Canada and Central America: Immigration in the ’80s

27 years ago this November, my mom and dad jumped headfirst into uncertainty. 27 years ago, they immigrated to Canada from El Salvador.

Times were tough for my parents—my dad often shares stories at the dinner table of their first experiences here: their first cold November (“the trees had no leaves!”), the first place they called “home” (a small apartment), the first dinner (spaghetti), even the first purchase (a Sony boombox, which to this day, my dad still uses).  In spite of the hurdles, my parents toughed it out. They had to. Being Salvadorians (and Central American for that matter) in the 1980s meant living in a climate of civil war, and my parents, like so many Salvadorians, sought to escape.

The timing of my parents’ anniversary coincides with a new immigration issue circulating among Canadians: the Syrian refugee crisis. While my parents entered Canada as landed immigrants (not refugees), their anniversary, along with the current refugee crisis, has prompted me to reflect on how this country handled one of its many immigration waves: the Central America’s immigration wave of the ’80s.

But Why Canada?

If you’re a Central American refugee in search of a new home in the 1980s, Canada is geographically and demographically an odd choice.

Moving to the US would have made more sense: Central American-US relations were stronger than Canadian-Central American, the US was closer in proximity than Canada, and there were many already-established Latino communities in the country. To emphasize this point: in 1980, there were 94,000 Salvadorian immigrants living in the US (Terrazas, 2010). The Salvadorian population in Canada in 1987 was only a quarter of this: just under 22,300. Australia, another geographic and demographic outlier, was another country which grabbed Salvadorians’ interest: by the end of the 80s, over 3000 Salvadorians had chosen the land down under as their home (Gammage, 2007).

So why would Salvadorians opt for Canada, a place so far, so Anglophone, and so cold? It came down to policy.

Canada’s relationship with El Salvador

To understand how Canada ever opened its borders to Central Americans, it’s important to understand Canada’s relationship with the region.

canada flag
Canada was out of the way for many Central Americans, but that didn’t stop them from applying

Historically speaking, up until the 1960s, Central America was little more than a blip on Canada’s foreign relations radar. Canada saw the region as one with little economic and social significance—Canadians, as Jonathon Lemco writes, had a hard time identifying with Central America because for many, the region was personally insignificant. They identified more with their European roots. Furthermore, on a national level, Canada saw the region as one dominated by US business interests and as such felt little need to focus its resources within the region. Indeed, companies such as the United Fruit Company rendered Central America as little more than a place made up of “banana republics” (and I don’t mean the clothing outlet). Canada would only really intervene in the region on the basis of protecting British interests, such as when it sent two navy warships to El Salvador to protect British railways and plantations during the country’s 1932 peasant uprising, one which resulted in the deaths of 30,000 peasants (p. 1).

Fast forward to 1968. Pierre Elliot Trudeau becomes Canada’s newest Prime Minister. He immediately recognizes the economic and political significance of the region, one which becomes more apparent as the Cold War progresses.

To this end, his government joined the Inter-American Development Bank in 1971 and doubled the amount of financial aid sent to the region to CAD $13.07 million (p. 3). Despite these developments, however, the personal connection that existed between European countries and Canada remained non-existent between Central America and Canada. Central America just could not attract those within academic and journalistic circles. That would change in the 1980s.

In 1979, after decades of military dictatorships and economic pitfalls, El Salvador plunged into a civil war that would last from until 1992 between the leftist FMLN (which would become a political party at the conclusion of the war) and El Salvador’s government. As a country which prided itself in democratic thinking, it was hard for Canada to ignore the conflicts happening in El Salvador and its neighbouring countries. Indeed, in 1983, two Canadian parliamentary reports outlined the “deteriorating human rights record” in El Salvador as well as the newfound Canadian public interest surrounding Central America and the Caribbean. This prompted Canada to (throughout the decade) criticize governments that violated human rights while continuing to send million in foreign aid to NGOs.

Equally as important, the country evaluated its role in admitting refugees. Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America, of which over 70%—11,251—were from El Salvador (Garcia, 2006). By the end of the decade, El Salvador had surpassed Chile as the largest immigrant group from Latin America in Canada.

Where to go?

