very hard time. She eventually returned to Nicaragua.  Less than a year ago, she managed to get to the United States and both she and her husband have since found employment.  She is working in a hair salon.

But what about the “repression” driving Nicaraguans north?

Media reports about ordinary Nicaraguans suffering “repression” are very misleading. The violent coup attempt in 2018 led to over 400 arrests, for serious crimes like kidnapping and murder. An amnesty in 2019 led to all of these prisoners being released, and the country has since been peaceful. But in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, some of the opposition groups were planning more attacks, and the leaders were arrested and imprisoned for their alleged involvement in this and for continuing to seek foreign intervention. However, most people who supported the 2018 violence can now live freely as long as they cease their involvement in such violent activities. Both last year’s election and recent local elections passed peacefully, with turnouts of 66% and 57%, suggesting that most Nicaraguans want to resolve political differences through the ballot box.

For Nicaraguans, many of the “push” factors that drive migration from the Northern Triangle simply do not apply. For example, few if any Nicaraguans suffer from the crime of extortion by violent gangs, whereas in Honduras it is a huge problem which forces people to leave the country, both to escape threats and to attempt to pay debts. Also, many Hondurans are still homeless after recent hurricanes, whereas in Nicaragua preventive measures saved lives and enabled people to relocate safely. Despite the violence in 2018, Nicaragua has returned to being one of the safest Latin American countries, whereas all three Northern Triangle countries are among the most dangerous.

The route to the US border is a hard one

Of course, traveling to the U.S. without a visa is a huge risk. There are terrible stories of people who never made it or who got entangled in U.S. bureaucracy. Everyone is aware of this but many are undeterred. The fact that prospects seem better for Nicaraguans than for those from the Northern Triangle countries means that many are willing to face the risks.

Nevertheless, the cost of an arranged journey is huge, now up to around $5,000 per person. People are putting up their homes and farms as collateral to loan sharks to get the money to go. Many leave with their entire family, including babies. More recently we have heard of people going without paying coyotes, taking only a few hundred dollars in their pockets and hoping for the best.

Anecdotal reports of the dangers are rife. Nicaraguans have been kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico. Nicaraguan coyotes have been killed for stepping on the toes of Mexican cartels. Migrants are now traveling in tour buses, but this is dangerous and there are risks of robbery and worse. Recently, a bus carrying Nicaraguans was machine-gunned by Guatemalan gangs.

The earlier stories also illustrate some of the hazards facing Nicaraguans once they reach the U.S. For example, those who speak little or no English are likely to find only low-paid work: cleaning, washing dishes, caring for children or seniors, farm work, and so on. Nicaraguans assume they will be helped by friends or family but do not realize that the person who offered a place to stay will not do that indefinitely but will charge them rent. In Nicaragua, many people will recount that migrants’ home situation frequently falls apart: the wife leaves, children get rebellious or grow up with no work ethic since they were supported from a distance, and the money the migrant thought their family was saving to build a house when they returned gets spent elsewhere.

Yet even with all these terrible stories, it is hard to fight the fever, particularly in young people who are seeing their friends and family post enticing pictures from the U.S.

What is the answer?

There is no quick “solution” to migration. Claims that Nicaragua will be emptied of people are absurd but, for a family, cutting ties and emigrating to the US is far more disruptive than temporary migration to Costa Rica. Many families of unsuccessful migrants are left with crippling debts and potential homelessness. If young, educated people leave, this deprives Nicaragua of their skills. So while there are some short-term economic advantages to both countries from people heading north, in the longer term migration damages both Nicaragua’s economy and its society.

One thing is clear: Washington’s rhetoric about “communism” in Nicaragua, its attempts to starve it of development funding and its imposition of sanctions are making conditions worse, not better. If the US really wants to see fewer people trying to cross its borders, it should make genuine attempts to encourage the sustainable development of neighboring countries like Nicaragua, not try to strangle their economies.

Author note: Assistance in compiling this article came from Becca Renk, Susan Lagos and others in Nicaragua, Nan McCurdy in Mexico and Tom Ricker in the United States.

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