Looming Crisis: What the United States Must Do to Address the Plight of Migrants from Central America

Summary

America’s migrant crisis is far from over.

Faced with an influx of tens of thousands of women and children from Central America who overwhelmed US border and immigration agencies in 2014, the United States made several significant policy changes aimed at stemming the flow of people. Although they appear to have eased the immediate crisis, thanks largely to law enforcement efforts by Mexico, the current measures may ultimately compound the problem. Not only do they contravene international standards of human rights, they are also unsustainable.

US officials must understand that the crisis will resurface in one form or another, and that solving it will require addressing the root causes in the migrants’ home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Chief among the motivations is the violence ordinary people face in daily life thanks to the impunity with which criminal gangs operate.

Murder Capitals

The US Border Patrol apprehended some 68,541 “unaccompanied alien children” (UACs) in Fiscal Year 2014, an increase of 77 percent from the year before, along with 68,445 “family units”—mostly mothers and children—during the same time period, up 361 percent from FY 2013.[1]

The crisis was long in the making. Although no reliable statistics exist for the number of Central Americans who try to enter the United States without documents every year, reasonable estimates typically reach into the hundreds of thousands. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has documented a dramatic increase of asylum claims by Central Americans since 2008.[2]

Economic motives play a role in migrants’ decisions to leave home; poverty, inequality and violence are intertwined in the region. However, violence has become by far the primary factor motivating those headed to Mexico and the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They keep coming despite the increasing difficulty of crossing Mexico.

A look at statistics helps explain why. Honduras and El Salvador vie for the title of world’s most homicidal country. El Salvador’s murder rate was 61.1 out of 100,000 people in 2014, according to the Homicide Monitor of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think-tank, while San Salvador’s rate alone reached 119.2 people. Honduras’s homicide rate was 68 per 100,000 people in 2014. Its capital, Tegucigalpa, stood at 81 people, and San Pedro Sula, its economic capital, was the deadliest city in the world with 142 murders per 100,000 people.

Alarming as they are, even those numbers are already outdated. El Salvador became even more violent in 2015 with more murders each day than it saw during the height of its bloody civil war in the 1980s. The deadliest day came last August 27 with 51 homicides—well on the way to double the 2014 murder rate.[3] Honduras, whose 2012 murder rate stood at 92 per 100,000 people, has seen a decrease recently, but it is unclear whether that has more to do with murder classification changes. Guatemala, the “safest” of the three countries that make up Central America’s northern triangle, still has a murder rate of 31 out of 100,000 people. Its capital city’s is almost double that number at 74.6 people.

Those numbers may be hard to process. In comparison, the United States has a murder rate of around 4 of 100,000 people. Canada’s homicide rate stands under 2 people. Mexico, a country in the throes of a bloody war against powerful drug cartels, has a murder rate of 21.5 per 100,000 people. Even the most conservative estimates put the murder rates of El Salvador and Honduras at three times that number.

Crossing Mexico

Trekking across Mexico is a daunting prospect. Migrants must make their way across more than 2,000 miles. Sticking close to the roads, they are likely to be picked up by authorities. If they move into the brush and vegetation away from highways and cities, they are susceptible to organized criminal groups that prey on migrants.

Migrants have become a lucrative kidnapping target for Mexican cartels, which charge ransoms of $4,000 to $5,000 a person. Mexico’s Human Rights Commission estimates that more than 20,000 migrants are kidnapped each year.[4] Cartels typically press those who fail to secure ransoms into service or kill them.

Those who manage to make it all the way to northern Mexico must still contend with crossing the fortified and deadly US border. The United States Border Patrol recorded 307 deaths of border crossers in Fiscal Year 2014.[5]

Given the difficulties and dangers Central Americans face trying to enter the United States, it is telling that they have largely not been dissuaded from giving it a try—or three or ten tries. Asked why they risk it, many migrants answer the same way: “I might get killed walking out my door at home. I might die trying to cross Mexico, too, but at least there’s a chance of security down the road.”

