California State University, Long Beach
Inside CSULB Logo

Immigrants Adapt To Costa Rica

Published: December 19, 2016

This banner was created at an intercultural festival. It says “lo que nos une” (What Unites Us) and was decorated by participants with thoughts, reflections and images of what unites individuals, regardless of immigration status.
This banner was created at an intercultural festival. It says “lo que nos une” (What Unites Us) and was decorated by participants with thoughts, reflections and images of what unites individuals, regardless of immigration status.

In a time of unprecedented movement of people worldwide, Caitlin Fouratt, director of Global Migration Studies at CSULB, looks at the issue from Costa Rica’s point of view.

As an anthropologist, she has studied migration in Costa Rica since 2005. Over the past 10 years, her work has focused on how immigrants and refugees adapt to the country and its increasingly restrictive immigration policies.

Fouratt visited the Central American nation from July to August with nine CSULB majors in international studies, women’s, gender and sexuality studies, political science and anthropology as well as a CSULB student assistant with the goal of teaching a study abroad class on “Power and Violence in Latin America.” As part of her research with the international organization RET (Refugee Education Trust) and its focus on young refugees, she invited her students to an intercultural festival where they sampled food, took a dance class and interacted with refugees from all over Latin America.

While in Costa Rica, Fouratt also interviewed nongovernmental organization (NGO) staff, government officials and refugee applicants to learn more about the increase in refugees to Costa Rica from other Central American countries, especially El Salvador.

“The new scale and diversity of refugees is challenging tiny Costa Rica’s capacity to manage these populations and ensure protection of their human rights,” she said. “The U.S. plan for Costa Rica to temporarily host up to 200 refugees from Central America while they are processed for placement in the U.S. or elsewhere will only add to this challenge.”

Her research has left Fouratt critical of the Costa Rican immigration system.

“However, I feel Costa Rica treats would-be refugees more humanely than does the U.S.,” she said. “For instance, there is almost no detention of would-be refugees there. When I interviewed representatives of NGOs and told them about family detention in the U.S., they were horrified that anyone would lock up women and children, especially those who already have faced significant trauma and are fleeing violence.”

Fouratt found that Costa Rican immigration authorities were predisposed to believe and support refugee claims.

“The Costa Rican Ministry of Migration even sent officials to El Salvador to visit the gang-ravaged neighborhoods,” she recalled. “The head of a refugee unit told me how he attended a meeting about gangs only to have the meeting surrounded by gang members. Nothing drove home the point about what the refugees were fleeing better than that.

‘The Costa Rican Ministry of Migration is more willing to accept refugee claims than the U.S. government,” she added. “The Costa Rican government also is more willing to issue work permits to refugees. They do not detain them at all. While the U.S. has thousands of women and children held in detention, in Costa Rica, refugees submit their paperwork and go about their lives.”

Although both the U.S. and Costa Rica are receiving large numbers of Central American refugees, the dynamics are different.

“In the U.S., we see families where parents already are living in the U.S. often as undocumented immigrants. Their children are now coming across the border alone to reunite with their parents and flee violence in their homeland,” she explained. “While Costa Rica is a small country and the immigration numbers aren’t as big as the U.S., there has been a fourfold increase in refugees from just a few years ago. By June of this year, more Salvadorans had come to Costa Rica than all of last year.”

The minor in Global Migration Studies that Fouratt directs is an interdisciplinary program to provide CSULB students with an understanding of migration’s causes, effects and impacts as well as a critical comparative framework for migrant experiences.

“This minor helps prepare CSULB students for careers in education or public service in local or state government,” Fouratt said. “International Studies’ students end up working all over the world. Those who contemplate careers with such international agencies as the United Nations will see enrollment in Global Migration Studies as a strength.”

Fouratt teaches the International Studies foundation class for minors called “Migration and Modernity,” a course that has students from all over the world.

“I have students with different migration statuses and some undocumented students,” she said. “It is an issue that not only interests our students but one which our students have lived with their families.”

She points out that Southern California is a major recipient of immigration, noting that the state is ahead of the national curve politically in terms of welcoming immigrants and the policies that have been put forward to help immigrants that you don’t see in other states across the country.

Fouratt received her M.A. in Latin American Studies from Cambridge University in 2006 and doctorate in anthropology from UC Irvine in 2014, the same year she joined CSULB.

Fouratt believes in the future of Global Migration Studies at CSULB.

“I want to grow the program with a boost in enrollment and by increasing partnerships with community organizations such as the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition,” she said. “I want our students to acquire hands-on experience working with migrant populations. I want them to acquire professional experiences to weave into their professional careers. I want to promote faculty research into immigration studies. This university isn’t aware yet of all the amazing projects faculty are developing on migration around the world.”

Fouratt plans to run the course again next summer so individuals interested in going may contact her via e-mail.