While taking breaks at a local coffee shop, Prof. Maria Cristina Garcia, history, said she recalled spending hours reading local headlines about Cuban refugees in the United States. “It was then that I began to focus on how politicized the entrance of refugees had become,” she said.
Garcia spoke to approximately 80 Cornell students and faculty this past Friday on the topic of “Central American Migration and the Politics of Refuge.”
Her main areas of study focus on U.S. and Latino history, comparative migration and folklore. Garcia began her talk by reminiscing about her days writing her doctoral dissertation on human migration in the United States.
According to Garcia, prior to 1970, migrations throughout Central America were commonplace, especially among Salvadorians who moved into Honduras, and Guatemalans who migrated into Mexico. Studies say that tens of thousands of workers enter Mexico each year due to the booming market for agricultural products.
Garcia noted that the Reagan and Bush administrations were not welcoming to the refugees who fled Central America in the 1980s. She said that the movement of people into the United States and Canada was a powerful tool for foreign policy, as well as a controversial topic for human rights activists. While each country had its own debate about what a refugee is, “politicians are in a difficult situation,” she said.
According to Garcia, if the politicians reduce the number of refugees, nationalists would be upset, if they permit more and more refugees into the country, the possibility of civil discontent is heightened.
An important concept that Garcia introduced was the issue of classifying and defining under what conditions a person is considered a refugee. The United Nations outlined a strict definition in which many conditions for classification were applicable to a small portion of countries’ refugee population. The Cartagena Declarations of 1984 offered a more lenient definition with less guidelines that the United Nations.
Due to the transient nature of the refugee culture, it is difficult to formulate an accurate count of a given refugee population in a country, Garcia said.
“The size of the population also changes when different definitions of the term are used,” she said. For example, human rights activists often are able to inflate their count based on a more open definition.
Garcia identified the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as an important resource for refugees and their rights. The UNHCR plays a role in “helping regions deal with the refugee crisis,” she said. By providing funding to local government, the UNHCR enables the countries to run refugee camps and provide food and medical assistance to refugees.
Unfortunately, Garcia noted that most refugees bypass the camps and live as illegal immigrants in large cities. She claimed that they would rather live illegally than apply to move legally with the possibility of being rejected and sent home. The United States, Canada and Mexico are targets for illegal immigration. She clearly outlined how each of these North American nations dealt with the refugee situation.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico served as the “middle power” as its government challenged the United States’ policies on refugees from Salvador. Mexico asserted the right for Central Americans to challenge their governments when “unjust actions” took place. Mexico was a haven in the 1980s for Guatemalan refugees, so the United States pressured the government to have tighter security on the southern border, which was infamously known for drug trafficking.
The United States was the largest refugee destination for Central Americans in the 1980s. The 1965 Immigration Act enabled the United States to accommodate millions of refugees, but this caused a subsequent drain on economy, so it was replaced by the 1986 Immigration Reform Control Act. “The U.S. had a moral dilemma,” said Garcia, “because it was a major contributing factor to the political unrest in many Central American nations so there was a sentiment that helping the refugees was necessary.”
Canada had limited relations with Central American nations because they had less interaction through international trade. The Canadian government, according to Garcia, made an effort to formulate its own refugee policy to remain separate from that of the United States. Garcia called Canada’s asylum policy “generous” because they accepted 80 percent of their applicants. Specifically, there were large numbers of people from Salvador, Guatemala that took refuge in Canada.
By identifying the changes in refugee policies that took place after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Garcia highlighted the different trends in North America and Central America. In an effort to prevent the entry of terrorists and drugs, Canada and the United States made it increasingly difficult for foreigners to reside in the continent. From 2001 to 2003, refugee admissions into Canada, for example, dropped from 80 percent to 40 percent. However, in other Central American nations, migrations are still occurring at record rates.
Garcia concluded her lecture by noting how difficult it is to control immigration because of the constantly shifting migrant populations and legal loopholes in the current policies.
“It is a common mindset that national security is more important than refugee rights,” she said, so issues concerning illegal immigration have not come up much on the national agenda.
“Professor Garcia enabled me to focus attention on issues that I hadn’t previously associated with the government,” said Ellie Kim ’07.
Keith Poe grad, also was impressed with Garcia’s presentation as he said, “It was interesting that she classified refugees into different categories. People move between countries for various reasons, and she made that point clear to the audience.”
The lecture was co-sponsored by the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Mario Einuadi Center for International Studies as part of the International Studies Planning Program.
Archived article by Sarah Singer
Sun Staff Writer