Between the violence at home and the near-impossibility of making it across Mexico, Central Americans become caught in a cycle of migration and deportation. At deportee reception centers in Honduras, many migrants getting off planes or buses immediately head north again. At a Red Cross module in El Corinto, Honduras where deportees from Mexico are dropped off, I witnessed at least half those arriving walking right back across the border.

Temporary Measures

The United States supported three significant policy shifts in response to the 2014 migrant crisis: an in-country refugee application process, the Alliance for Prosperity, and Plan Frontera Sur.

The cumbersomely named “In-Country Refugee/Parole Program for Minors in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras With Parents Lawfully Present in the United States” does what its name describes. For the first time, minors in Central America under the age of 21 can apply to join their parents in the United States as long as the latter reside in the country legally.[6] More than a year after the program’s launch, however, only a handful of minors have been allowed in. Of the 4,600 children who applied for special refugee status, a mere 90 have been interviewed and only 11 applications approved.[7]

The Alliance for Prosperity is a billion-dollar aid program designed in collaboration with the governments of Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) for development and security. It addresses corruption, security, expanding policing, judicial reform and making the region more attractive to private investment.[8] The budget includes an unspecified amount of funds to securitize the region’s borders.[9] Although many of the program’s features appear aimed at improving lives—creating community centers for at-risk youth and investing in education among other goals—implementation has been primarily security-focused so far.

That is creating new problems. In Honduras, for example, newly formed military police patrol city streets heavily armed and dressed in full fatigues. That makes ordinary Hondurans feel more scared than safe because both the police and military have troubling human rights records.

Hondurans are also finding it harder to leave. At the Guatemalan border, they are photographed and fingerprinted before being allowed to leave their own country. A joint border task force between Honduras and Guatemala—the Fuerza Maya-Chorti—has also been established to police the crossing. Both measures were enacted despite a long-standing freedom of transit agreement among Central American countries; people moving between El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras generally don’t require passports.

At the same time, social issues are going unaddressed. The government implemented a program aimed at diminishing repeat migration by young Hondurans by placing them in group homes and providing access to educational and career training programs. However funds allocated to a reception and social reintegration center for deported minor migrants dried up quickly, and the woman who runs the program is trying to keep it afloat on donations and good will. She told me that with most children now deported from Mexico rather than the United States, US funds are being funneled to other areas instead, chiefly policing.

Recent high-level corruption scandals in both Honduras and Guatemala—leading to the ouster and arrest of Guatemala’s president and the arrest of high-level Honduran public officials—have also cast further questions about how much of the funds intended for social programs will ever reach their intended recipients.

Similar longer-standing initiatives in the region display similar patterns. A 2008 security cooperation agreement called the Merida Initiative promised $1.6 billion in US aid to Mexico and Central America to fight drug traffickers, strengthen institutions and the rule of law, develop a “21st-century border” and support communities living along it.[10] It imposed a 2016 deadline to transform Mexico’s criminal justice system from an inquisitorial one to an adversarial one—meaning, among other things, that defendants would be assumed innocent until proven guilty.[11]

In fact, the Mérida Initiative has seen changes mainly in security, including the training and equipping of expanded Mexican immigration law enforcement. As of 2014, only three of Mexico’s 32 states were fully operating under the new system. Nine additional states had partially adopted the adversarial model, however, several states had passed counter-reforms aimed at weakening human rights protections within the criminal justice system at the same time.[12] Although the results of the Alliance for Prosperity will not be adequately measurable for years, so far both residents and analysts worry that its aid will follow the same pattern as Mérida, and lead only to higher violence and inequality—the very reasons people are fleeing the region.[13]

To date, neither program has directly resulted in a reduction of Central Americans headed toward the United States.

Plan Frontera Sur, on the other hand, has temporarily succeeded in reducing the number of individuals who make it to the US border. Under the program, Mexico’s National Migration  Institute (INM) has shifted much of its immigration enforcement apparatus to its southern states, with special focus on Tabasco and Chiapas, which border Guatemala. It has enhanced what some call the vertical border, extending the US border enforcement zone south through Mexico and into Central America. Although that is not new—Mexico has steadily ramped up immigration enforcement spurred by pressure and resources from the United States over the last decade—Plan Frontera Sur has multiplied those efforts and concentrated them in southern Mexico.