Pierre Elliot Trudeau
Trudeau Sr. was the first Canadian Prime Minister to take give attention to Central America

Both the US and Canada had a sense of humanitarian responsibility (especially when it concerned an area as geopolitically important as Central America during the Cold War), but because the US had its own interests to protect within the region, it approached the region with an added sense of duty to thwart off the threat of communism (a sense that wasn’t limited to Central America). Canada, on the other hand, had little interests established within the region, and thus opposed any major military action. Instead, it opted to act by financially aiding Central America (despite cries of human rights abuses and claims that Honduran funds were used to fund Contra forces) and supporting US-backed elections within the region, while at the same time committing itself to the Contadora Peace Process (Garcia, 2006, pp. 127). To this end, it opted to assist Central Americans by facilitating immigration.

My parents were caught in the thick of the civil war. They applied for visas in three different countries: the US, Australia, and Canada. It just so happened that Canada got back to them with a golden ticket first. Australia followed shortly after, and the US even further after, but by then my parents had already made the choice to pack their bags and fly up north.  Had history played out a little differently, I would be writing this from the perspective of an Australian.

Nevertheless, this was a testament to just how much more ready Canada was to taking in Salvadorian immigrants. According to Maria Garcia,

from 1980 to 1986…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.

The odds were in your favour if you applied to move to Canada. A number of Salvadorians coming into Canada got in by obtaining visas while they were in the US, as Canadian consulates in the US were instructed to issue visas to Salvadorian refugees facing deportation. Canada also made a series of political moves to help Salvadorians, such as establishing a moratorium on the deportation of Salvadorian students and visitors from the country in 1981. Indeed, following the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) recommendation, Trudeau’s government steadily “increased its refugee quota…from one thousand in 1981 to two thousand in 1983 and twenty-five hundred in 1984” (Garcia, 2006, p. 129).

In 1986, US Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act which made it even harder for Central Americans to get into the US legally as it expanded border patrols and introduced tougher identification requirements (Part B, Section 111). As a result, the number of refugees seeking to enter Canada rose—according to Garcia, by the end of the 1980s “Canada had a backlog of 121,000 asylum cases”. In the new millennium after the Central American civil wars, immigration to Canada has declined.

How do we go forward?

My mom and dad often remind me of the challenges they faced entering this country; a language barrier, feelings of isolation, and an unfamiliarity with a culture would make anyone want to turn around and head back to their homeland (as many Salvadorians did, although the exact figure is unknown). However, being the strong spirits that they are, my parents put their heads down and plowed through any obstacles thrown at them.

With the Syrian refugee crisis in the public consciousness, it has been hard for me to ignore El Salvador’s past and how Canada’s immigration policy in the 1980s affected the lives of so many Central Americans. A lot of good came from the initiative, but consequently, new issues were created.

The UNHCR was vocal on having Canada admit refugees from Central America

For instance, remittance dependency from relatives carries serious political and socio-economic implications. Unfortunately, it’s an issue and it’s an issue present throughout Central America—the World Bank reported in 2014 that 16.8% of El Salvador’s GDP came from remittances. This is up from 15.7% in 2011. The figure is noticeable when compared to its neighbour, Costa Rica, which in 2014, relied on remittances for only 1.2% of its total GDP. Additionally, there is a social aspect of accepting refugees that must be given attention, not just in the context of accepting them within our borders, but also within the context of integrating them into our communities (whether is finding a job or addressing mental health issues). Danielle Dubois argues in her thesis that Salvadorian refugees were “dehumanized” in newspapers throughout the refugee process and were thus never really able to earn “acceptance” into Canadian societies.

Thus, while it is important to carry out humanitarian initiatives, one should be careful to not overlook the broader social implications that immigration has on both the new homes and the homelands of asylum-seekers. Unfortunately, these implications are often only clear in hindsight. And for Justin Trudeau, it may take a while for hindsight to kick in: while there were many Salvadorians and Central Americans who came through Canada’s borders in the 1980s, the rate at which they arrived pales in comparison to Canada’s promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February. While it’s a large number of refugees, it’s not a novel task for Canada: in times like these, it’s important to remember that the country was able to accommodate 60,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.

Taking in a neighbour is not a bad thing. Aside from the subzero temperatures, Canada has been nothing short of great to my parents. In terms of the current refugee crisis, my mom wants to throw her hat in the ring and help out because she knows how rough the immigration process can be.

However, times and circumstances have changed since the 1980s. While Canada has been lauded for its current refugee plan, it’s hard to ignore the intricacies of the initiative. I have no doubt that with the current economic climate, and with the security concerns in France in recent weeks, Trudeau’s actions will be watched under the finest of microscopes.


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