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Migration to the United States: Mexico vs. Central America

The New York Times recently reported that in April, more than 109,000 people (often travelling as families) were apprehended at or near the southwest border of the United States. This is the highest monthly total since 2007, despite continuing threats from President Trump to close the border with Mexico and to cut off aid to the Central American countries sending most of the migrants. While the US was historically always concerned with expansion, Greg Grandin argues that the country has become inward-looking and that the border wall between the US and Mexico represents “the end of the myth” of an idea central to American identity, namely that of an open and ever-expanding frontier.

Many of the migrants currently come from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), composed of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. According to the The Atlantic, the population of these countries will rise by 50% by 2050. Migration flows are therefore expected to increase rapidly over the coming decades. Considered one of the most dangerous places on earth, Amnesty International notes that while the violence occurring in the Northern Triangle is indisputable, “it sits within an area of ambiguity within international law as the violence in NTCA is not classified as a state/interstate conflict”.

Migration has been such, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), that “in fiscal year (FY) 2017, apprehensions of unauthorized migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the U.S.-Mexico border surpassed those of unauthorized migrants from Mexico for the third time since FY 2014”, adding that “apprehensions of Central Americans by U.S. and Mexican authorities increased sharply in 2014, amid a surge in arrivals of unaccompanied minors, and have exceeded 250,000 every year since then”. During the period 2012-2018 1,8 million Mexicans and 1,4 million NTCA citizens were repatriated by the United States to their countries of origin.

Migration from Central America over the last decade thus contrasts sharply with that from Mexico. According to the MPI in March of this year, “in an historic shift, the migration flow between Mexico and the United States has reversed. Since 2008, more Mexicans are returning than are heading to the United States. The returnees include those who were deported as well as those returning of their own volition”.

Other research by the Migration Policy Institute gives insight into the area of settlement of NTCA citizens. While Mexico is the top origin country of the unauthorized population in 36 out of the 41 American states that were analysed, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are by far the most important second-most common origin countries. The three of them covering the entire American south (with El Salvadorians more in the west; Guatemalans in the middle; and Hondurans in the east), several states in the Midwest and Northeast have China or India as the second-most common origin country.

The historical ties between the Central American countries are strong, which is also reflected in their citizenship laws. In El Salvador for example, where naturalization normally requires five years of previous residency, citizens of the Former Federal Republic of Central America (i.e. all Central American countries except Panama and English-speaking Belize) can acquire citizenship of El Salvador simply based on residence and compliance with a number of other conditions, such as a clean criminal record. In Understanding Central America Booth, Wade and Walker give some insight into the relationship between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua:

“The five” … share a common political heritage from the colonial period, during which Spain administered them as a unit. During the early national period (1823 to 1838) they formed a single state called the United Provinces of Central America [or the Central American Republic]. In the late nineteenth century, several ill-fated attempts at reunification occurred. In the 1960s the five joined to form a common market. More recent unification efforts include a common regional parliament and shared trade agreements with the United States. Out of this history comes a sense of Central American national identity and, among a surprisingly large segment of the region’s educated elite, a hope that someday the larger homeland might be reunited.

A one-year residence requirement in turn applies to citizens of Spain and Hispanoamerican countries to acquire citizenship of El Salvador. It is worth noting that Honduras has a similar provision, but speaks of Iberoamerican instead of Hispanoamerican. The latter concept is more restrictive in that Brazil is excluded. Both definitions do include the Spanish-speaking Caribbean but exclude French Guyane, Guyana, Haiti, and Surinam. The term “Latin America”, used in the legislation of Panama and Venezuela is usually assumed to include French-speaking territories like French Guyane and Haiti.

Also, different procedures apply to citizens of the Central American republics, on the one hand, and citizens of Spain and Hispano-american countries, on the other. Where the latter are subject to a discretionary naturalization procedure, the former become citizens by declaration. This means, according to Article 90 of the El Salvadorian Constitution, that they become citizens by birth.

It is noteworthy that Costa Rica is much more restrictive than other Central American countries in facilitating the acquisition of citizenship for citizens of fellow Central American and Iberoa-merican countries. They need to comply with a five-year residence requirement – compared to the normal seven years for ordinary naturalisation – in addition to all other naturalization requirements. These stricter conditions may be related to Costa Rica being by far the most affluent of the five Central American Republics.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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