For the first seven months of Fiscal Year 2015,[14] Mexico apprehended more than 90,000 Central Americans, while the United States apprehended just over 70,000 “other than Mexican” individuals, the majority of whom are probably Central American, according to a report by the Washington Office on Latin America.[15] The Migration Policy Institute expects the trend to continue.[16]

However, the implementation of Plan Frontera Sur is raising serious questions, not least by violating Mexico’s own laws. In 2011, the country passed a new immigration law that was widely lauded as exemplary for respecting the human rights of migrants while establishing orderly control of transit through the country. Among other things, it prohibited immigration officials from conducting raids along freight train lines in remote areas and at night. Raids outside populated areas and in the dark had resulted in the extortion, injury and death of many migrants.

The restrictions were put in place partly in response to reports from international human rights groups and non-governmental organizations that detailed the corruption and abuse migrants suffered at the hands of immigration agents and other police forces.[17] INM agents frequently take bribes in return for allowing migrants to proceed. Smugglers I have interviewed describe an elaborate system of codes established with officials to ensure safe passage for migrants who have hired them. Shelter workers have also documented numerous cases of INM agents handing migrants to cartel kidnappers who hold them for ransom or selling to traffickers. Inside densely crowded immigration detention centers, migrants have been tortured, raped and killed by INM guards. In one emblematic case, a migrant who wanted to file charges against his INM rapist had his life publicly threatened by the federal sub-secretary for migration. Although the 2011 law did not stop all such abuses, the new restrictions reduced human rights violations.

Today, Plan Frontera Sur raids regularly take place along rail lines, in remote areas and in the middle of the night. Migrants are reporting more abuses, including beatings, verbal abuses and refusal to provide first aid. In one raid this summer, a migrant required hospitalization after a beating by INM agents. One held him by the shoulders while another nearly choked him to death. They stopped only when students studying immigration happened on the scene. In another raid, immigration agents refused medical attention for a migrant who broke both his ankles despite being required to do so by law.

Although the United States is not responsible for those and other abuses by immigration agents—or the deep corruption within the INM and other Mexican law enforcement agencies—US backing for Plan Frontera Sur indirectly supports such behavior. Given the endemic corruption in the INM, its success in stemming the flow of migrants into Northern Mexico will probably be temporary as the agents shifted south engage in more extortion and are pressured by organized criminal groups to allow migrants to pass.

Cold War Thinking

Part of the problem in US immigration policy is that criteria used for granting asylum are based on Cold War-era ideas about persecution and protection. The United States requires individuals to demonstrate that the authorities in their home countries are unable or unwilling to protect them from persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in particular social groups. The last item provides some room for interpretation, and American asylum judges are granted wide discretion. However, someone fleeing Central America because criminal gangs have threatened to kill him because they want to kill him—not because he is part of some group under threat—is unlikely to gain asylum. Aside from some exceptions, both the United States and Mexico generally reject Central American asylum claims based on gang violence.[18] Of the 13,847 asylum petitions from Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans in FY 2014, the United States granted a mere 510, or 3.6 percent.[19] That is much lower than the average: Asylum judges granted more than 20 percent of all claims in the United States in 2014.[20]

Although Mexico grants a higher percentage of claims than the United States, most applicants are turned down.

A year after the 2014 crisis, I met the members of a Salvadoran family in a shelter for Central Americans in Palenque, a Mexican city in the southern state of Chiapas less than 100 miles from the Guatemalan border. They were caught in the new paradigm between violence at home and a Mexico that was more hostile than ever to their presence. The parents, Jose and Nancy, had made an adequate living from Jose’s work as a bus driver[21] in their native El Salvador. Despite a constant backdrop of violence in their daily lives, they never dreamed of heading to the United States until Jose witnessed the stabbing of one of his passengers during an otherwise routine robbery of the bus he was driving. The gang that controlled their neighborhood gave him six hours to leave home, threatening his life and family. Jose and Nancy took their seven-year-old son and eight-month-old daughter to southern Mexico, where they applied for asylum. When the Mexican authorities denied their application, they continued north toward the United States without documents and were quickly caught by Mexican immigration officials. They were deported back to El Salvador.

