Nicaraguan immigrants

Despite deep historical ties between Nicaragua and the United States, significant Nicaraguan immigration did not begin until after the start of the Sandinista revolution of the 1970’s. Since then, Nicaraguans have become one of the largest groups of Central American immigrants and have made their presence especially felt in South Florida and Southern California.

Ties between the United States and Nicaragua have historically been marked by U.S. political, economic, and military intervention in the Central American nation. In 1909, for example, the U.S. government supported a revolution that replaced a liberal military ruler with a conservative regime. Afterward, the United States maintained a military presence in the country until 1933, when it defeated an uprising by rebel leader Sandino, Augusto CésarAugusto César Sandino. With support from the United States, General Somoza, AnastasioAnastasio Somoza seized control of Nicaragua in 1936. His sons, Somoza, LuisLuis and Somoza Debayle, AnastasioAnastasio Somoza Debayle, assumed control of the country and continued the family rule through more than four decades.Nicaraguan immigrantsSandinista revolutionNicaraguan immigrantsSandinista revolution[cat]IMMIGRANT
GROUPS;Nicaraguan immigrants[03900]
[cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Nicaraguan immigrants[03900]

Early Immigration

Early immigration from Nicaragua to the United States was facilitated by the country’s political and economic dependency on the United States. Like other Central Americans, some of the earliest Nicaraguans who came to the United States were industrialists and workers associated with the nation’s coffee industry who began going to California;Nicaraguan immigrantsSan Francisco;Nicaraguan immigrantsSan Francisco, California, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

During the 1930’s, Nicaragua’s repressive Somoza regime drove large numbers of people to flee the country. Many of these people settled in California;Nicaraguan immigrantsSouthern California and the state of New York. During World War II and afterward, many Nicaraguans found employment at U.S.-based shipyards and wartime industries in the U.S.-administered Panama CanalPanama Canal Zone, and many of them later moved to San Francisco. By the 1940’s, Nicaraguans were the largest Central American community in the San Francisco Bay area and second only to Mexicans among Latin American immigrants.

According to data from the U.S. Census, some 28,620 Nicaraguans were living in the United States in 1970. Many had immigrated after passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which significantly loosened U.S. immigration rules. Interestingly, most Nicaraguan immigrants during the late 1960’s were women. Domestic workers;Central AmericansMost of them were domestic workers who found employment through well-established immigrant networks in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Impact of the Sandinista Revolution

By 1979, Nicaragua’s Somoza regime had alienated most of its political base and was toppled by a leftist guerrilla organization, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The Sandinistas’ unsteady assumption of power over the next decade triggered the largest exodus of Nicaraguans in the country’s history.

The Sandinista revolution spurred three waves of Nicaraguan immigration to the United States. The first took place during the time of the revolution, when perhaps 20,000 members of wealthy families closely associated with the Somoza regime fled to Miami;Nicaraguan immigrantsMiami, Florida.

The second wave occurred during the early 1980’s. It brought many non-Sandinista members of the new government coalition, along with business people and professionals whose companies had been seized by the state or who found it increasingly difficult to maintain their lifestyle within the constraints of the socialist-leaning government.

Meanwhile, because of the Sandinista government’s efforts to sever Nicaragua’s dependence on the United States and Communism;Central Americafears of the U.S. government that Nicaragua would boost Soviet communist influence in the region, the United States launched a multifaceted assault against the Sandinista regime. U.S. actions included a trade embargo against Nicaragua and support for a counterrevolutionary army in exile that was known as the “Contras.” By 1990, Nicaragua was engulfed in a severe economic crisis and growing violence, and the Sandinistas were voted out of power. The third wave of immigration took place during this period, and brought to the United States thousands of young men of all classes dodging military conscription, along with poor families fleeing the country’s harsh economic conditions and the ravages of a festering civil war.

By the time of the 1990 U.S. Census, the three recent waves of Nicaraguan immigration had brought into the United States 202,658 documented immigrants and an unknown but probably substantial number of undocumented immigrants. The bulk of these people settled in Florida;Nicaraguan immigrantsSouth Florida, where the total Nicaraguan population in Miami;Nicaraguan immigrantsMiami alone was estimated at 175,000 during the early 1990’s. That number made Nicaraguans the second-largest Hispanic community in South Florida after Cubans.

Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinista regime did not receive automatic refugee status or Asylum, political;Central American immigrantsasylum privileges in the United States. Indeed, of those who applied for asylum, only about one-quarter were successful during the 1980’s. In 1997, U.S. deportations of Nicaraguans who were not granted asylum were temporarily halted in 1997. However, during the following year, when the U.S. Congress froze military support for the Contras and Nicaraguan immigration began increasing again, the government reversed its position and began treating Nicaraguans as illegal immigrants. The 1997 [a]Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997federal Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act allowed Nicaraguans who had entered the United States before 1995 to obtain permanent residency.

The exodus from Nicaragua continued during the 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century because of the country’s shattered economy and social conditions. Meanwhile, Nicaraguans have become part of the flood of undocumented immigrants coming to the United States. Most have settled in the well-established Nicaraguan communities of Southern California;Nicaraguan immigrantsCalifornia and South Florida;Nicaraguan immigrantsFlorida, but others have settled in large cities in Texas;Nicaraguan immigrantsTexas. By 2008, the number of Nicaraguans living in the United States was estimated at 300,000, but that figure must be considered conservative because of the undocumented status of many of the immigrants.Nicaraguan immigrantsSandinista revolution

Further Reading

  • Bucuvalas, Tina. South Florida Folklife. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994. One of the chapters in this book provides an overview of Nicaraguan immigration to Miami and traditions maintained by this community.
  • Fernández-Kelly, Patricia, and Sara Curran. “Nicaraguans: Voices Lost, Voices Found.” In Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, edited by Rubén Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Essay detailing the impact of settling in the United States on the children of Nicaraguan immigrants.
  • Menjívar, Cecilia. “Salvadorans and Nicaraguans: Refugees Become Workers.” In Illegal Immigration in America, edited by David Haines and Karen Rosenblum. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Account of the struggles of Nicaraguans fleeing the Sandinista conflict to attain legal status in the United States.
  • Solaún, Mauricio. U.S. Intervention and Regime Change in Nicaragua. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Well-organized historical account of U.S intervention in Nicaraguan politics and its impact.
  • Walker, Thomas. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. History of the Nicaraguan nation and its ties with the United States.


El Rescate


Honduran immigrants

Illegal immigration

Immigration waves

Latin American immigrants

Latinos and immigrants



Salvadoran immigrants