Beyond the Border: Opportunities for Managing Regional Migration between Central and North America
Editor's Note: This commentary is being updated as forthcoming work is published.
The number of people migrating from Central America towards the United States has increased dramatically over the past several years. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) recorded approximately 734,000 encounters of Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans in fiscal year (FY) 2021, representing 44 percent of all encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border, 63 percent of all families, and 80 percent of all unaccompanied minors. By contrast, 249,000 Central American apprehensions occurred in 2014.
These movements are not just towards the United States. Many Central Americans are increasingly settling in Mexico; at least 49,000 requested asylum there in 2021, with many more remaining in irregular status. Around 150,000 Nicaraguans have moved to Costa Rica since 2018, joined by smaller numbers of other Central Americans. And Canada is a destination for others, with increasing numbers also moving to Europe, especially Spain.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in 2013 published the final report of the Regional Migration Study Group it convened with the Wilson Center, looking at migration trends from nearby countries and sketching a regional migration cooperation architecture. Even then, the prospect of increased migration from Central America was clear, while Mexican irregular migration was ebbing. The vast income differentials between Central American countries and the United States, along with rapidly developing cross-border social networks that facilitate mobility, made evident that many Central Americans would seek economic opportunities abroad.
This trend has been further accelerated by a series of crises in Central America, brought on by persistent economic instability, political conflict, the rapid expansion of gangs and organized crime groups, and unpredictable shifts in climate patterns. Survey data by the World Food Program (WFP), analyzed by MPI, WFP, and the Civic Data Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demonstrate the multiple and overlapping reasons that people emigrate. Field research by Asociación Pop No’j and MPI in the Western Highlands of Guatemala confirm these findings and show that most people would prefer not to migrate or to only do so temporarily if legal opportunities for circular migration existed.
A recent U.S. decision to wind down an expulsions policy, known as Title 42, that reduced access to asylum is likely to sharply increase migration flows from Central America in the near term, thereby underlying the importance of managing regional migration differently. No amount of border enforcement alone is likely to stop irregular migration, but there are practical ways to structure regional migration so that it becomes increasingly regular, predictable, and safe, while helping meet real labor market needs in destination countries, as the Biden administration’s Collaborative Migration Management Strategy recognizes. There are also significant opportunities to build a common and coordinated approach across the countries in the region that stretches from Costa Rica to Canada, as an ongoing high-level North and Central American Task Force on Migration suggests.
At least four areas lend themselves to significant policy innovation to build and implement a regional approach: (1) expanding legal pathways, (2) strengthening protection mechanisms, (3) rethinking migration management, and (4) investing in sustainable development in ways that recognize migrants as significant assets. No single strategy can be successful alone, but taken together a concerted set of strategies in these four areas could significantly reshape migration patterns. This commentary looks at each of these areas in turn.
Expanding Legal Pathways
Given the choice, many migrants would prefer to migrate legally for short periods, allowing them to earn money abroad and return home to their families in a circular pattern. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that legal pathways are often much preferred by migrants themselves and help reduce unauthorized migration by creating a safer and less expensive alternative. Ideally, all seasonal programs should have an eventual “bridge” to permanent legal status for those who work several years consecutively, to avoid creating a class of permanent temporary workers tied to a single employer, as MPI has proposed.
Yet relatively few options for legal migration exist for Central Americans. As the principal channel for temporary employment in the United States, the H-2 seasonal programs for agricultural (H-2A) and nonagricultural (H-2B) workers allow U.S. employers to recruit noncitizens for short periods. In FY 2021, however, only about 10,000 H-2 visas were issued to Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans combined—a significant contrast to the 311,000 issued to Mexican nationals.
A recent MPI policy brief argued that the U.S. government could significantly expand H-2 visas to Central American nationals in order to create legal pathways for mobility, especially the H-2A program, which has been growing rapidly and has an uncapped visa allocation. However, the lack of recruitment infrastructure, high expenses for sponsoring employers, and logistical hurdles disincentivize employers from recruiting Central Americans. There are also significant concerns around fair recruiting, protection of labor standards and workers’ rights, and ensuring immigrants leave when their seasonal employment ends. The Biden administration has allocated 6,500 supplemental H-2B visas for Central Americans for FY 2022 and 11,500 for FY 2023 (the latter including Haitians), which is a good start but only a fraction of what is needed.
A companion MPI policy brief looks at other options for expanding labor pathways, including Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), which issued 32,000 seasonal visas to Mexicans, 15,000 to Guatemalans, and around 600 to Salvadorans and Hondurans in 2021. Mexico and Costa Rica also have seasonal labor visas for nationals of neighboring countries, which like the Canadian program could be expanded gradually. And Spain also recently opened a pilot seasonal worker program for Honduran nationals with 250 participants, which started in late 2021.
