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

The Migration Disconnect

Why Central Americans Will Keep on Heading to the United States

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.

A FAMILIAR PATTERN

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, overwhelming a U.S. immigration system primarily designed to process single male economic migrants. These days, families and unaccompanied minors make up more than half of all new arrivals from Central America.

President Trump has responded to the caravan—and to immigration more broadly—with alarmist rhetoric and a hyperfocus on national security. But in its building blocs and relative effectiveness, this administration’s immigration policy does not differ that dramatically from the one that preceded it.

When migrant arrivals increase the U.S. government’s first reaction is often to send more resources and personnel to the U.S.-Mexican border. Faced with a surge of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America in the summer of 2014, the Obama administration immediately earmarked resources to build more detention centers and sent additional immigration judges, Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorneys, and asylum officers to the border. Under Trump, a similar border surge is taking place. Some 2,000 National Guardsmen sent to the border in April will be joined by this month’s contingent of 5,200 soldiers. In recent days, Trump has suggested he may deploy up to 15,000 troops.

In its components and relative effectiveness, this administration’s immigration policy does not differ dramatically from the one that preceded it.

Once civilian or military resources are in place to handle those who reach the border, the government usually adopts policies designed to keep others from heading north in the first place. Under President Barack Obama, this meant continuing Operation Streamline, the George W. Bush–era practice of criminally prosecuting anyone who crossed the border “irregularly,” or between official crossings. To discourage would-be migrants, the Obama administration also significantly ramped up family detentions, initially trying to hold asylum-seeking families until their claims had been processed.  

Trump has continued and expanded this punitive approach. In April 2018, the Department of Justice announced a “zero tolerance” policy, vowing to prosecute anyone crossing between ports of entry—even those who had usually been exempt from prosecution, such as asylum seekers and families. As the government began criminally charging families, children were separated from their parents and sent to shelters across the country. After a public outcry led Trump to reverse course, the administration once again began seeking to detain families indefinitely.

Just as the two administrations have pursued punitive measures, though to differing degrees, both have pursued preventive measures, but of different kinds. Under Obama and Trump alike, the U.S. government has sought to enlist neighboring countries in its efforts to curtail migration. Back in 2014, Obama encouraged Mexico’s then President Enrique Peña Nieto to ramp up migrant apprehensions along Mexico’s southern border. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has sought (so far without success) to reach an agreement declaring Mexico a “safe third country.” This would require asylum seekers passing through Mexico to make their claims through the Mexican asylum-processing system rather than filing their case in the United States.

Likewise, the Obama administration pumped more than $1.4 billion into the Alliance for Prosperity, an aid program designed to improve economic opportunities, public safety, and institutions for people in Central America. Despite its tough talk on ending foreign aid, the Trump administration has maintained the program. Since taking office, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has headlined two regional meetings on prosperity and security in Central America, and the program continues to be a cornerstone of the United States’ strategy toward the region.

THE ROOTS OF DISPLACEMENT

The rough outlines of U.S. immigration policy—border surges, deterrence tactics, and regional partnerships—have remained fairly steady over the last two administrations despite significant differences in style and emphasis. So, too, however, has the flow of migrants from Central America. Over the past five years, some 875,000 Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans have reached the U.S. border.

U.S. aid to the region has done little to change the suffocating realities that many Central Americans face on a daily basis.

Although it may bear fruit in some areas in the long term, U.S. aid to the region has done little to change the suffocating realities that many Central Americans face on a daily basis, chief among them gang violence. In the region’s big cities—Tegucigalpa and Guatemala City, for instance—gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 have carved neighborhoods into a patchwork of rival territories. When they don’t fight one another or the police, the gangs harass locals and recruit children and teenagers to work for them. Their main source of income is to extort small businesses and residents, who are forced to pay up to half of their revenue or income as “rent.” Those who refuse often face a simple choice: flee or stay and be killed.

Outside the cities, economic hardship tends to drive migration. In parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and western Honduras, coffee is the largest rural employer, but leaf diseases, an increasingly unpredictable climate, and low global commodity prices have pushed the industry to the verge of collapse. I spent a month meeting with would-be migrants in the Guatemalan highlands, where many farmers stay afloat by selling off parts of their land and pushing their workers’ salaries to rock bottom. The result is unemployment and low incomes. Many families do not have enough money to buy basic food staples in order to eat three meals a day.

People can bear only so much gang intimidation or hunger. Deciding to leave feels rational, and the United States is the obvious destination: job opportunities and high wages abound, and most Central Americans can rejoin family members or friends who already made the trip. But low-earning Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans have no legal pathway by which to reach the United States from within their countries: many have neither job offers from U.S. companies nor close family members with the legal status required to sponsor a visa. To reach the United States, then, these migrants trek to the U.S.-Mexican border and ask for asylum or attempt to sneak in undetected.

The United States’ current efforts to lower migration make this journey more cumbersome and riskier for potential migrants, but they do not change Central Americans’ fundamental calculus. Increased federal funds for border agencies do little to reduce the flow of arrivals. Criminally prosecuting anyone entering the United States outside an official entry point raises the costs that migrants face, especially those traveling with children. But many still hope that they can slip into the country unnoticed or decide that risking detention is preferable to staying home. And although investments in Central America may be building a solid foundation for the region in the long term, they haven’t made a substantive difference in the vast majority of migrants’ daily lives.

REAL RELIEF

There are, in fact, U.S. policies that could help. For Central Americans struggling with hunger and collapsing local economies, short-term economic relief could go a long way. A commodity stabilization program could provide support to coffee farmers as they battle recurring coffee leaf rusts or switch to more profitable crops. Guatemala and Honduras already have national funds in place to this end, and the United States could help support their development. A regional public works project could put people to work upgrading roads, ports, and national parks or engaging in environmental cleanup efforts, particularly in areas that are lagging economically and therefore susceptible to outward migration. Public irrigation infrastructure projects could provide immediate responses for drought-stricken areas across the region. The United States, Mexico, Canada, and the private sector could contribute to a fund supporting these projects and drawing from the budgets of Central American countries themselves.

People can bear only so much gang intimidation or hunger. Deciding to leave feels rational, and the United States is the obvious destination.

The United States could also initiate guest worker programs, in which workers from the parts of Central America with the highest rates of outward emigration could be matched with U.S. industries that struggle with labor shortages. The guest workers would come to the United States on H-2A and H-2B visas, earn steady incomes that allow them to support their families’ needs and invest in their children’s futures, and then return to their communities. Currently these visas are not being used to address Central American migration: Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans received only 4 percent (9,365) of all temporary low-skilled work visas in fiscal year 2017.

For Central Americans facing life-threatening violence, seeking asylum in the United States or Mexico is still the best form of relief. But to reach those in need faster and encourage more orderly migration, asylum screening could also take place in people’s country of origin or a third country such as Mexico rather than only at the U.S. border. The Obama administration took a first step in this direction when it set up an in-country processing program to offer protections for qualifying children and teenagers from the region. The program was shut down during Trump’s first year in office. Reinstating it would be a good starting point.  

Even under the best of circumstances, U.S. policy can do only so much to slow migration from Central America. But providing short-term economic relief to areas in crisis, continuing long-term investment in the region’s future, and expanding the legal pathways to asylum would go a long way toward reducing immigration pressure. That reduction could in turn create the space that is needed for other, broader initiatives to take root. There is no single, complete fix—and all progress comes with setbacks. But unless Washington makes a genuine effort to address the conditions that drive people out of their homes, Central American migrants will continue to march north and seek their futures in the United States.

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