The Biden administration’s timing for authorizing the continuation of the border wall construction in Texas is an inhumane and racist flex. Right during the middle of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. The new section of wall will extend another twenty miles. The Central American migrants and refugees the admin wants to prevent from crossing the border are fleeing conditions created by the US’s colonialist, neoliberal meddling in their countries. This history, which professor Aviva Chomsky covers in this excerpt from Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration, goes as far back as the 1980s.
Few predicted that the peace accords and neoliberal reforms of the 1990s would lead to a flood of out-migration in the following decades, as flight would increasingly become the last resort of people desperate to survive, and ties to the United States made it the obvious destination.
Migration has been an inherent aspect of all human history, including Central American history. Pretty much every individual on the planet is located where they are because either they or multiple ancestors migrated voluntarily or by force over time. In the twentieth century, Central American migration was primarily internal, as the rural population lost lands and moved to colonize frontiers or to work in plantation agriculture or in the capital cities. During the wars of the 1980s, many more were displaced within their own countries, to other Central American countries, to Mexico, and increasingly, to the United States.
The Central American wars of the 1980s caused millions to flee their homes. Some became internal refugees, relocating with relatives, hiding in the mountains, or moving to the anonymity of the capital city or hastily established refugee camps. Others crossed borders to find refuge in camps or on their own in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico. Some two hundred thousand Nicaraguans fled their country during the 1978–1979 insurrection, though many of these returned after the 1979 revolutionary victory. By the end of the 1980s, around 3 million Central Americans had fled from their countries of origin. Seven hundred and fifty thousand remained in Mexico, while a million crossed through Mexico into the United States. Some continued on to Canada.
Working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Mexico built camps along its southern border for forty-six thousand mostly Mayan Indigenous refugees from Guatemala. Another two hundred thousand Guatemalans, along with half a million Salvadorans, found their own way to seek a living, informally and unrecognized, in Mexico.
In 1970, the US census counted 114,000 Central Americans. By 1980, this had risen to 350,000; by 1990, over a million. Instead of slowing as the wars ended, migration increased: in 2000, the census counted over 2 million Central American–born. In 2010, there were over 3 million, and in 2017, close to 3.5 million. (These numbers do not include the growing population of US-born children of Central American migrants who are not tallied among the “foreign-born” but reached about 1.2 million in 2015.)
Using self-identification rather than birthplace, the Pew Research Center calculated a population of 2.3 million Salvadorans (57 percent foreign-born), 1.4 million Guatemalans (60 percent foreign-born), 940,000 Hondurans (62 percent foreign-born), and 464,000 Nicaraguans (55 percent foreign-born) in the United States as of 2017. The foreign-born percentage is of interest because it shows the recent nature of the immigration: Central Americans have a much higher proportion of foreign-born than do Hispanics as a whole, for whom 33 percent were foreign-born in 2017. Sixty percent of immigrants born in Honduras were undocumented, along with 56 percent of those from Guatemala and 51 percent of those from El Salvador. The real figures are likely higher than what’s recorded in the census, because immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are notoriously undercounted.
A much larger Mexican migration to the United States also grew rapidly during the same decades, with the Mexican-born population growing from well under a million in 1970 to close to 12 million in 2010. But Mexico’s migration slowed considerably after that, reaching “net zero” in 2011 and then reversing, so that the Mexican-born population shrank by some five hundred thousand by 2017. Mexicans continued to arrive—but even more were leaving.
A smaller number of Central Americans—some eight hundred thousand—relocated elsewhere in Central America during the decade of the 1980s. About 10 percent of them received benefits as recognized refugees. Some others received aid from religious and humanitarian NGOs; most struggled to reconstruct their lives without organized aid. Many of those who had relocated inside Central America, whether in refugee camps or at the margins of the mainstream, returned home after the various peace accords of the 1990s.
The Legal Landscape of the United States
Contrary to the oft-repeated phrase that, in then president Barack Obama’s words, the United States has a “tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world,” this is far from the case. It’s more accurate to say that, as a settler colonial nation, the United States has a tradition of welcoming white immigrants. This tradition began in its Declaration of Independence, which decried the British Crown’s restrictions on migration from Britain, and was reinforced with the new country’s first naturalization law in 1790 that offered entry and citizenship to “any Alien being a free white person,” and the post–Civil War naturalization law revision that extended its provisions to “Aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent” (virtually none of whom at the time had the slightest desire or ability to migrate to the United States, a voyage that for Africans had historically meant enslavement, not freedom). The 1870 law explicitly excluded from welcome or naturalization those nonwhite immigrants who were actually arriving at that time: Chinese and Mexicans. Indeed, most of the world’s peoples, who were neither “white” nor “persons of African nativity,” were systematically refused entry to the United States on racial grounds until the mid-twentieth century.
