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Nicaraguan Immigration to Costa Rica

Immigration issues generate intense debate in the United States and Western Europe. Who would guess that it has become a contentious matter here in Costa Rica, too? Over the past four decades, war, poverty, dictatorship, revolution, earthquakes, and hurricanes have beset Nicaragua, Costa Rica's northern neighbor. Each new calamity has brought a wave of refugees fleeing south. Approximations vary—no one can know for sure—but high-end estimates guess that 20% of Costa Rica's population today is Nicaraguan. Speaking with a faster, more clipped accent than Costa Ricans, they do not fade into the scenery.

The refrain among Ticos is a familiar one: "They're taking our jobs!" Yet, truth be told, Nicaraguans are performing the low-end labor that Costa Ricans just won't do anymore: your hotel chambermaid may likely be Nicaraguan; the glitzy resort where you're staying was probably built with the sweat of many Nicaraguan construction workers; and the beans that went into that delicious morning cup of Costa Rican java were likely harvested by migrant Nicaraguan coffee pickers.

Relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua went south in 2011 with Nicaragua’s occupation of the 58-square-mile Isla Calero, a Costa Rican island in the San Juan River, which forms the border between the two countries (Nicaragua based its decision to invade on a mistaken designation by Google Maps that Calero was its sovereign territory. Google Maps corrected the error, issuing a statement that its site should not be the arbiter of international boundary disputes.) The standoff continued for months, until the International Court of Justice ruled that the island does indeed belong to Costa Rica. Although relations between Costa Rica and its northern neighbor still remain chilly at this writing, the dispute need not concern you as a visitor.

Updated: 2014-08-15

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