The Migration Disconnect

Why Central Americans Will Keep on Heading to the United States

Central American migrants walk along a highway in southern Mexico, October 2018.  Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS

As thousands of migrants from Central America slowly make their way through Mexico and toward the U.S. border, President Donald Trump’s administration has hewed to its hard-line message. Trump has promised to stop the caravan, calling it an invasion and claiming that “Middle Easterners” were in its midst. Last week, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that it would deploy 5,200 soldiers to the U.S.-Mexican border ahead of the caravan’s arrival. Already, the first contingent of soldiers is putting up barbed wire.

Like the government’s much-touted border wall, the troop deployment illustrates Trump’s portrayal of Central American immigration as a serious national security threat to the United States. Yet the move is but one in a string of expensive policies that have sought to slow migration from Central America in recent years. The military presence is no likelier than the billions of dollars Washington previously invested in border security and regional development to change the fundamental drivers pushing people to leave their homes and head north.


Large-scale migration from Central America is not a new phenomenon, although the current wall-to-wall news media coverage of the caravan’s progress northward might imply otherwise. In fact, Central Americans have made the journey up to the United States for almost 30 years. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador settled in camps in southern Mexico or traveled onward to the U.S. border. The region’s wars were over by the mid-1990s, but migration continued as people sought to improve their fortunes or reunite with family members who had left earlier. Others moved to escape criminal violence or to restart their lives after devastating natural disasters—motives that drive migration to this day.

Families and children make up an increasing share of the total migrant population. In 2014, tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala arrived at the U.S.-Mexican border,

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