Central American Immigration
and the U.S. Experience


     The cause for much of the immigration of Central Americans to the United States is somewhat ironic.  Many Central Americans were forced to flee their native lands due to the war and poverty that had overtaken their homelands.  The ironic and sad part about this is that the U.S. was responsible for instigating and perpetuating many of the wars that have left places likes, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in such hazardous conditions; and yet Central American refugees were still seeking prosperity and safety within the borders of the United States, the same place that ignited the downfall of their countries to begin with.(37)

     The early 1980's was when the big influx of Central American immigrants began to make their way to U.S. soil.  Before 1980, refugee status, according to U.S. law, was only to be granted to to those people who were escaping Communist regimes.  This all changed with the passing of the 1980 Refugee Act, which, "declared anyone eligible for political asylum who had suffered persecution or who had a 'well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.'"(38) This new law benefited Central American refugees greatly, as it no longer matterED what form of government was running their country.

     The number of Central Americans in the United States skyrocketed after the passing of this law along with the fact that the condition of many of the Central American countries continued to be in very bad shape.  In Los Angeles, the Salvadoran community had ten times as many people in it in 1983 as it did in 1979, growing from 30,000 to 3000.  These Salvadoran immigrants, along with many others who settled in Washington, D.C. had obviously left El Salvador to escape the strife of the U.S.-funded death squads and warlords that were ruling the country.

     Similarly, Guatemalan communities in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston sprang up as a result of massive immigration from war-torn Guatemala.  The Guatemalan immigrants differed in large part from the Salvadoran ones in the fact that most of them were not from cities or towns, such as the more cosmopolitan Salvadorans, but rather from the highlands, where they had been peasants.  This made the transition to American culture that much more difficult for them.

     Another difficulty for Central American immigrants in general was that many of them knew none or very little English, which made their living conditions that much harder.  Also, in the case of some Guatemalan and other immigrants, their prior experiences had given them knowledge of working in agricultural settings and because they were drawn to their own particular ethnic enclaves that already been established, they were sometimes put in the position where there were no such jobs available in those areas, especially if they were in big cities.

     While U.S. immigration policy tightened throughout the 1980's, causing many potential Central American immigrants to be detained or sent back to their countries, an American, Reverend John Fife, was offering his Tucson, Arizona church up as a safe-haven for Central American immigrants.  Fife, along with a growing number of other Americans were growing increasingly angry with the United States' foreign policy in Central America,  They also believed that many immigrants were not being given the rights that were granted to them in the 1980 Refugee Act.(39)

     Not only did such upheaval by American citizens enable more Central Americans to stay in the U.S., but it was also the inspiration for the creation of many organizations within the U.S. that specifically catered to Central Americans.  One such organization, the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), started in Los Angeles in 1983, has grown into a large support network that helps Central Americans in the LA area, and which has been very resourceful to the members of its community.

     The large Central American communities across the U.S. have altered the dynamics of American as well as Latino-American society as a whole.  The mass exodus of Central Americans from their home countries can be directly linked to the United States' severely intrusive and detrimental interventionist policy.  While living in the U.S. might not be that bad for some Central Americans, it is a shame that so many were forced to leave their homes to come to the place that had treated their nations with such utter disrespect and disregard for humanity as a whole.


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