In Costa Rica, there is a widespread belief among the public and policymakers that the country's ‘exceptional’ universal healthcare system represents a magnet for Nicaraguan immigrants. However, examining immigrants’ actual access to social policy demonstrates the importance of legal and extra-legal mechanisms of exclusion that go hand in hand with official recognition of human rights. This paper critically assesses the relationship between migrants and the state, and public social policy in particular, in both sending and receiving country. We analyse the extent to which Nicaraguan migrant families on both sides of the Costa Rica–Nicaragua migration system incorporate public social protection in their welfare strategies. Drawing on two sets of qualitative data, we find that, on both sides of the border, migrants and their families display very similar commodified practices of welfare strategies, side-stepping the state and purchasing services in the private sector.