A sudden surge in migration across the U.S.-Mexican border has presented U.S. President Joe Biden with one of the toughest political challenges of his new administration. In the month of March alone, U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered 172,000 unauthorized migrants, primarily from Central America and Mexico. That was an increase of more than 70 percent from February and a 20-year high (although a fair number of these migrants may have sought to cross more than once and been double counted as a result).
Politicians and pundits have been quick to label the surge in migration a “border crisis.” But although the numbers are higher this time around, Biden is hardly the first president to deal with an influx of migrants at the southern border. President Barack Obama did so in 2014 and again in 2016, as did President Donald Trump in 2019. Each time, the United States, overtaxed and underresourced, has struggled to handle the flow of people headed north from Central America and desperate to get into the United States.
As this cyclical pattern suggests, the real crisis isn’t at the U.S.-Mexican border but rather in Central America. Crime, violence, corruption, and economic devastation in the region have propelled people to the border, and U.S. policies—during Democratic and Republican administrations alike—have failed to deal adequately with these persistent push factors. The United States and Central American countries need a new approach to migration—one that addresses the drivers of these boom-and-bust cycles and helps manage the overlapping crises thousands of miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Spikes in migration across the United States’ southern border have occurred periodically since 2014, when homicide rates in El Salvador and Honduras rose markedly. But each of these spikes has been slightly different in composition and motivation. In 2014 and 2016, unaccompanied children from Central America were the most visible group arriving at the border. Nearly 70,000 minors tried to cross from Mexico into the United States in the 2014 fiscal year, for instance, a 77 percent increase from the previous year. These new arrivals taxed the U.S. government’s limited resources for housing minors and locating their families, leading to lengthy backlogs for asylum hearings and overcrowding in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services facilities.
By the 2019 fiscal year, when U.S. authorities apprehended over 850,000 migrants, families made up 56 percent of those arriving in the United States, and many of them were seeking asylum. Again, the U.S. government struggled to meet the needs of these people, who cannot be legally detained for more than 20 days with their children. To get around that rule, the Trump administration briefly implemented a family separation policy but quickly rolled it back in the face of massive public opposition.
Now, migrants are once again flocking to the border, this time led by a mix of unaccompanied minors, families, and single adults. The Biden administration has left in place a Trump-era public health order, known as Title 42, which allows the government to expel anyone who arrives at U.S. borders without authorization to enter. However, the administration made an exemption for unaccompanied minors, partially fueling the monthly increases in child arrivals that will likely eclipse the three previous migration spikes if this trend holds. Mexico’s new policy in one part of the country of refusing to accept families with small children expelled from the United States has added to the number of arrivals, effectively forcing the United States to admit such families when they reach U.S. soil.
The recurrent nature of these migration surges, and the fact that they have occurred during Democratic as well as Republican U.S. administrations, suggests that the current so-called border crisis is really a symptom of a much larger crisis rooted in long-standing problems in Central America. No past U.S. policies, whether tougher or more humane, have addressed these underlying causes effectively enough to stop this cycle of migration that spikes every two to three years. In fact, one irony of the current immigration surge is that it is happening even as the United States continues to enforce one of its most restrictive measures ever, Title 42.
The current influx, like past ones, is driven in part by persistent crime and violence. El Salvador and Honduras have among the world’s highest homicide rates, and parts of Guatemala are equally violent. About one in five residents across these countries report being victims of crimes every year. And nearly one-tenth of Hondurans and Salvadorans experience extortion annually, paying gangs and local crime groups just so they can live in their homes or run small businesses. This spate of crime and violence has been linked to migration; researchers at the Center for Global Development have shown that every 60 additional homicides led to 37 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexican border.
Corruption is another important driving force behind migration. All three of the Central American countries mentioned above rate among the most corrupt in the world on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. High-level corruption undermines people’s faith in government, encouraging people to migrate. So does more mundane corruption among criminals, the police, and low-level public officials that makes life difficult on a day-to-day basis and contributes to the decisions of many to seek better lives elsewhere.
