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Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada (review)

From: American Studies
Volume 48, Number 1, Spring 2007
pp. 171-173 | 10.1353/ams.0.0077

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In this clearly written and engaging treatise, García posits that the United States, Mexico, and Canada reacted to the Central American refugee crisis (1974–1996) on the basis of each state's interest, as well as a consequence of each others' actions. She also pays substantial attention to the grassroots movements and advocacy networks that pushed the agenda on the table in each of these three countries.

García first addresses Central American migration to Mexico. The Central American refugee crisis was particularly challenging for Mexico, not only because it accommodated the largest numbers of Central American refugees, but also because this was the first time in its history that Mexico had become a major refugee destination. While national discussions about migration had previously focused exclusively on out-migration, Mexican authorities now had to turn their attention to their newly found position as a safe haven for refugees. This also meant that Mexico's regional and international credibility now depended on its responses to immigration. This was made even more difficult when the Guatemalan government demanded that Mexico repatriate the refugees, in light of concerns that refugees were providing support to the opposition forces in the refugee camps.

The first group of Central American refugees to arrive in Mexico were the Nicaraguans, who began coming the 1970s, and continued to arrive until the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Mexican government never officially recognized or gave any assistance to the Nicaraguan refugees.

Guatemalans, in contrast, were recognized as refugees, and were placed in refugee camps. Guatemalans had been migrating seasonally to Mexico since the mid-twentieth century for work, and the southern part of Mexico was Guatemalan territory until 1824. In fact, Mexicans presumed that the first wave of Guatemalan refugees in 1980 were the estimated twenty to one hundred thousand seasonal workers that come to Mexico each year. The Mexican government eventually agreed to accept the Guatemalan refugees, so long as they remained in the refugee settlement camps. These camps were initially only along the southern border. However, international organizations and advocacy networks were able to convince Mexican officials that these refugees were in danger, and 18,000 of the 46,000 Guatemalan refugees were relocated further north in Mexico.

While the majority of the Guatemalans who fled to Mexico were agricultural workers, the Salvadorans were more urbanized, and thus more likely to end up in Mexican cities, where they tried to blend in so as to avoid immigration officials. If they were accosted and found to be undocumented, they would be immediately deported to Guatemala, where they often would attempt to enter the country again. In 1990, Mexico deported 126,000 Central Americans, as compared to the 12,133 Central Americans the United States deported in 1989.

The Mexican government established a voluntary repatriation program when the civil conflict allegedly ended and democracy supposedly returned. Many Guatemalans chose to return, while others, hearing of continued violence in Guatemala, elected to remain in Mexico. In 1996, the Mexican government created a special program which allowed Guatemalans to regularize their status, and by the year 2000, around 25,000 Central Americans had taken advantage of these legal provisions and decided to remain in Mexico.

By the late 1980s, there were as many as one million Central American refugees in the United States, as compared to between 500,000 and 750,000 in Mexico. Since the Guatemalans were granted protective status in Mexico, more Guatemalans opted to stay in Mexico, while Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, who were not officially recognized by the Mexican government, were more likely to migrate to the United States. Mexico's policy also allowed U.S. officials to claim that Guatemalans did not need protected status in the United States. As García points out, this is just one of the many examples where Mexican policy has an impact on the United States.

In the United States, refugee advocates claimed that the United States had a moral obligation to help refugees because of the United States's long history of economic and military intervention in Central America. The Reagan and Bush administrations, however, were "reluctant to admit that their policies caused displacement and generated refugees" (33), as this would have...