US Regional Security amid the Caravan Debate

October 24, 2018

If you’ve followed the news the last few days, you know that there is a migrant caravan approaching the US border, 7000-people strong. But who are these people, why have they left Central America, and what do they want once they cross the border?

The United States has responded over the years with a mix of rhetoric (to build a wall along the entire border) and enforcement responses (such as increased US border officials and increasingly advanced technology), and some policy action. The caravan is one of many signs that the US responses thus far to Central American migration have been far from sufficient.

The reality is that people will move if they need to move. If conditions are dire enough or prospects hopeless enough in one’s home country, she will migrate to safety and security (personal, economic, or otherwise) so long as she has the economic and network means to do so.

This isn’t just about economy, and often it’s not about jobs at all. Last week, President Donald Trump said, “I’ve caused the problem [of increased immigration]...I have created such an incredible economy, I have created so many jobs...that everybody wants to come in.” Putting aside that inflows are comparable with previous years, the types of migration we’re seeing—family units in particular—are likely for reasons other than jobs and the economy.

The violence is a critical issue that drives the migration decision for the Central American migrants currently arriving.

What drives unauthorized migration isn’t just the destination country’s economy, but also includes these five interrelated factors:

  • the lack of availability of regular (legal) migration pathways

  • economic conditions and interventions in the home community

  • enforcement at the border of and inside the destination country

  • demographic realities in the home community, and

  • violence in the home community

How big a factor is violence?

CGD’s research on unaccompanied child migration from Central America lays out the relationship between economic factors, violence, and the propensity to move. Unaccompanied child migrants apprehended at the US border between 2011 and 2016 moved due to a roughly equal mix of economic conditions and violence in their communities.

And violence weighed heavily. The numbers show that every 10 additional homicides in the Northern Triangle caused more than six additional unaccompanied child migrant apprehensions in the United States. Violence and unemployment in Central America’s Northern Triangle together are in fact so severe that a full 10 percent of some age cohorts in the Northern Triangle left within just a few years.

So what should we do about it?

Of the five factors that play into the migration decision, violence is the one issue for which we have policies proven to help in some measure: effective security assistance interventions, by the United States, that help reduce the same violence that drives Central Americans to head for the US border. In fact, preserving this security aid in Central America is the policy decision that matters most. Cutting off most or all aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador would be the most counterproductive and harmful policy decision at this moment if the goal is preventing unauthorized immigration to the United States.

This is to say nothing of the four other factors. Evidence from US history with the Bracero program shows that enforcement alone is a much less effective deterrent of irregular migration than enforcement combined with enhanced lawful channels. When the regular migration option for Mexican agricultural workers to the United States was abruptly ended, irregular migration shot up and helped create the political crisis surrounding irregular migration that the United States continues to grapple with today.

Demographics are inevitable. Some degree of migration will happen. It is not a question of if, but rather how it will happen. Policy choices can shape how migration happens—via regular, formal channels, or irregularly and in the shadows. Policy choices will dictate whether that migration is a benefit to the United States or not. The effects of migration are not inherently good nor inherently detrimental. The impact on the US economy, jobs, and local communities comes down to the longer-term decisions by policymakers on how they want to govern and shape migration.

But the short-term violence interventions and security cooperation can have immediate effects on the whether Central Americans migrate to survive. Cutting off current US security cooperation and related aid will have the opposite effect of what is intended.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.