Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nicaraguan Migration

This morning I attended a presentation at the Casa Ben Linder on the reconfiguration of Nicaraguan transnational families. The speakers were Cándida Rosa Gomez, a researcher with Jesuit Migrant Services, and Kristin Elizabeth Yarris, a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Department of Anthropology and a Fulbright Scholar. Their presentation focused on the social, cultural, and economic consequences of migration for the sending families and communities. Immigration is a multi-faceted and ever-present issue for the United States, and hearing about it from the perspective of those left behind brings to light several factors that are often overlooked in the debate.

First of all, it is important to note that the Nicaraguan immigration phenomenon includes immigrants in the United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, and other Central American countries. In fact, 50% of Nicaraguan migrants go to Costa Rica. This phenomenon can be studied from the perspective of those leaving because they cannot find living wage jobs in Nicaragua, the perspective of youth leaving to find better opportunities, or the perspective of a gendered lens looking at the increasing numbers of women leaving their children behind, just to name a few. The feminine perspective is currently one of the most neglected viewpoints in the academic world, which is why Gomez and Yarris chose to make it the focus of their presentation. Additionally, gender is what makes Nicaraguan immigration different from other Latin American immigration, with single mothers looking for a way to support their children making up a majority of Nicaraguan immigrants.

Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica face many of the same dangers and documentation struggles that Latin American immigrants in the U.S. encounter. Crossing the border itself is dangerous, and once in Costa Rica, immigrants can’t return to Nicaragua and are always facing the threat of deportation. One frequently overlooked aspect of the struggle is that while Nicaraguan immigrants in Costa Rica are paying into the tax system, they have no guarantee of receiving the benefits, such as healthcare in their old age. At the same time, though, the families they have left behind often don’t have someone in the workforce in Nicaragua, so they are missing out on benefits as well. Immigrants to the U.S. also slip through this crack.

Another major issue in the immigration debate are the remittances that immigrants send back to their home countries. The families in Yarris’ study receive an average of $100 a month from their migrated member, and most of these families state that this money is still not enough to live off of. In Nicaragua, remittances make up 7% of the GNP, and 8.1% of households receive them. Of these households, 73.7% are receiving remittances from family in the U.S., while 23.5% are receiving remittances from family in Costa Rica. But who else is “benefitting” economically from this phenomenon? Gomez and Yarris mentioned both Western Union, who charges quite a bit for money transfers, and cell phone companies (such as Claro and Movistar in Nicaragua, both part of larger multinational telecommunications networks), who allow families to keep in touch.

Yarris’ research focuses on the children left behind by migrant mothers and the grandmothers who often assume responsibility for them. She is looking at how families shift to care for these children and how these changes affect gender relations within the families. Often, children left behind do not show their mothers affection, despite the fact that they are well-aware of who their mothers are. Communities also look down on these women as having become too “liberal” or “loose” because of their immigration experience. These circumstances create a situation of double-denial or double-discrimination for the women. Additionally, an interesting factor to keep in mind when thinking about the grandmothers-turned-mothers is that they are often quite young - perhaps only 40 years old. Young enough to have the energy to care for children, but old enough that it is difficult to find work in Nicaragua. They are left behind, too, and their grandchildren fill the void left by their own daughters.

For more information, check out some of Jose Luis Rocha's work. Rocha is a leading researcher on immigration with Jesuit Migrant Services, and some of his articles can be found here.