The issue of whether Central Americans in the United States are ‘political’ or ‘economic’ migrants has been widely debated, yet little empirical research has informed the controversy. Earlier studies have relied primarily on cross-sectional aggregate data. In order to overcome these limitations we draw on recent surveys conducted in five Nicaraguan communities by the Latin American Migration Project. Using retrospective data, we reconstruct a history of a family's migration to the United States and Costa Rica from the date of household formation to the survey date and link these data to national-level data on GDP and Contra War violence. While out migration to both Costa Rica and the United States is predicted by economic trends, US-bound migration was more strongly linked to the level of Contra War violence independent of economic motivations, especially in an interactive model that allows for a higher wartime effect of social networks. We conclude that elevated rates of Nicaraguan migration to the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s were a direct result of the US-Contra intervention. The approach deployed here – which relates to the timing of migration decisions to macro-level country trends – enables us to address the issue of political versus economic motivations for migration with more precision than prior work.
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