Economic stagnation, which is made worse by corruption, is another force pushing migrants to the U.S.-Mexican border. GDP per capita in El Salvador and Guatemala is less than half what it is in Mexico, and in Honduras, it is less than a quarter. Each year, young people enter the labor market, fail to find jobs, and decide to migrate instead. In 2020, the economic pressures were even more extreme, as GDP contracted by three percent in Guatemala and over eight percent in El Salvador and Honduras. That same year, projections from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean suggested that more than half of Guatemalans and Hondurans and 40 percent of Salvadorans live in poverty.
These economic crises intensified in November, when two enormous hurricanes devastated Central America, further eroding people’s livelihoods. The storms were harbingers of a final problem driving people away from the region: climate change. Longer periods of drought combined with more frequent hurricanes seem to be hitting farmers particularly hard and changing their way of life. In Guatemala and Honduras, which have predominantly rural economies, these changes have caused food insecurity among farmers. Recent research has shown that climate change and food insecurity drive migration from Honduras.
None of the problems driving migration from Central America is inevitable. Hundreds of thousands—and often over a million—Mexicans once sought to reach the United States every year. But this trend started to fall after 2007, and the number of Mexicans in the United States has dropped from 11.7 million to 10.9 million since 2010. Mexican migration northward scaled back as Mexico’s population got older, democracy took root, and the economy grew.
The conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can also change. In fact, the three countries’ populations are already starting to age, as Mexico’s did a decade ago. El Salvador is the first country in the region to experience a significant decline in birthrates, with 26 percent of the population now under the age of 15 (similar to Mexico). That number is 30 percent in Honduras and 36 percent in Guatemala. The result is a diminution of labor-market pressures that could eventually spell a reduction in economic migration. Honduras may follow that demographic pattern in a few years and Guatemala a few years after that.
Economic conditions in these countries could also improve with the right investments and policy decisions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, poverty rates were dropping in El Salvador because of investments in education, public security, and jobs. Those investments created greater opportunities and more hope for its citizens. Guatemala and Honduras could follow this path, but only if their governments pass smart and timely reforms that support small businesses, help farmers become more productive, and strengthen the rule of law.
But changing the conditions that are driving migration from Central America will also require changes in Washington. Through a combination of smart development aid and investments in institutions that support the rule of law, Washington could help alleviate violent crime, corruption, and economic malaise. The United States will need to cooperate with the governments in the region while also supporting civil society organizations that have been struggling for greater government transparency and accountability. In particular, the United States will need to invest in the independence and capacity of prosecutors and the courts.
As it seeks to improve conditions in Central America to reduce the incentives to migrate, the U.S. government should also build more legal pathways for people from the region to travel to the United States for seasonal work. In the 2020 fiscal year, 244,000 Mexicans came to the United States for seasonal work, but only 5,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras did. The U.S. labor market—260 million workers in all—could easily absorb a few tens of thousands more Central American seasonal workers, especially as the U.S. economy recovers, without displacing American workers. Allowing Central American migrants to enter for seasonal work is preferable to having them enter the labor force without authorization—as so many of them currently do. U.S. policymakers should consider creating a special regional visa for Central Americans as part of a package of immigration reforms. But in the meantime, they should expand the current seasonal visa programs (H-2A and H-2B), the clearest existing pathways to enter the United States for seasonal work.
The U.S. government should also improve the asylum system at the border, making it more efficient and fair, and design new humanitarian protection mechanisms for those fleeing violence. For instance, it can help enact measures within countries to protect those displaced by violence, such as providing bodyguards for journalists under threat or relocating people to safe housing. The goal should be to protect people before they migrate and have to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexican border.
None of these policies will solve the Biden administration’s current problem at the U.S.-Mexican border overnight. But together, they can lay the foundation for a more proactive regional system for managing migration—and reduce the chances that the boom-and-bust cycle of migration continues in the future. Such an approach would also shift attention away from the so-called crisis at the border toward where it belongs—on the unresolved crises in Central America.