Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans
By María Cristina García
April 1, 2006
Central American migration to Canada is a fairly recent development. Until
the 1960s, the country's climate, geographic distance, and cultural unfamiliarity
discouraged migration from Central and South America. However, as Canadian
involvement in Latin American affairs expanded during the administration of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — through
trade, investment, and diplomatic representation — so did its visibility
Canada's generous accommodation of thousands of Cuban and Chilean refugees
during the 1960s and 1970s made it an attractive option for would-be immigrants
and refugees from throughout the Americas over the next few decades. At the
same time, US and Mexican policies toward some Central American refugees also
helped push those flows further northward.
Canada: A "Natural Haven"
Canada's response to the revolutions in Central America, which differed
in significant ways from the United States, made it a natural haven for those
displaced by the political upheaval. While the Reagan and Bush administrations
saw the Central American revolutions as a strategic Cold War struggle for control
of regional allies, Canada's position was more in line with the countries
that supported the Contadora peace process, viewing the conflicts as homegrown,
and the logical consequence of the unequal distribution of economic resources
and political power.
While the United States regarded it their historic right and duty to "protect" the
region, Canada opposed military aid or any actions that might perpetuate the
wars. Instead, Canada stepped up its relief efforts in the region,
channeling funds through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR), the Red Cross, and Canadian NGOs to provide emergency aid such as
food, medicine, and clothing as well as assistance in finding durable solutions and relocating displaced
Canada enacted a variety of measures to protect the displaced. Through UNHCR,
Canadian officials facilitated the immigration of Guatemalan refugees living
in Costa Rica and Mexico.
Canadian consulates in the United States were instructed to issue visas to
Central Americans facing deportation. And the government established a moratorium
on the deportation of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, even if they entered the
Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America,
the majority of them Salvadoran (11,251). Under a special program, 4,444 family
members were allowed entry, bringing the five-year total to 20,955. By
the end of the decade, Salvadorans had replaced Chileans as the principal immigrant
group from Latin America.
The Central Americans' Path to Canada
Overland migration from Central America to Canada also increased as the violence
in the region escalated, refugee camps filled up, and more restrictive immigration
policies were enacted in Mexico and the United States.
Interviews with landed claimants revealed that most had spent some time in
Mexico and/or the United States before moving on to Canada. A 1992 profile
of Salvadorans in Montreal, for example, found that 40 percent had lived in
the United States for at least one year before moving to Canada; 33 percent
had lived in Mexico for at least six months before moving to Canada; and the
rest had chosen Canada as the country of first asylum.
The Salvadorans moved further northward because the approval rate for asylum
applications was generally much higher than in the United States. From
1980 to 1986, for example, between 21 and 60 percent of Salvadoran applications
were approved; and between 28 and 71 percent of Guatemalan applications were
approved. By comparison, only three to five percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan petitions
in the United States were successful during this period.
Central American Numbers
By the end of the 1980s, Salvadorans were the largest group of Central Americans — legal
and undocumented — in Canada. In 1987, there were 22,283 Salvadorans
living legally in Canada, and thousands more were believed to be working in
the underground economy (see Table 1). Most were young, single males.
Table 1. Flow of Central American Immigrants to Canada, 1961 to 2001
|Central America Total
Source: Statistics Canada
Like their conationals in Mexico and the United States, they had urban, working-class
backgrounds and averaged 10 years of schooling. And, as in these other countries,
the young migrants came with a variety of skills and life experiences, or human
capital, and came to occupy important niches in the Canadian economy.
Guatemalans and Nicaraguans were comparatively fewer in number. In 1987, there
were 7,700 Guatemalans and 7,081 Nicaraguans. Some attributed the
smaller numbers of Guatemalans to UNHCR policies that encouraged them to remain
closer to their country of origin to facilitate repatriation. Indeed, Guatemalans
living in Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica were more likely to repatriate in
the 1990s than those living in northern countries.
The settlement patterns established by the first refugees in the early 1980s — most
of whom settled in Mexico — also affected the destinations of those who
followed later in the decade. Early Nicaraguan migrants, in turn, settled
largely in the United States and Costa Rica, and these communities served as
magnets for those who emigrated later in the decade.
Nicaraguans who traveled to Canada found it slightly easier than other Central
Americans to receive asylum but, as in the United States, after the defeat of the Sandinistas
in 1990, Nicaraguan petitions were increasingly denied since the justification
for migration was believed to no longer exist.
Central Americans in Canada as a whole were concentrated in two cities. In 1987,
roughly 15,000 Central Americans lived in Montreal and some 6,000 lived in
Toronto. Over half of the men were employed in construction, manufacturing,
and service occupations. One-third of women were employed in service
occupations, and another third were employed in managerial, clerical, or professional
IRCA's Effect on Canadian Policy
A change in US immigration policy forced the Canadian government to adjust
its own immigration policies reciprocally, demonstrating the impact that policy
changes in one state can have on its neighbors. In 1986, the US Congress
passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which created
a series of measures to restrict the number of undocumented workers in the
country, among them an expanded border patrol, tougher status verification
criteria, and penalties on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers.
As a result, Canada experienced a dramatic rise in the number of petitions
for asylum as immigrants of many different countries left the United States and traveled
northward in search of work and safe haven. In just one year, the Canadian consulate in Los Angeles saw a 500 percent increase in the number
of Central Americans seeking assistance to come to Canada. Others
asked for asylum at border points or entered illegally.
