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How Central American Youth Test Outdated U.S. Immigration Laws

Reading Time: 3 minutesThe scale of Central American youth migration to the U.S. is staggering. Understanding its causes will help policymakers respond more effectively.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

John Moore/Getty Images

Reading Time: 3 minutes

As Vice President Mike Pence travels to Central America this week, immigrants will be on his mind. They’ve certainly been on the news, and on the president’s agenda. Pence knows that Central American children have been fleeing to the United States. But he should also recognize the staggering scale of this wave, and what’s behind it. Understanding both is key to creating policy that can prevent surges like this in the future.

First, it’s important to grasp the scale of this movement of people. From 2011 through the end of last year, 178,825 minors from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were apprehended by the U.S. border patrol while traveling without adult relatives and without a visa.

To get a handle on just how many kids that is, consider the 53,287 of them who were 17-year-olds. That’s about as many 17-year-olds as there are in the entire New York City public school system. It’s eight percent of all the 17-year-olds in their home countries. And that does not even include those young people who were not apprehended, or those who left home but never made it to the U.S.

One-third of the minors who are traveling across Mexico alone are girls.

Effective policy aimed at regulating this flow also requires information about what made them leave home in the first place. In order to understand what spurred their move, I gathered previously unreleased data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on all the apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) over the past six years. I combined that with granular data on violence and employment conditions in their municipalities of origin over the same period. The results were published recently by the Center for Global Development in the first study that measures quantitatively the impact of violence and economic pressures on the decision to migrate.

These statistics show that violence has been a major driver of the decision to move. In the average municipality of the Northern Triangle, every 10 additional homicides corresponded with six more unaccompanied minors being apprehended in the United States. Many young people are fleeing violence and its ripple effects through the economy and society.

This study shows that while much of the media accounts, existing research, and U.S. legal structure focus on the plight of economic migrants – those perceived as coming from Central America purely for employment opportunities – the roots of migration are not that simple. For the young people coming from the Northern Triangle, the statistics imply that migration pressure has depended in roughly equal measure on both violence and economic “push” factors. This wave of youth migration has been a complex, mixed flow that cannot be simplistically attributed to economic forces alone or to violence alone.

Northern Triangle municipalities that experience spikes in the number of homicides see more migration by unaccompanied minors than those that are consistently very violent. Conversely, municipalities with consistently high unemployment see more migration than municipalities experiencing temporary spikes in unemployment. And initial sparks of migration can snowball over time, even when the original drivers subside.

These findings make it clearer than ever that U.S. and international law are increasingly outdated and inadequate for today’s complex migration processes.

Current U.S. and international law classify almost all migrants in one of only three ways: family migrants, economic migrants, or refugees. These laws, set up generations ago, do not allow anyone to be considered two of those things at the same time. But today, the drivers of migration are much more complex. Any one child from Honduras could simultaneously be seeking family reunification, opportunity to contribute and advance economically, and safety from violence. This is most obvious for many migrants from Central America, South Sudan, or Afghanistan, but it is increasingly true around the world.

Moreover, neither the U.S. government nor the government of any other major migrant destination country is set up to act based on the deep connections between overseas violence and migration. Every government has agencies for immigration policy and agencies for foreign policy. But everywhere these are separate bodies with completely separate mandates. Twenty-first century institutions and laws that hope to make migration safer and more orderly will need to bridge these institutional divides. Today immigration policy is still seen as something that happens at the border or behind the border. But the complex drivers of today’s migration flows mean that U.S. migration policy must extend well beyond U.S. borders, with policies that include tackling the root causes of this movement. Especially critical is to avoid policies that may exacerbate violence in the region.

Vice President Pence seems to understand these connections. “Central America continues to be plagued,” he has said, “by gangs and vast criminal organizations that drive illegal immigration.” As he visits the region this week, he should be asking his own agencies and his partners in the region how they will cooperate to bring safety and opportunity to Central America’s young people, wherever they are. In the 21st century, foreign policy is a form of migration policy.

Clemens is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a research fellow at the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Walls of Nations.

Tags: El Salvador, Immigration, unaccompanied minors
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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