SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - "I'm Saved," reads a sign, in Spanish, outside a tin shack in a garbage-strewn slum in the Costa Rican capital. Then, "USA in Costa Rica."
The crude sign expresses a sentiment that is a reality for the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who have migrated to Costa Rica, which for them is a nearer and much more attainable promised land than the United States.
The man who posted the sign is away, working a construction job on Costa Rica's booming Pacific coast, where many wealthy foreigners are buying homes and land, but his family is here.
"He doesn't want to go back" to Nicaragua, said his sister Miriam. "Not enough work. There is nothing."
The man and his family are among hundreds of thousand of Nicaraguans who have arrived in Costa Rica in waves since the early 1970s, fleeing war and poverty.
Now another wave of immigration is rising on surging Costa Rican growth, and many here expect imbalances to only get worse when Costa Rica joins the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which will relax trade restrictions with the United States.
But far from rejecting immigrants, the government welcomes them and is preparing to offer work permits to its neighbors, most of whom will come from chronically impoverished Nicaragua.
"We believe we'll need about 40,000 Nicaraguan workers" right away, Mario Zamora, the Costa Rican director of immigration, said.
Forest-cloaked Costa Rica's low-skilled immigrants work in agriculture, at construction sites and as domestics and security guards -- jobs Costa Ricans, better educated and settled in the middle class, prefer not to do.
Costa Rica, known for its premium coffee and thriving eco-tourism industry, is growing at more than six percent for the third straight year. Unemployment is 4.6 percent, down from 6 percent in 2006.
The economy is also lifted by resort and condominium development on the Pacific coast that is becoming a U.S. baby boomer playground, and a high-technology sector around an Intel Corp plant near the capital, San Jose.
The 2000 census counted 226,000 Nicaraguans in Costa Rica compared to 45,000 in 1984, said Guillermo Acuna of the academic organization FLACSO. Some groups estimate the number has risen to 400,000 to 500,000 legal and illegal Nicaraguans, or about 10 percent of the 4.5 million population.
Ronald Peters, executive director of the coffee growers' federation, said he needs 10,000 more workers for the harvest that begins in December. The government can help, he said, by giving amnesty to illegal Nicaraguans so they step forward and renew expired work permits held by legal migrants.
"They're here. We can't let them go," he said. "There's too much competition with other sectors" for their labor.
"Under CAFTA it's going to be tougher," he said.
Costa Rica approved the Central American Free Trade (CAFTA) on October 7 by popular vote, but legislative hurdles remain.
The business community expects that further access to U.S. markets will mean a demand for highly skilled talent such as engineers in the country's growing information technology sector.
"A lot of the ideas about how to penetrate the U.S. market will be provided by executives with experience already doing this while in other countries," said Zamora.
Minimum wage for agricultural workers is from $1.25 to $1.80 an hour, while construction workers get about $1.25 an hour.
But competition for labor is growing throughout the region. The $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal that began in September needs 8,000 workers, and El Salvador is absorbing migrants now that it is more politically stable, experts said.
After the September 11 attacks in the United States, Costa Rica's immigration law emphasized security and it severely restricted legal entry. But to ease immigration now, the administration of President Oscar Arias is pushing a revised law through the legislature to simplify paperwork and promote immigrants' rights.
As in other countries where immigration is a heated issue such as the United States, whenever the media publicizes a crime by an immigrant, the immigration debate flares up, exposing racism toward migrants, experts said.
Yet as the role migrant workers play in the economy is better understood, the debate is changing. The free health care and education immigrant children receive, for instance, are seen less as a national burden and more of an acceptable result of integration, said Jorge Peraza-Breedy of OIM, an immigrant advocacy organization.
For Nicaraguans living in La Carpio slum, the choice is clear. Maria de Trinidad Calderon, 85, known as the grandmother of La Carpio, said Nicaragua is the same as it was when she fled 15 years ago. "It never gets fixed."
Sitting behind a display of vegetables she offered for sale, she said Costa Rica is where she will stay.
"When I die, I want to be buried in Costa Rica."
(For related FACTBOX, see "Central American migrants in Costa Rica")
Editing by Eddie Evans