From December 1986 to February 1987, 10,000 refugees, most of them Central
Americans, entered Canada, encouraged in part by the Spanish-language press,
immigration lawyers, and sanctuary workers in the United States who alerted
them to Canada's more generous policies. Church, Salvation Army,
and Red Cross shelters on both sides of the border — Montana/Alberta,
North Dakota/Manitoba, New York/Ontario-Quebec — hosted thousands of
refugees awaiting their hearings.
The increased number of asylum seekers focused attention on the limitations
of Canada's asylum determination process. The 1976 Immigration
Act had created a bureaucratically cumbersome process under the Refugee Status
Advisory Committee (RSAC) and the Immigration Appeals Board (IAB). These were
adequate in the 1970s when inland applications stood at only 200 to 400 per
But the architects of the Immigration Act never envisioned that one day thousands
of people would ask for asylum at border checkpoints at Windsor, Niagara Falls,
or Lacolle. By the end of the 1980s, Canada had a backlog of 121,000
Over the next few years, a series of bills were introduced into parliament
to reform the immigration and refugee bureaucracy, exert better control of
the border, and discourage "frivolous claims." While Central
American refugees were not the specific targets of these bills, the so-called "border
rush" of the late 1980s was a one of a series of high-profile incidents
that contributed to the intolerance towards immigration.
Public opinion polls demonstrated a growing opposition to Canada's more
generous policies even though yearly immigrants consistently numbered less
than one percent of the total population. Bill C-55, passed in
1988, established a new tribunal, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB),
to streamline the processing of asylum claims, eliminate the backlog, and facilitate
Bill C-84 introduced new "detention and deterrence" measures,
among them tougher criminal penalties on those who "smuggled" or
aided the undocumented. In 1993, the passage of Bill C-86 established
tougher criteria for asylum, resettlement, and detention, including an expanded
list of criteria by which an applicant might be determined inadmissible.
Some of the bills' more restrictive measures were mediated or eliminated
in part due to pressure from immigration and refugee advocates who lobbied
and threatened lawsuits in order to keep the determination system fair and
accessible. These advocates — affiliated with church groups, charitable
and professional organizations, universities, labor groups, and other NGOs — staged
rallies, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and various forms of civil
disobedience to remind the state of its humanitarian and international obligations.
Although a minority viewpoint, they were influential in countering the anti-immigrant
Many of these advocates were actively involved in assisting the Central American
refugees and in protesting US militarization of the region. Through articles,
editorials, and testimonies, they documented the abuses of war and helped keep
attention focused on Central America.
Central American Migration Post-1996
After the elections and peace settlements of the 1990s, Central America's
refugees ceased to occupy a prominent role in Canadian public discourse. It
is unclear how many Central Americans living in Canada actually returned to
their homelands after the peace accords were signed.
Based on anthropological studies that have examined links between immigrant
communities in North America and the homeland, it is probable that those who
legalized their status in Canada have maintained a transnational existence.
This means they have likely invested in a variety of capital in both old and
new homelands and blurred the borders in spite of state policies to reinforce
Migration from Central America continued after civil war ended in 1996 but
for different reasons. From 1996 to 2001, Central Americans emigrated
to escape ongoing criminal and political violence, as well as natural disasters
that disrupted the economy and exacerbated the poverty. Migration from
Honduras and Nicaragua to North America increased as a result of Hurricane
Mitch (1998), and from El Salvador after the earthquakes of 2001.
The 2001 Canadian Census showed 39,200 Salvadoran immigrants and nonpermanent residents; 14,095 Guatemalans; and 9,535 Nicaraguans (see Table 2). Like many immigrants, the majority were concentrated in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Table 2. Central American Population in Canada by Country of Birth and Status, 2001
||Total Immigrants and Nonpermanent Residents
|Central America total
Source: Statistics Canada
These numbers were small compared to US figures. By 2004, Salvadoran officials
estimated that nearly one-fourth of all Salvadorans lived in the United States
alone, and sent close to US$2 billion in remittances each year.
Central Americans who now wish to enter Canada legally generally do so as
landed immigrants rather than as refugees or "protected persons." However,
since Canadian legislation favors immigrants with certain skills and work experiences,
and who can speak English or French, this excludes many Central Americans.
Those who legally immigrate tend to enter as members of the "family
class," which reunites Canadian residents with their family members.
Adoption is another means by which Central Americans — in this case,
children — have become permanent residents.
Since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, it
is much more difficult to immigrate or receive asylum in North America. The
United States, Mexico, and Canada have all revamped their immigration bureaucracies,
increased security personnel at airports and border checkpoints, and enacted
new — and highly controversial — detention and deportation procedures
in order to discourage terrorists from establishing a foothold in their societies. Unfortunately,
immigrants and refugees have become casualties of these new policies.
As a result of all these new measures, the number of overall refugee claims
in Canada fell from a record high of 44,063 in 2001 to less than half that number
in 2003. Immigration numbers also failed to reach government targets.
Central American petitions for both asylum and landed status have been affected. Theoretically,
Central Americans are still able to receive refugee or protected status if
they are able to prove a credible risk to their lives. IRB regularly updates its country profiles to help evaluate
such claims. However, it has become increasingly difficult to receive
a favorable verdict through the refugee bureaucracy. Landed immigration is
considered the only realistic means to enter the country legally but eligibility is also
For those willing to take the risk, illegal immigration along the porous US-Canada
border is an option. News stories in the Mexican press report the many dangers
that the transmigrantes face in reaching the United States and Canada,
and hundreds die each year at the hands of gangs, corrupt police forces, and
Some argue that a guest worker program in Canada, recently proposed by Mexican
President Vicente Fox, would help Mexicans and Central Americans find employment
and address some of the economic problems that propel them northward.
María Cristina García, a professor in the history department at Cornell University, recently published Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, published by University of California Press. Information on the book is available here.
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