Continuous migration has made it difficult to determine accurately the size and social composition of the Belizean population and to project future growth. Although small numbers of Belizeans have emigrated to Britain, Canada, and the West Indies, the principal destination of most Belizean emigrants has been the United States. Estimates of the Belizean population in the United States have varied between 30,000 and 100,000. The United States Embassy in Belize has estimated that in 1984, about 55,000 Belizeans were residing in the United States, with two of three living there illegally. Settling primarily in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans, most of these emigrants were either Creole or Garifuna. Their remittances, estimated at US$11 million in 1984, played an important role in the subsistence of many Belizean households, especially in Belize City and Dangriga. Later estimates were that as many as 65,000 Belizeans were living in the United States by mid-1988, with the majority ranging in age from twenty to thirty-four.

Estimates of the immigrant population in Belize also varied widely. According to the 1980 census, more than 10 percent of the population, or roughly 15,000 people, were born in other countries. One of two immigrants came from either Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, or El Salvador. By the late 1980s, these figures were considerably higher because immigration continued, albeit on a lesser scale, over the course of the decade. The percentages of immigrants who were from Mexico and Central America, the numbers of foreign-born refugees, and the numbers of Belizeans who had been born in other countries all increased. The number of Salvadoran refugees living in Belize was estimated at between 2,000 and 15,000 in the late 1980s, and recent studies claim that between 25,000 and 31,000 citizens of neighboring republics had entered the country since 1977.

The presence of these "aliens," as they were popularly known, was visible in Belize. As of 1991, Salvadoran and Guatemalan vendors lined the sidewalks of Belize City's main commercial street and were prominent in the marketplaces of Orange Walk, Dangriga, and especially the capital, Belmopan. Belizeans derisively dubbed a recently developed satellite shantytown in Belmopan as "Salvapan." Along the remote Hummingbird and Southern highways, the fields of the new migrants cut dramatic swaths in the previously uninhabited forest. This situation raised environmentalists' concerns about soil erosion. Although Central American immigrants have settled throughout the country, they have been most heavily concentrated in the rural areas of Cayo and Toledo districts.

The emigration of English-speaking Creoles and Garifuna to the United States and the immigration of Spanish-speaking Mestizos from Central America exacerbated ethnic tensions and challenged long-held assumptions regarding the character of Belizean culture, which has traditionally been oriented toward the English-speaking Caribbean. Although they comprised only 40 percent of the total population in 1980, Creoles long considered Belize "their" country--black, English-speaking, and Protestant. Moreover, Guatemala's persistent claim to Belize's territory caused many Belizeans, especially Creoles, to be antagonistic toward Hispanic culture. A key problem in the drive toward building the Belizean nation was the substitution of an ideology of cultural pluralism for undisputed Creole cultural dominance. Neither educational efforts nor political rhetoric has been completely successful in this regard. Indeed, by the early 1990s, many Belizeans were apprehensive of increasing ethnic tension.


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