Illegal immigration is not just a problem in the United States. It is here in the sweltering lowlands of Central America, too, as people from impoverished countries try to reach developing nations.
About 86 million of the world’s 214 million migrants are in developing countries, where citizens often complain that the newcomers drive down already low wages and burden shaky social services. In Costa Rica, the government has imposed new rules criminalizing immigrant smuggling, raising the financial requirements for legal residency and making it harder to get residency by marrying a Costa Rican.
Costa Rica ranks 97th in the world in per capita income, at $10,900 a year–poorer than Mexico, Venezuela or migrant-sending nations in the Old World like Bulgaria and Turkey. Nicaragua, just to Costa Rica’s north, is worse off: The average income is $2,800 a year, making it the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.
The disparity has drawn about 74,000 migrants to Costa Rica since 2002, swelling its population of foreign-born people by 26%. The country now has 350,000 migrants, out of a population of about 4.5 million, giving it the highest immigration rate of any country in Latin America.
Other Nicaraguans work in construction, as maids and as security guards in San José, the capital. Some guard parked cars, collecting a few colo´nes for the service. About 30,000 come illegally to work in orange orchards and banana plantations during the harvest season, said Salvador Gutiérrez, an expert at the International Organization for Migration based in Geneva.
For decades, the migrants were mostly tolerated, Gutiérrez said. But the economic slump has many Costa Ricans worried that migrants are taking their jobs.
In Peñas Blancas, Costa Rican authorities have built a mile-long, 8-foot-high wall to try to discourage migrants.
“We catch them and deport them, and a few days later, you see the same people again,” said Dagoberto Briceño, a Costa Rican federal police officer.
In the past, many of the Nicaraguans in Costa Rica would have gone to the U.S., said immigrant Cristian Martínez, 20. But stricter border enforcement and rising violence by Mexico’s gangs have deterred many.