The increase in migrant children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who have been apprehended at the US-Mexico border in recent months has received widespread attention from the media and policymakers. This issue, though characterized as a sudden influx leading to what has been dubbed a “humanitarian crisis” by President Obama, is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it is a byproduct of years of political and social factors in the Central American region as well as in the United States.
On August 11, the Inter-American Dialogue convened a discussion on the topic, together with the launch of a new report, “Understanding Central American Migration.” The discussion, which was moderated by the Dialogue’s Peter Hakim, featured Cristina García, Membership Mobilization Manager at the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities and Manuel Orozco, Senior Fellow and Director of the Migration, Remittances, and Development Program at the Inter-American Dialogue and Advisor to the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The event presented the findings of a new Dialogue report, “Understanding Central American Migration: The Crisis of Central American Child Migrants in Context,” by Manuel Orozco and Julia Yansura. Among its key findings, violence is the most powerful, immediate driver of the current wave of emigration from the region, but economic and human development are also important factors. Research conducted in El Salvador showed that 25% of Salvadorans are considering leaving their country, a “critical mass,” according to Orozco, and a clear sign that the issue must be addressed.
During the event’s discussion, Orozco noted that while many see this issue from a border security perspective, characterizing it as a “border crisis,” a closer look at the situation reveals that a massive exodus from Central America began 5-7 years ago prompted by violence and insecurity. He noted that this issue is one that has been present for some time. “The writing has been on the wall,” he said.
In addition to violence, day-to-day criminal acts such as extortion and political harassment have created a climate of fear that pushes people to move away from their home countries. Orozco emphasized that this, rather than poverty or low levels of development, are the immediate drivers of the large scale migration seen today. García agreed, recounting the story of a recent migrant who came to the United States not because of financial hardship but after receiving repeated threats that a local criminal group would kill her five-year-old son.
Both speakers were critical of the political leadership in Central American countries and the United States, emphasizing this issue must be taken more seriously. Orozco noted that it is troubling that “5-10 minors have left every day for the past 7 years,” yet there appears to be little political will to address the factors causing this in the region. García emphasized that the US immigration system is ineffective and badly in need of change, and as a result, Central Americans find very limited options for legal forms of migration.
Addressing the current influx of migrants, both of children and adults, requires applying humanitarian approach to widespread insecurity and violence. Both speakers emphasized that it is impossible to address this issue without tackling development in the region. Orozco noted that development models in the region need to be reconsidered and additional emphasis needs to be placed on education and labor force development so that migration is seen as a choice, rather than a necessity. García noted that the human aspect of this issue is essential: “we are treating immigration as a national security issue instead of a human issue,” and neglecting to address issues of human and economic development, she said.