DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The U.S. immigration system sometimes has welcomed Central Americans fleeing violence. Consider Nicaragua, where NPR's Carrie Kahn has been reporting recently. Many people fled the country during its war in the 1980s.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Most of the immigrants that have come from Nicaragua to the U.S. were political refugees during the time of the Sandinista war with the U.S.-backed Contras, so they got political asylum. They came legally and came as whole families. A lot of what's driving the current phenomenon is family reunification - these kids want to get back together with father or mother or a family member in the U.S. Nicaraguan families came together.
GREENE: That history helps explain why Nicaragua isn't producing that many child migrants today. Carrie Kahn says that's just one way Nicaragua is different from other Central American countries.
KAHN: The escape valve for Nicaragua is to the south. It's Costa Rica. It's not to the U.S. It's not that Nicaraguans aren't leaving Nicaragua - they are. It is one of the poorest countries in the region and recently - I think two days ago I was just by the Costa Rican Embassy here and the line to get a visa was about 300 long - hours you wait in line.
GREENE: It's interesting, Carrie Kahn, because you're bringing up a lot of differences and issues that I didn't expect you necessarily to talk about. I was thinking more of something like, the murder rate. Is Nicaragua not plagued by the kind of gang and organized crime violence that has been driving some of these kids away from places like Honduras?
KAHN: Definitely that is a factor. Also the police here is very different, and that has a lot to do with the socialist model of the Sandinistas - of the political regime that is in power right now. There's a lot of remnants from that. Neighborhoods are more organized. They have more community policing models and so they've never really adopted the strong-arm policing like in El Salvador or Honduras.
GREENE: It sounds like, Carrie, that there might be some lessons in terms of policing that some of the other countries might be able to take here.
KAHN: Well, it's a political instrument of the regime and so there are some troubling aspects of that you have to keep in mind. There is a consolidation of power Nicaragua that is unlike anything in Central America, and that's through the President Daniel Ortega. There was an incident here just this last month where there was a bus in northern Nicaragua that was attacked by armed groups. Five people were killed and dozens were injured. That is not something we see here in Nicaragua. There is talk that this was drug traffickers sending a message to the government they are here are working in Nicaragua. This has given the regime the opportunity to have political vendettas and 12 people have been disappeared. So there's a - there's a change in the situation here in Nicaragua and it has put people on edge.
GREENE: So, Carrie Kahn, it's a very complicated picture here. We don't want to suggest that people are not leaving Nicaragua - that is clearly happening. This is a very poor country with a lot of challenges as you say, but I wonder if this suggests there's some sort of reality in this region that there has to be choice. If you want to keep a country safer, have a lower murder rate, have less gang violence - you have to have something closer to a police state, a leader who's going to consolidate power.
KAHN: Well, clearly the state here in Nicaragua is much stronger than it is in any of Nicaragua's northern neighbors. What we've seen is an economic growth in Nicaragua that is growing at about 4 percent per year. That is not seen any of the other counties, and the crime rate, as we've said, is much lower. But human rights advocates and small opposition here in Nicaragua are very concerned about this strong state here. There's a lot of contention about the recent elections and there's huge consolidation of power by the president. He just took over the police, he took over the military and he has clamped down on the opposition.
GREENE: All right, NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting from Nicaragua. Carrie, thanks a lot.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.