Policy Recommendations

The migrant crisis the United States glimpsed in 2014 is not over. It appears to have abated only because Mexico has stepped up security, as I have outlined. However, that reduction masks the fact that Central Americans are still streaming out of their countries, which means the crisis will resurface one way or another.

Migrant shelters in southern Mexico and parts of Guatemala will probably turn into unofficial refugee camps, with hundreds of thousands unable to move north and unwilling to return to the violence at home. The United States must recognize that reality and update its immigration and asylum system to include the kinds of violence that ordinary people in Central America must deal with every day. People like Jose and his family are fleeing their countries because their lives are in danger. Simply put, they are refugees and should be treated as such.

If the United States fails to adjust its asylum process, it has another option for providing protection and registration for people from Central America. The government has previously granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Central Americans and others facing immediate, identifiable humanitarian crises (war in El Salvador, natural disasters in Honduras). If TPS were again opened to Central Americans, those fleeing violence could be given at least temporary safe haven.

By relying on Mexico to enforce its immigration agenda, the United States also gives tacit approval to human rights abuses. The 1997 Leahy Amendment already prohibits the State Department from providing assistance to security forces that violate human rights with impunity. But Washington must freeze all aid to Mexico that supports agencies committing violations, including through the Mérida Initiative, the Alliance for Prosperity and other avenues for foreign aid.

US aid policy is counterproductive for American security beyond the question of human rights. Money involved in the kidnapping and extortion of migrants flows directly into the pockets of the drug cartels the United States has been combatting for nearly a decade.[22] The corruption and collusion of Mexican immigration officials helps funnel resources toward organized criminal groups, enabling them to prosper even as drugs cease to become their primary source of income.[23]

Finally, young Central Americans stuck in Mexico become easy targets for recruitment into criminal organizations. The buildup of migrants outside the shelter in Palenque, for example, has allowed a local gang to recruit a number of Central Americans as lookouts, folding them into the ranks of the cartel that controls the area. With no other options available to migrants, cartels offer some of the only avenues for employment and survival.

If the United States fails to alter its refugee policy or expand TPS for Central Americans, as well as limit aid that supports abusive officials in Mexico, Central Americans fleeing violence will help keep Mexican drug cartels powerful as victims or recruits.

Although it is possible to detain and deport people fleeing violence from Central America, they can’t reasonably be expected to stay in their home countries when their lives and their children’s are threatened there. Policies that focus solely on enforcement—either by the United States or Mexico—will fail to seriously curb Central American migration and only ensure that the crisis returns.


[1] U.S. Customs and Border Protection, “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children (FY 2014)” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2015).

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico” (UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency, October 2015).

[3] Beatriz Calderón, Jessel Santos, and Liliana Fuentes, “El Salvador Alcanzó Ayer Cifra Histórica de Homicidios En Un Día: 51,” La Prensa Gráfica, August 28, 2015, sec. Judicial, http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2015/08/28/el-salvador-alcanzo-ayer-cifra-historica-de-homicidios-en-un-dia-51.

[4] Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, “Informe Especial Sobre Secuestro de Migrantes En México.” (México, D.F.: Comisión Nacional De los Derechos Humanos, 2011).

[5] United States Border Patrol, “Southwest Border Deaths by Fiscal Year (Oct. 1st through Sept. 30th),” 2015.

[6] This was a particularly important development for Central Americans who were in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Many Salvadorans were granted TPS during the country’s civil war, and a smaller number of Hondurans were given TPS after natural disasters wreaked havoc on the country in the mid 1990s. While TPS allows holders to live and work legally in the United States, it does not offer the opportunity to sponsor relatives.

[7] Ian Gordon, “4,600 Central American Kids Have Applied for Refugee Status. 11 Have Gotten It. Here’s Why.,” Mother Jones, October 15, 2015, sec. Politics, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/10/central-american-child-migrants-refugee-program-update.

