Central Americans in the US

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Central Americans in the US

For more information on Central American history and culture, seeVol. 2: Belizeans, Costa Ricans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Panamanians.


The first officially recorded Central American immigrants entered the United States in 1820. Central Americans continued to immigrate to the United States in small numbers until the mid-20th century. Beginning in 1950, Central American immigration to the United States increased steadily, with a large wave in the 1970s when several Central American countries erupted in civil war. Since then, a number of natural disasters such as hurricanes Mitch (1998) and Stan (2005) and earthquakes have prompted other waves of exodus from Central American countries to the United States.

During the 1950s and 1960s, most Central American immigrants to the United States were middle- and upper-middle-class Panamanians and Hondurans. Many were students pursuing higher education, while others were young professionals in search of advanced career opportunities. In the 1970s, however, the make-up of Central American immigrants changed dramatically. Most were from El Salvador and Nicaragua (where violent civil wars had erupted) and Guatemala (where a repressive military government was in control). The majority were uneducated, illiterate peasant farmers with few, if any, industrialized job skills. For political reasons, these immigrants were rejected as legal immigrants by the United States and were refused refugee status. Those who chose to remain in the United States without official sanction were classified as "illegal aliens." The preferred term in use today among the Hispanic American community, however, is "undocumented migrant."

The passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996 imposed heavy requirements on Central American immigrants before allowing them legal status in the United States. A year later, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act was passed to ease the process of legalization for certain Central Americans.

Refugees from the natural disasters of the 1990s and early 2000s were granted "Temporary Protected Status," allowing them to work in the United States for a limited period of time without being deported. However, there is no process to apply for citizenship included. So, although some 374,000 Central Americans live in the United States under Temporary Protected Status, they will be expected to return to their countries of origin when their allowable time is up.

Because of strict U.S. immigration policies, Central Americans resort to desperate measures to immigrate. Smugglers and "tour operators," sometimes called coyotes, profit from the situation by transporting refugees across the various borders between Central America and the United States. Coyotes may provide false documents and visas for a very high price. For most Central Americans, illegal immigration to the United States is extremely dangerous. In 1981, retired Arizona rancher Jim Corbett, a Quaker, founded the Sanctuary Movement by giving aid to Central American refugees crossing the United States-Mexico border. A year later, Reverend John Fife and the congregation of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, declared their church a "Sanctuary church," sheltering refugees and helping them resettle in the United States. The movement grew throughout the 1980s to include over 500 churches as well as whole cities declaring themselves a "sanctuary city," with local legislation implemented to assist undocumented migrants, often in defiance of federal laws. By the mid-1990s, the Sanctuary Movement faded from public discourse, although many churches and cities continued to claim "sanctuary" status. In response to recent conflicts over proposed immigration policy reforms, the New Sanctuary Movement was convened in 2007 to give undocumented migrants a public voice in the debates and protect them from abuses.

A large majority of Central American refugees settle in Los Angeles, California, sometimes called the "Central American capital of the United States." According to the 2000 U.S. Census, over 370,000 Central Americans lived in Los Angeles. There are also large populations of Central Americans in Miami (128,903), New York City (99,099), Houston (60,642), Dallas (29,150), San Francisco (23,367), and Washington, D.C. (15,803). The state of New Jersey is host to over 80,000 Central Americans, and Georgia and North Carolina are each now home to more than 30,000 Central American immigrants.

Determining the exact number of Central Americans living in the United States is impossible because so many are undocumented migrants not included in official population counts. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 1,686,937 Central Americans, of whom 1,372,428 (81%) were foreign-born, but other estimates are as high as 2 million or more. In 2000, Salvadorans (655,165) were the largest Central American group in the United States, followed by Guatemalans (372,487), Hondurans (217,569), Nicaraguans (177,684), Panamanians (91,723), and Costa Ricans (68,588). Other Central Americans accounted for another 103,721 persons.

Most undocumented Central American immigrants in the United States live in overcrowded slum conditions, hardly better than the Central American refugee camps from which some of them started their journey. As many as 20 people may share a one-room apartment where they sleep and eat in shifts. Landlords exploit the fears of undocumented migrants by charging exorbitant rents and threatening to turn the migrants in to the INS if they do not pay.

Employers also exploit undocumented Central Americans. Lack of documentation, along with a lack of language (the majority speak only Spanish) and appropriate job skills, makes it very difficult for most U.S. Central Americans to find employment. Those who are lucky enough to find jobs are often paid less than minimum wage and expected to work long hours in poor work environments. Fear of detection forces the workers to accept these unfair working conditions. Common employment for undocumented U.S. Central Americans includes unskilled day labor, low-level work in the service industry, construction work for men, and domestic service or work in the garment industry for women. Most jobs are only part-time.

The majority of Central American immigrants of the past few decades suffer from serious physical and mental health problems caused by experiences in their homelands and the difficult journey to the United States. Undocumented migrants are often afraid to go to the doctor or hospital, however, for fear of detection by the INS, so many of their ailments go untreated. A number turn to folk remedies prescribed by sobadors or curanderos (folk healers) or to drink remedios (herbal teas). Others may take advantage of clinics set up specifically for Central American immigrants in cities such as Los Angeles. U.S. Central Americans have also banded together to form organizations to help each other, such as the Central American Refugee Center (CARE-CEN), which has branches nationwide.

Prior to 1982, most undocumented U.S. Central Americans were afraid to send their children to school for fear they would be detected by immigration authorities. In 1982, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children of undocumented migrants are entitled to free public education. Since that time, parents have not had to show evidence of citizenship or legal immigrant status to enroll their children in school. More U.S. Central American children, therefore, now attend school. However, most have had sporadic educations in their home-lands and have a difficult time catching up to their age-appropriate grade level. Language barriers also create problems for U.S. Central American students, many of whom speak only Spanish at home. Older students may also feel resentment towards being treated as children, having functioned as adults in Central America.

Despite the obstacles they face, U.S. Central Americans have created a community in their new homeland. Many Central Americans play in major league U.S. sports, especially baseball. Through education and consciousness-raising, U.S. Central Americans have raised other Americans' awareness of conditions in Central America. And despite their struggles to find employment, and the low wages they often receive when they do, almost 80% of Central American immigrants send money back to family members in their country of origin; an estimated $9.5 billion was remitted in 2007.

Central Americans have traditionally turned to the family for support, but most U.S. Central Americans' families have been torn apart by the violence in their former homelands and separation during immigration. Traditional male and female roles are also disrupted in the United States because finding jobs is often easier for women than for men. In Central America, the man is the undisputed head of the household and chief breadwinner. Some Central American immigrant men who are frustrated and angry at their situation in the United States turn to alcohol and drugs. Some take their frustrations out on the women and children around them, making domestic violence a problem among U.S. Central Americans.


Bachelis, Faren. The Central Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Davy, Megan. "The Central American Foreign Born in the United States," Migration Information Source: U.S. in Focus, http://www.migrationinformation.org/usfocus/display/cfm?ID=385. (8 May 2008).

Inter-American Development Bank. "Survey of Mexican and Central American Immigrants in the United States: August 8, 2007," http://www.iadb.org/news/docs/remitmex.pdf (8 May 2008).

Jensen, Jeffry. Hispanic Americans Struggle for Equality. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Corporation, 1992.

New Sanctuary Movement. http://www.newsanctuarymovement.org (8 May 2008).

Novas, Himilce. Everything You Need to Know about Latino History. New York: Plume, 1994.

—by D. K. Daeg de Mott

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Central Americans in the US