In Brief

Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border

Thousands of people are arriving at the U.S. southern border after fleeing the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. President Biden is reviving efforts to tackle the problems that are prompting them to migrate. 

Why are people leaving the Northern Triangle?

Economic precariousness, government corruption, crime, violence, and—increasingly—climate change are all driving migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A majority of Guatemalans and Hondurans live below the poverty line, and most people in the Northern Triangle are employed in the informal sector, which deprives them of social protections and insurance. The pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Latin America in public health and economic terms, has laid bare governance deficiencies across the region. Meanwhile, the erosion of democratic checks and balances by populist politicians and corrupt officials has left many Northern Triangle residents exasperated and disenfranchised.

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Despite seeing reductions in homicides, the Northern Triangle countries remain among the most dangerous in the world. High rates of domestic violence and gang recruitment of minors have contributed to a surge in unaccompanied children and families journeying to the U.S.-Mexico border. Likewise, after a decade of shifting weather patterns and resultant food insecurity, back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes struck Central America this past fall: the storms eviscerated subsistence farms, killed hundreds of thousands of livestock, and devastated large-scale agricultural production. Many people in the region have family ties to the United States and, in the face of such adversity, migrate with the hopes of reuniting with loved ones and improving their lives.

Are governments in the region doing anything to curb emigration?

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Mexico. The Mexican government announced that it will close its borders to nonessential travel to contain the spread of COVID-19, and Mexico’s National Guard and army stepped up enforcement on the southern border with Guatemala in recent weeks. Similar efforts in the past resulted in a temporary decrease in migration. The country has also expanded its own asylum programs and is on track to set a national record this year for number of asylum requests processed.

Guatemala. In January, Guatemalan soldiers blocked part of a caravan of some nine thousand migrants from Honduras. Yet, many of these migrants found passage into Guatemala and onward to Mexico through informal border crossings or by hiring human smugglers.

El Salvador. The country has seen a considerable drop in gang violence, and President Nayib Bukele is widely suspected of negotiating a truce with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang to reduce homicides. To help families struggling with the pandemic-induced economic recession, Bukele oversaw the administration of generous subsidies for 1.5 million households. However, his disregard for democratic checks and balances has concerned opposition and civil society groups, and put him at odds with U.S. President Joe Biden’s intention of strengthening democracy in Central America.

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Honduras. President Juan Orlando Hernandez is under investigation by U.S. authorities for suspected ties to drug trafficking organizations, which have contributed to the country’s high rates of violence. Additionally, his government is implicated in graft involving hurricane relief, raising doubts about the future of the U.S.-Honduras relationship and the potential for collaboration on migration.

What are Biden’s policies toward the region?

President Biden’s approach largely relies on reviving policies that were starting to show success late in the tenure of President Barack Obama, as well as undoing unhelpful policies by President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

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The Obama administration increased U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle to $750 million in a bid to address the root causes of migration following a 2014 uptick in asylum claims by unaccompanied minors. Those efforts were beginning to bear fruit, with homicides dropping in the region’s most dangerous neighborhoods and internationally supported anticorruption commissions [PDF] making strides in holding venal officials to account. Biden, then the vice president, became the Obama administration’s de facto envoy to the region and oversaw its U.S. Strategy for Central America.

A man wearing a mask and wrapped in a shiny silver material holds a young child while sitting along a fence.  Other people are in the background.  It is sunrise.
Dustin, an asylum seeker from Honduras, holds his son Jerrardo as they take refuge at a baseball field in La Joya, Texas, in March 2021. Adrees Latif/Reuters

In 2019, the Trump administration froze that assistance over regional governments’ purported failures to curb migration, and progress on addressing the drivers of migration was halted. Senior Trump administration officials rhetorically undermined good governance in the region, siding with deeply compromised political leadership in exchange for symbolic cooperation on migration. The administration’s closure of the U.S. southern border and disruptions to the U.S. asylum system reduced cross-border migrant flows temporarily, but Trump’s policies failed to alleviate the pressures to migrate.

The Biden administration is now seeking $4 billion to put development, security, and anticorruption efforts back on track. This assistance would be directed to civil society organizations, reform-minded public institutions, and vulnerable communities with the aim of reducing poverty, curbing violence, and building climate resilience. Government-to-government aid would be strictly conditioned on the implementation of anticorruption measures. Such targeted assistance would likely not bear immediate results but represents the only enduring option to reduce irregular migration from the region. And today, the administration named a special envoy for the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zuniga, to work with regional governments and other partners to curb unauthorized migration and carry out Biden’s $4 billion plan.

Meanwhile, Biden is reactivating the U.S. asylum system to ensure compliance with international law. In addition to processing asylum claims from unaccompanied minors, some families, and individuals waiting in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, his administration restarted the Central American Minors program, which allows at-risk youth to apply for U.S. asylum from their home countries instead of applying only after making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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