[8] Office of the Vice President, “FACT SHEET: Promoting Prosperity, Security and Good Governance in Central America” (The White House), accessed November 15, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/29/fact-sheet-promoting-prosperity-security-and-good-governance-central-ame.

[9] Alexander Main, “Will Biden’s Billion Dollar Plan Help Central America?,” NACLA, February 27, 2015, https://nacla.org/news/2015/02/27/will-biden’s-billion-dollar-plan-help-central-america.

[10] U.S. Department of State, “Merida Initiative,” 2008, http://www.state.gov/j/inl/merida/.

[11] I wrote about this in detail as an ICWA fellow, see Frank-Vitale, “In Jail for Giving a Taco…

And Other Stories of Mexico’s Broken Criminal Justice System March, 2014.

[12] Miguel Sarre, Edgar Cortez, and Maureen Meyer, “Assessing the State of Judicial Reforms in Mexico” (Washington Office on Latin America, Washington, DC, February 4, 2013).

[13] Beeton, “Central America’s ‘Alliance for Prosperity’ Plan: Shock Doctrine for the Child Refugee Crisis?,” Common Dreams, November 27, 2014, sec. The Americas Blog/CEPR, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/11/27/central-americas-alliance-prosperity-plan-shock-doctrine-child-refugee-crisis.Beeton, “Central America’s ‘Alliance for Prosperity’ Plan: Shock Doctrine for the Child Refugee Crisis?,” Common Dreams, November 27, 2014, sec. The Americas Blog/CEPR, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/11/27/central-americas-alliance-prosperity-plan-shock-doctrine-child-refugee-crisis.

[14] The US Fiscal Year is October to October while the Mexican Fiscal Year follows the calendar year, hence the otherwise odd citing of a trend from “the first seven months.”

[15] “Mexico Now Detains More Central American Migrants Than the United States” (Washington Office on Latin America, June 11, 2015).

[16] Rodrigo Dominguez Villegas and Victoria Rietig, “Migrants Deported from the United States and Mexico to the Northern Triangle: A Statistical and Socioeconomic Profile,” The Regional Migration Study Group (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, September 2015).

[17] For details of human rights abuses against migrants see Amnesty International, “Mexico: Invisible Victims. Migrants on the Move in Mexico.” (London: Amnesty International, April 29, 2010). For an overview of the state of  human rights abuses by Mexican authorities see Human Rights Watch, “World Report 2015: Mexico” (Human Rights Watch, 2015), https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2015/country-chapters/mexico.

[18] Two notable exceptions are asylum claims from Central American women who have been the victims of extreme sexual violence and ex-gang members who have been persecuted by their former gang-mates.

[19] Executive Office for Immigration Review and Office of Planning, Analysis, and Technology, “Asylum Statistics FY 2010 – 2014” (U.S. Department of Justice, March 2015).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jose made between $20 and $40 a day as a bus driver. An average factory worker in El Salvador makes about $5 per day.

[22] Amelia Frank-Vitale, “Central American Migrants in Mexico: Implications for U.S. Security and Immigration Policy,” Working Paper, CLALS Working Paper Series (Washington, DC: American University Center For Latin American and Latino Studies, December 13, 2013), http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2412769.

[23] Juan Carlos Pérez Salazar, “Los Carteles Mexicanos Que No Dependen Del Narcotráfico,” BBC, May 29, 2014, sec. Mundo.

About the Author

Ms. Frank-Vitale is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She holds a master’s degree in Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs from American University and a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Yale University. Her research focuses on Central American migration through Mexico and the intersections among the war on drugs, organized crime groups, party politics, and the varieties of violence faced by undocumented migrants. As a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (2012-14), she was traveled extensively along the migrant corridor in Central America and Mexico. Her doctoral project focuses on how violence and migration are produced and policed domestically in Honduras and regionally. The Institute of Current World Affairs is a non-profit foundation that, for over 90 years, has selected, mentored and advanced the careers of highly promising young Americans through two-year immersion Fellowships abroad.