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Expanding the Reach of Temporary Work Visas in Central America Could Help Reduce Unauthorized Migration to the United States
Press Release
Thursday, November 4, 2021

Expanding the Reach of Temporary Work Visas in Central America Could Help Reduce Unauthorized Migration to the United States

WASHINGTON — With the number of Central American migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border rising in recent years, it is clear the United States and its regional partners face a long-term challenge to promote orderly and managed migration from the region. Expanding humanitarian protection pathways represents a crucial element of this response. But for many Central American migrants who are on the move primarily for economic reasons, expanding currently narrow pathways for legal migration to the United States could help alleviate pressures at the southwest border.

A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) policy brief, Investing in Alternatives to Irregular Migration from Central America: Options to Expand U.S. Employment Pathways, proposes expansion of seasonal employment-based H-2 visas (H-2A for agricultural work and H-2B for non-agricultural jobs) as the most promising short-term solution, given the broad range of mid- to low-skilled industries covered by these visas.

Yet H-2 programs have been used to recruit only small numbers of workers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which are the three top sending countries from Central America. In fiscal year 2020, more than 90 percent of H-2A visas and more than 70 percent of H-2B visas went to Mexicans, while workers from Guatemala received less than 2 percent of H-2As and no more than 4 percent of H-2Bs. These figures were even smaller for workers from El Salvador and Honduras.

Data analysis indicates the expansion of these seasonal worker programs contributed to the decline in unauthorized migration from Mexico since 2010. While factors driving migration from Central America are different, the Mexican experience suggests a modest expansion of the H-2 visa programs’ reach in Central America could help reduce irregular migration while giving prospective migrants opportunities to work legally for short periods of time in the United States.

Several challenges would have to be surmounted, though. For employers, there are few incentives to develop new recruitment networks in Central America beyond those they already have and trust in Mexico. There are also concerns about the protection of migrant workers’ rights, including how to create a recruitment system in which procedures are transparent and intermediaries do not illegally charge for services. Moreover, U.S. officials would have to adopt measures to ensure that Central American migrant workers return to their origin countries when their visas end.

The brief maps existing efforts undertaken by the Central American governments to facilitate international recruitment of their workers. It also identifies short-, medium- and long-term policy options that the United States and its regional partners can use to mitigate challenges to the expansion of seasonal worker programs in Central America. This includes having the U.S. government, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the three Central American governments cover some or all of employers’ costs to transport Central American workers to the United States to incentivize recruitment from the region. Stakeholders also should create a safe and effective recruitment program, which could include a platform where employers can register and receive U.S. approval to recruit workers from the region and a web portal where migrants could review job openings and employers that have been preapproved.

“El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have large working-age populations, and aligning this supply of labor with demand for agricultural and non-agricultural workers in the United States can benefit immigrants, their countries of origin and their U.S. employers, especially as the existing pool of agricultural workers in the United States ages and the working-age population in Mexico continues to contract,” the author, Cristobal Ramón, concludes.

You can read the brief here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/alternatives-irregular-migration-central-america.

And in Spanish here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/alternativas-migracion-irregular-centroamerica.

To learn more about MPI’s longstanding work developing regional solutions to migration in North and Central America, see: www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/regional-migration.

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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.