A special set of laws applied to Mexicans, whom Secretary of State James Buchanan termed “an inferior, indolent, mongrel race.” While they were racially “ineligible to citizenship,” Mexican workers were essential for the railroad, mining, and agricultural development of the western United States. So rather than exclude Mexicans physically, Congress left entry open, but designed a plethora of systems to ensure that Mexicans entered the country as temporary laborers, rather than potential settlers or citizens. Exploitative guest worker programs and spectacular mass deportations in the 1930s and 1950s confirmed that Mexicans were not among those immigrants who were “welcomed.”
The 1965 immigration overhaul known as the Immigration and Nationality or Hart-Celler Act (INA) is generally hailed for removing, once and for all, racial quotas and restrictions on immigration. That perspective has some validity if we look at how the law affected Europeans, Africans, and Asians. But for Mexicans, the 1965 law just created a new kind of restriction: the first-ever immigration quota that turned many Mexican migrant workers into “illegal” immigrants. By 1980, there were some 1.5 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States; by 1986, this had grown to 3.2 million, due to a combination of Mexico’s debt crisis and a booming US labor market. “Illegality” was a new way to criminalize Mexicans and justify continued exploitation and exclusion. Meanwhile “wars” on drugs and crime did the same to other populations of color.
Most Central Americans fleeing persecution or violence in the 1980s had no path to legal entry into the United States. Like so many Mexicans, they simply crossed the border “without inspection,” evading official crossing stations, and entered the underground world of undocumentedness.
Popular and congressional concern about the growing undocumented population grew in the early 1980s, and in 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). IRCA had three main components: employer sanctions, which penalized employers for hiring workers who were undocumented; increased border control, to prevent people from entering without documents; and legalization, which allowed a significant number of people without documents to regularize their status. IRCA sweetened its terms for agricultural employers who relied on Mexican workers, adding special provisions for their legalization and a new guest worker program.
The first two components of IRCA—employer sanctions and increased border control—have been permanent and ongoing, and laid the basis for increasingly punitive anti-immigrant law and practice from the 1990s on. The third, legalization, was a onetime olive branch to immigrants themselves. Two of its parameters made it clear that it was Mexican migrant workers, rather than Central American refugees, that were its target.
First, legalization was offered only to migrants who could prove that they had been in the United States continuously since January 1, 1982. That automatically excluded large numbers of Central Americans, whose numbers only started to grow significantly after 1980. Second, IRCA offered residency status to seasonal farmworkers, most of whom were Mexican. In the end, IRCA enabled 2.7 million immigrants to legalize their status, 70 percent of them Mexican.
Still, almost three hundred thousand Central Americans were able to gain legal status through IRCA. Most (60 percent) were Salvadorans, followed by Guatemalans (25.4 percent) and Nicaraguans (6 percent). Smaller numbers from other Central American countries made up the difference.
Since the vast majority of Central Americans who reached the United States in the 1980s were fleeing violence and persecution, one might imagine that US refugee law, newly updated under President Carter in 1980, would enable them to obtain legal status. The old law had applied primarily to refugees from communist countries. The new one adopted the United Nations definition that anyone with a “well-founded fear of persecution” based on membership in one of several defined categories (race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) should be eligible.
Yet during the 1980s, immigration authorities approved only 1.8 percent of Guatemalans’ applications and 2.6 percent of Salvadorans.’ Nicaraguans fared somewhat better, with 25 percent of applications being approved. Denial of asylum to Guatemalans and Salvadorans was mostly a foreign policy decision. In order to keep US military aid flowing, the government needed to deny that those countries’ governments were committing atrocities, war crimes, and massacres. Granting asylum would have acknowledged that these human rights violations were, in fact, rampant.
Canada, in contrast, accepted 80 percent of its much smaller number of Central American applicants. By 1996, there were forty thousand Salvadorans, thirteen thousand Guatemalans, and over eight thousand Nicaraguans in Canada. After the Central American wars ended, Canada’s policies turned against Central Americans, and migration there slowed considerably.
It’s worth noting the difference between refugee status and asylum. Candidates must apply for refugee status from outside the United States. After what’s usually a lengthy screening process, a person who is approved is eligible for a host of benefits to aid their resettlement in the United States. Asylum is a different process, through which individuals arriving at the border, or already inside the country, can appeal for the right to stay based on criteria similar to those used for refugees—but without the welfare benefits. While there is an annual quota on the number of people granted refugee status, there is no limit on how many asylum applications can be approved.
Both processes were stacked against Central Americans, though. There was no infrastructure in place for in-country processing for Central Americans. For those that applied from inside the United States, officials interpreted Carter’s new law narrowly, despite protests from international agencies, including the UNHCR, arguing that those fleeing violence should be granted refuge even if they fell outside the parameter of persecution based upon membership in a particular group.
Many thousands of Central Americans never even got the chance to apply for asylum. Apprehended at the border, they were placed in detention centers, where mistreatment was rampant.
About the Author
Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and the coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. The author of several books including Undocumented and “They Take Our Jobs!”, Chomsky has been active in the Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for over 30 years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.