Root causes of the Central American migrant caravans

  • 11 July 2019
  • NormanL

The ongoing debate over what to do about the tide of immigrants flowing toward the nation's southern border raises questions about why so many people are leaving their homes in Central America to make the perilous journey north.

The Congressional Research Service has published a briefing paper on some of the major causes of immigrant caravans. Among the items the CRS identifies are crime, natural disasters, government corruption and economic stagnation:

In October 2018, the International Organization for Migration conducted a rapid survey of a group of Salvadoran migrants who had banded together into a “caravan” to make the journey north. It found that nearly 52% cited economic opportunity as their motive for leaving the region, 18% cited violence and insecurity, 2% cited family reunification, and 28% cited a combination of those factors. Although motives vary by individual, difficult socioeconomic and security conditions—exacerbated by natural disasters and poor governance—appear to be the most important drivers of the current mixed migration flow.

The economic and demographic forces are particularly powerful:

According to the World Bank, approximately 47% of Salvadorans, 56% of Guatemalans, and 52% of Hondurans are under the age of 25. Because of their relatively young populations, all three countries are expected to see a continued rise in their prime working age populations over the next two decades. Although this presents a window of opportunity to boost economic growth, the region is failing to generate sufficient employment to absorb the growing labor supply. In 2017, for example, the Northern Triangle’s labor force increased by more than 353,000 people, but fewer than 35,000 jobs were created in the formal economy, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, an international affairs think tank. The vast majority of new workers were left to work in the unregulated informal sector, without job protections or benefits, or search for opportunity elsewhere.

 The CRS notes the U.S. government has tried to stop migrant caravans at their source:

Over the past five years, the U.S. government has worked with partners in the region to deter migration in several ways. The U.S. and Northern Triangle governments have engaged in public awareness campaigns to inform the region about the potential dangers of unauthorized migration and to correct possible misperceptions about U.S. immigration policies. These campaigns have included billboard, radio, television, and social media advertisements across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Some analysts have questioned the effectiveness of such deterrence campaigns. A 2018 study published in the Latin America Research Review found that Hondurans’ “views of the dangers of migration to the United States, or the likelihood of deportation, do not seem to influence their emigration plans in any meaningful way.”

The U.S. government is also providing foreign assistance to partners in the region to combat smuggling operations and address the root causes of migration. For example, the U.S. State Department has allocated more than $100 million since FY2014 to help Mexico control migration through its territory. Under the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America, for which Congress has appropriated nearly $2.6 billion since FY2016, the United States is supporting efforts to promote economic prosperity, improve security, and strengthen governance in the region. Some analysts are skeptical of such efforts given the Northern Triangle governments’ corruption and resistance to reform. Others argue that previous U.S. assistance has contributed to improvements in the region and further progress will require concerted, long-term U.S. support. It is too early to assess the full impact of the current strategy since many of the activities funded by the initiative are less than two years into implementation.

You can read the entire CRS report here.