While labor mobility may be the most important legal pathway to pursue, it is not the only one. Family reunification and educational and humanitarian protection channels are also essential and should be part of the approach to managing migration across the region. And among labor options, there is an important opportunity to consider care work in the United States and Canada as another target of opportunity for labor mobility, though there is no current visa category that covers this.
Strengthening Protection Mechanisms
While persistent poverty helps explain much of the current migration from Central America, personal safety is also a principal or compounding factor for many. This is most visibly the case for those leaving Nicaragua for Costa Rica due to the crackdown on political dissent that began in 2018. It is often true also for those living in areas of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala where organized crime, gangs, and political conflict make life unpredictable and often dangerous. Research shows that areas in Central America with higher crime rates tend to produce more intense patterns of emigration.
To address protection needs in Central America, therefore, it is important to think in terms of a layered approach involving in-country protection, asylum, and refugee resettlement. Simultaneously addressing these three components would create more options for protection than currently exist and at the same time reduce pressure on asylum systems, which are presently the only mechanism available for most people to escape danger.
For many people, in-country protection would be far preferable to having to seek refuge abroad, but few efforts exist to do this. The Salvadoran government is the only Central American one to pass a law on internal displacement designed to assist those who are forced because of violence to move, but it has yet to be fully resourced or implemented. Local civil-society groups, sometimes supported by international organizations, have provided limited alternatives for in-country protection for those fleeing danger, but these efforts have generally been quite limited.
A second approach is identifying for international resettlement people who are in imminent danger before they must migrate and seek asylum in a nearby country, as an MPI policy brief discusses. This takes place at a small scale through existing in-country processing mechanisms such as the Protection Transfer Agreement, which aims to settle Central Americans who face persecution in other countries. Yet, as the policy brief will demonstrate, expanding these efforts will require investing in the capacity of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations to identify those in danger, enhance the ability for timely processing, find ways to protect applicants during case processing, and examine complementary pathways to protection.
Similarly, the Biden administration’s efforts to relaunch and expand the Central American Minors (CAM) program provides another useful pathway for children and youth who face danger and have relatives already in the United States. According to MPI research, scaling this small program will require four key aspects: improving program administration to extend its reach and enhance its case review and processing, strengthen child safety throughout the adjudication process, support those who arrive as parolees and who as a result have limited access to benefits, and enhance data collection to effectively evaluate the program’s impact.
Finally, asylum must remain an important fail-safe for those who are forced to flee and can make it to a nearby country. Mexico and Costa Rica have provided asylum to tens of thousands of people, rapidly expanding their capacity to process protection claims. However, in both cases asylum systems are now overwhelmed, with substantial backlogs creating long wait times for adjudication of claims. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have also started to strengthen their asylum capacity, in part through the UNHCR-led Comprehensive Regional Protection & Solutions Framework (MIRPS) process.
The U.S. asylum system had entered into deep crisis even before most border protection screening was suspended with the Title 42 expulsions policy implemented at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Biden administration’s recent asylum rule promises to improve the process over time by streamlining border asylum decision-making so that it becomes both more timely and fair. Building a new approach to asylum will also require an improved approach to reception, effective alternatives to detention, a fair process for the return and reintegration of those whose applications are not approved, and support for those who receive asylum, as MPI research has suggested.
Taken together, this layered approach would, over time, improve options for protection while reducing pressures on already strained asylum systems, especially if combined with a significant expansion of seasonal employment visas that provide an alternative to those with safety concerns but who might not qualify for asylum.
Enhancing Migration Management
As a previous MPI report shows, Central American countries have yet to fully build their migration management capacities to address the expanding number of people on the move across the region. Immigration enforcement is often ad hoc, sometimes carried out by agencies with no clear migration mandate, and often lacking transparency around actions, policies, and resources. Similarly, visa policies remain underdeveloped, and there is limited (though growing) regional consultation around shifts in border and visa policies. Most countries in the region, with the exception of Canada, Costa Rica, and perhaps the United States, are still developing clear processes for making coordinated migration decisions across multiple government agencies.
A forthcoming MPI policy brief argues that surge capacity could be expanded over several years in three phases of increasing complexity and regional coordination. First, states could establish a shared database consolidating relevant migration data. The Regional Migration Conference, coordinated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has served as a vital platform to share best practices and socialize ideas across countries, and could play a role in this effort. In phase two, the region could develop an early warning system based on nascent trends detectable via this database. And in phase three, regional governments could build on the early-warning systems to develop and implement a surge resource response involving consultations on visa, protection, and border policies to manage the specific surge. While this process may not produce immediate responses, the framework could move the region towards a more coordinated response, and eventually build to encompass other key governments across the hemisphere.
