Central Americans are one of the fastestgrowing Latin American origin groups in the United States. The 1990 U.S. census enumerated 1.3 million persons of Central American origin, of whom slightly more than 1 million were foreign born. Approximately 8 percent of all Central Americans in the United States reside in the ten states of the American Great Plains, the vast majority in Texas.
The isthmus of Central America encompasses the nations of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. There are an estimated 36 million people in Central America, most of whom are mestizos, but there also are Indigenous groups, especially in Guatemala, and people of African ancestry in the Caribbean coastal areas. The United Nations projects that this population will increase to 58 million by the year 2025. Poverty is widespread: gross national product per capita in 1997 ranged from a low of $410 in Nicaragua to a high of $3,080 in Panama, compared to $29,080 in the United States. Export agriculture dominates the economies of Central America, with coffee, cotton, bananas, beef, and sugar the leading products. The industrial sector grew during the 1960s and 1970s but remains small. With the exception of Costa Rica and Belize, military governments have been a common feature of the political landscape in the region. Mounting political tensions and public discontent with the ruling regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua erupted into civil wars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1990s saw the restoration of peace and the establishment of democratically elected governments in all three countries.
During the worst years of the conflicts the number of immigrants entering the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua grew dramatically. Close to two-thirds of the roughly 1 million Central American immigrants included in the 1990 U.S. census arrived between 1980 and 1990. Advocates of U.S. foreign policy in the region argued that immigration from El Salvador and Guatemala was economically motivated, and to support their argument they pointed to well-established patterns of international migration within the region and significant differences in earnings and living standards between the United States and Central America. Critics of U.S. foreign policy viewed Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the United States as political refugees in search of safe haven. The U.S. government generally denied refugee status to immigrants from the region. In spite of the legal restrictions on immigration to the United States, immigrants from Central America came in large numbers, many without legal documentation.
Central Americans began arriving in the Great Plains in significant numbers during the 1980s as part of a larger stream of foreignborn immigrants attracted to the region by employment opportunities in new or expanding meatpacking plants and other low-wage industries. Intense competition and low profit margins in meatpacking have made the industry very dependent on unskilled immigrant labor. The arrival of Mexican, Central American, and Asian immigrants has transformed many small towns with meatpacking plants, like Lexington, Nebraska, and Garden City, Kansas, into ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse communities. The low wages offered by meatpacking plants and the comparatively low skill levels of many Central Americans and other new immigrants have also created greater levels of poverty in these communities.
The relative youth and size of the new immigrant streams have placed strains on the supply of housing, education, medical care, and basic services available in meatpacking communities. School enrollments have soared, creating overcrowding in classrooms, and there is a growing demand for bilingual and English as a Second Language programs. In the area of health care, most of the current demand for services is related to maternal and child health. As the Central American population ages, the demand will eventually shift to health services for adolescents, adults, and the elderly.
Although they represent a small proportion of all Central Americans in the United States, Central American immigrants in the Great Plains, along with other new immigrant groups, will have an increasingly visible impact on the towns and cities they inhabit because of the comparatively small size and previous ethnic homogeneity of these places.
David P. Lindstrom Brown University
Lamphere, Louise, Alex Stepick, and Guillermo Grenier, eds. Newcomers in the Workplace: Immigrants and the Restructuring of the U.S. Economy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.
Stull, Donald D., Michael J. Broadway, and David Griffith, eds. Any Way You Cut It: Meat Processing and Small-Town America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.