Latin America 21

Each year, tens of thousands of migrants arrive at the US-Mexico border after traveling nearly 4,000 kilometers through different Central American countries. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of Central American immigrants to the United States nearly tripled, growing at a faster rate than any other subregion in Latin America.

Today, US courts have about 1.4 million cases in the system, among which citizens of the three main origin countries whose final destination is the United States: Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala predominate.

The growing number of migrant caravans to the United States illustrates the wide variety of challenges facing many Latin American countries, including poverty, gangs, drug trafficking, corruption and environmental disasters such as droughts, floods and hurricanes.

But the danger remains even after they leave their respective territories. In 2020 alone, at least 157 migrant deaths were recorded in Central America and on the border shared by the United States and Mexico.

In this context, what factors affect the decision of thousands of people from countries like Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala to undertake the difficult journey to the United States? Why does undocumented immigration continue to grow despite its risks?

Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala

In our research article published by the International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, we used data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University to understand the most relevant expulsion factors in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three main countries of origin of Latin American migration to the United States.

The research reveals that the profile of people seeking to live or work in another country is consistent with general patterns of economic migration at the international level: young men with pre-existing ties to immigrants residing in the destination country, who consider that the levels of wages of his family group have worsened.

However, in countries with high rates of criminal violence, the economic expulsion factors do not explain the migratory movement by themselves.

In Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, territories with a strong presence of gangs, organized crime and violence, being a victim of a crime considerably increases the likelihood of migration.
Perceptions of insecurity, especially in the two Central American countries, also affect the decision to live in the United States.

In other words, both victimization and fear of crime play a major role in people’s calculations to migrate in countries that have criminal organizations, such as maras or drug cartels.

Implications of migration in the United States

On the other hand, in the United States, where debates on the residence of undocumented people have gained strength again, migration policy remains inadequate to dissuade people from Latin American countries with high rates of violence from making the trip to seek new opportunities.

Concrete initiatives such as the opening of new detention centers, the separation of undocumented children from their families, the militarization of borders and the continuous attempts to end Deferred Action for Arrivals in Childhood (DACA) may even exacerbate existing security problems in Latin America, favoring the demand of citizens in the region to escape violence.

Considering the nature of US immigration policy, the implications of our research are not irrelevant. On the one hand, the centrality of victimization and fear associated with crime suggests that migration flows are likely to continue unless human security becomes a priority in countries plagued by gangs, organized crime and violence.

Although addressing the economic difficulties in the communities of origin is imperative, insecurity appears to have an independent effect on the calculation of emigration of inhabitants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

On the other hand, while discouraging for US authorities, migration can thrive even if the underlying conditions that favor crime or economic hardship in the region are finally addressed.

This is because having a friend or family member in the United States increases the odds of living or working abroad. Thus, migration can become self-sustaining regardless of the actions of criminal organizations such as the Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 maras or Mexican cartels such as the Sinaloa Cartel or Jalisco Nueva GeneraciĆ³n.


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