There is also an urgent need to look more systematically at migrant return and reintegration policies. MPI researchers show in a forthcoming report that building better reception and reintegration systems will require opening collaboration among governments, civil society, and the private sector in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Among other recommendations, they propose prioritizing investments in reception and reintegration programs as part of economic development and recovery planning, establishing predeparture services for returnees, and systematizing and expanding skill-credentialing and training agencies’ capacity to streamline returned migrants’ access to jobs. Approaching these initiatives as both reintegration programs and development strategies could jump-start services for returning migrants and other at-risk populations who, without additional support, may have no choice but to re-migrate again, whether internally or internationally.
All of these efforts will require significant new investments, both in infrastructure for the specific agencies responsible for implementing border, migration, and reintegration policies, and in policy-making capacity across government by coordinating among multiple agencies and consulting with civil society. In the past, migration has been seen as a secondary issue in most Central American countries, but its rising prominence as an issue of domestic policy, foreign relations, and even political debate requires a new infrastructure and capacity to formulate and implement policies that go far beyond existing capabilities for most of these governments.
Investing in Sustainable Development
Many of the reasons that people migrate are tied a long-term emigration life cycle, in which households in countries at early stages of developmental growth begin to have a greater ability to see migration as a realistic option, and the return on investment for migrating far outstrips the benefits of staying. Eventually, however, economic opportunities expand, birth rates fall, and people no longer see migration as the only way to improve their lives.
This cycle, however, depends on real advances in development indicators—far from a given in Central America. Poor governance, institutional fragility, persistent corruption, and weak rule of law conspire to slow development and ensure that its benefits accrue unequally across society. Therefore, renewed efforts to expand economic opportunities, education, health-care access, and infrastructure across society make an enormous difference. But they must be accompanied by efforts to empower local communities and invest in democratic governance, which can build the necessary trust in institutions and within communities that is essential for people to envision a satisfactory future.
Migrants themselves can be an important source of development in their origin countries, especially, but not exclusively, through the money they send home. In 2021, remittances made up nearly 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in El Salvador and Honduras, and almost 20 percent in Guatemala, according to preliminary estimates—up significantly from the prior year. Evidence suggests that nearly one-third of households in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras regularly receive remittances, helping improve nutrition, education, health care, and housing.
One way of accelerating the benefits of remittances while avoiding potential inflationary effects is to find ways of banking remittances in local credit unions and cooperatives that then invest in local entrepreneurship, infrastructure, and social service expansion. A forthcoming report from MPI, UCLA’s North American Integration and Development Center, and the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions (La Asociación Mexicana de Uniones de Crédito del Sector Social) will suggest ways that remittances can help support local financial institutions that lend to migrants’ communities of origin. And there are other ways that policymakers, international organizations, and nongovernmental groups can support investment decisions by migrants in their home communities, often with matching loan programs and preferential credit that help expand employment, improve productivity, and forestall emigration.
Beyond long-term drivers of migration, there are important ways of dealing with specific triggers that drive people to move who otherwise might not do so. Some triggers have to do with public security, since personal safety is often a compounding reason for migration. Mitigating the effects of climate change matters too, including providing aid quickly after natural disasters and helping mitigate the effects of indebtedness brought on by unpredictable rainfall patterns that make already tenuous rural incomes even more fragile.
Sustainable development investment requires both long-term and short-term approaches, as outlined in the U.S. government’s Root Causes Strategy and Integral Development Plan of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC). To ensure effective outcomes, it is vital, however, to place migrants and their communities of origin at the center of these discussions.
Building Broader Hemispheric Cooperation
Although most migration throughout Central America originates from within the region, increasing numbers of people of other nationalities are transiting the region, including Venezuelans, Haitians, and Cubans, as well as migrants from countries in Africa and Asia. One-fifth of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border in FY 2021 were of nationals from countries beyond Central America and Mexico, and asylum statistics in Mexico and Costa Rica tell much the same story.
While there is significant movement towards the United States, even more migration probably has occurred within Latin America and the Caribbean over the past five years. Much of this migration comes from Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba, countries that experiencing significant displacement as a result of political conflict, economic downturns, and state fragility, as well as those Central Americans who stay in neighboring countries. Moreover, as it has become harder for some migrants from Africa and Asia to enter the European Union, they have sought to reach the United States instead, usually starting in South America and working their way northwards, though many end up stopping along the way. Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion of their country are the latest migrants with special protection needs who are finding their way to the hemisphere.
The increasingly hemispheric nature of this movement calls for building a set of principles on managing migration across the Americas that seeks to support countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico that have suddenly found themselves hosting large migrant and refugee populations, while also thinking through legal pathways, protection mechanisms, return policies, and visa policy coordination in more systematic ways. Though it may be difficult to find concrete strategies that apply universally across the hemisphere, it is worth outlining the principles that might apply generally across the Americas and begin to find agreement on specific actions that might work in smaller subregions that share common migration patterns.
At a time when mobility in the Western Hemisphere is more extensive and unpredictable than ever before, it is high time for honest conversations and shared actions that create channels for safe, orderly, and regular migration.