Columnas / Migration
Central Americans Can Be Key to American Renewal

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Óscar Chacón

40 years has brought many changes. Today, Central American nationals represent the third largest group of foreign nationals of Latin American origin in the country, after Mexicans and the combined total of Caribbean nationalities. However, Salvadoran nationals alone represent the second largest group of Latin American nationalities residing in the United States, after Mexicans.

Of the nearly 5 million people living in the country who identify as Central Americans, about two million of them were born in the United States. As far as how many of them are eligible U.S. voters, there are no reliable available numbers. However, most projections put that number at at least one million.

As is the case with the rest of the population of Latin American or Caribbean origin, Central Americans are a very diverse group when it comes to political opinions and political party preferences. One characteristic of the Central American population is that they have had a particular history of discrimination when it comes to their U.S. immigration experience. During the 1980’s, the decade in which Central Americans became a key factor in Latin American immigration to the United States, petitions for asylum were denied at a rate of over 94 percent. However, the clever political organizing by Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the 1980’s, and their ability to build broad political alliances, made it possible to generate measures of protection resulted from litigation processes in the U.S. Courts. In addition, Central Americans were actively engaged in policy advocacy work. They led efforts challenging US support for murderous regimes in Central America, as well as changes to U.S. immigration policy. Temporary Protected Status would not have come about without the persistent advocacy efforts by organized Central American communities.

Because of the history of discrimination, which in many ways has been repeating itself throughout the past decade, Central Americans are likely to be part of the nearly 70 percent of so called Latino voters who prefer Joe Biden over Donald Trump. That preference is primarily based on the belief that if Donald Trump is reelected, critical programs such as TPS and DACA, which have protected many Central Americans, will be surely over. In addition, the systematic denial of humanitarian protection to Central Americans seeking asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection will likely become out of reach all together.

In addition to immigration-related concerns, most Central Americans who are able to vote in the United States are also likely to be supporting Joe Biden because we would like to see the United States take a different approach when it comes to its regional policy. Events over the past ten years have resulted in a gradual backsliding in democratic governance within several Central American nations, which must change. It is also urgent to adopt new approaches when it comes to building true economic and social development opportunities for most people in Central America. 

What many Central Americans want are policy initiatives designed at transforming Central American societies into places from where fewer and fewer people have to flee. The best treatment to irregular migration is not to build more anti-immigration mechanisms, including walls. In the short term, migration will likely continue to be necessary. Therefore, it should be realistically managed, not contained. Meanwhile, building opportunities, while strengthening democratic forms of governance, is the best way to strike a healthy balance, as most Central Americans, if provided with real opportunities for a safe and dignified life in their countries, would prefer to remain at home. This conversation is nearly impossible with the Trump Administration, but not so with a possible Biden one.

Last, Central Americans have a vested interest in being active participants in the search for a new economic, social, and political contract in the United States. Such a contract must recognize the need to correct the disastrous economic inequalities of today, the urgency to profoundly improve social protections, beginning with a serious tackling of the health care challenges that affect so many working families. In addition, Central Americans must be an ever more active part of a political movement intended to restore faith in democracy. Central Americans must go back to their roots as a source of creative organizing strategies and broad alliance builders. 

Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s made major contributions in terms of reviving the labor union movement in the United States, injecting new energy in the small and medium business sector, changing U.S. immigration policy to produce tangible benefits such as better protections for asylum seekers and temporary protection mechanisms. However, the challenges of today are much bigger. Central Americans are in a great position to actively contribute to making the United States of America a better Union, while also working to improve our countries of origin to gradually turn them into nations where most people are able to fulfill their aspirations and are not forced to leave.

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