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POLICY ANALYSIS: How CAFTA and Immigration Policy Separate Families

May 21st, 2010

By Galen Cohee Baynes, Nicaragua International Team

When Nancy Dolmo Martínez married a U.S. citizen and migrated to Sacramento to start her family, her mother Martha understood that this distance would redefine their relationship.  However, she didn’t imagine that, due to the stringent requirements demanded of Nicaraguans applying for U.S. tourist visas, she will most likely never be granted the opportunity to visit her daughter in the United States.

With families needing to meet certain
economic standards to receive a tourist visa,
Martha Dolmo and her son Aris have very little
chance of ever visiting their immediate family in the U.S.

The family came to that heart-breaking realization when Nancy’s teenage brother, Aris, was denied a tourist visa by the U.S. embassy in Managua this year.  After gathering all of the required documents, the family borrowed $131 from Nancy’s husband in the United States to pay the fee for an interview with a consular officer at the embassy.  In a country in which an estimated seventy-five percent of the population is living on an income of $2 per day, that $131 is a daunting sum.  As Martha Dolmo noted, “If it weren’t for Nancy’s husband, our family would not have been in a position to pay that kind of money.”

Aris and Martha’s hopeful energy on the day of the interview was quickly crushed.  Just minutes into the process, without having reviewed any of the documents that were listed as requisite, the consular officer asked two questions: What is your family’s annual income?  Does Aris Dolmo have an active bank account?

"After asking these questions [the officer] ended the interview.  She said that [Aris] was denied the visa – that we didn’t make enough money and that he needed to have a bank account.  In other words, if you don’t have money, you don’t get a visa,” reported Martha.  “This makes me so sad because it strips me of any chance to go and visit my daughter.”  To add insult to injury, the $131 interview fee is not returned to an applicant that is denied a visa. 

Businesses sprang up around the U.S. embassy
promising help with the visa application and access
to a green card lottery.  Very few of their clients will
ever be granted legal rights to visit the U.S.

Martha’s confining situation is a result of a broken immigration system whose deficiencies must be viewed in the context of global economic structures.  As globalization based on the neoliberal model has expanded, the restriction of the movement of people has become an important element in preserving a system designed to increase corporate profit.  With free trade opening national borders to the flow of goods, services and capital, transnational corporations are able to benefit by establishing factories (often in tax-exempt free trade zones) in countries where workers are paid much lower wages than in the U.S.  In Mexico and Central America, free trade agreements are simultaneously disrupting traditional agricultural economies through the introduction of artificially cheap, subsidized agricultural products.

When people in Mexico and Central America are forced to abandon farming and search for other means of providing for their families, there are very few options available.  Many enter the informal market, selling water or tortillas on the streets (an estimated sixty percent of the Nicaraguan labor force falls into this category).  Some “lucky” ones might find a factory job in a free trade zone working long hours for an unsustainable wage.  Others might attempt to migrate to countries where higher wages are paid.  But, for business interests that profit from low wages in ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ countries, it makes economic sense to limit the number of people that can legally migrate.  The more desperate, unemployed workers competing for jobs in an ‘underdeveloped’ country, the lower the wage they will be willing to accept.

Under such a cut-throat and calculating system, exceptions will not be made for the sake of a family’s unity.  As Martha recently found out, having a daughter living in the United States does not compensate for your lack of a bank account in the eyes of a U.S. consular officer.  She can see clearly the space she has been relegated within this global hierarchy: “We are a poor country.  When we (go to the U.S.) we bring our poverty with us.  The (U.S.) government has prohibited the entry of people who cannot prove that they have money.  I cannot even visit my own daughter because they do no want any more impoverished people.” 

Galen Cohee Baynes is an educator with Witness for Peace's International Team in Nicaragua.