Understanding the Central American Refugee Crisis
Why They Are Fleeing and How U.S. Policies are Failing to Deter Them
By Jonathan T. Hiskey, Ph. D.; Abby Córdova, Ph.D.; Diana Orcés, Ph.D. and Mary Fran Malone, Ph.D.
In the spring and summer of 2014, tens of thousands of women and unaccompanied children from Central America journeyed to the United States seeking asylum.
The increase of asylum-seekers, primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala —the countries making up the “Northern Triangle” region— was characterized by President Obama as a “humanitarian crisis.”
The situation garnered widespread congressional and media attention, much of it speculating about the cause of the increase and suggesting U.S. responses.
Faced with the increase of Central Americans presenting themselves at the United States’ southwest border seeking asylum, President Obama and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically, implemented an “aggressive deterrence strategy.”
A media campaign was launched in Central America highlighting the risks involved with migration and the consequences of illegal immigration.
DHS also dramatically increased the detention of women and children awaiting their asylum hearings, rather than release on bond. Finally, the U.S. government publicly supported increased immigration enforcement measures central to the Mexican government’s Southern Border Program that was launched in July of 2014.
Together, these policies functioned to “send a message” to Central Americans that the trip to the United States was not worth the risk, and they would be better off staying put. Yet the underlying assumption that greater knowledge of migration dangers would effectively deter Central Americans from trying to cross the U.S. border remains largely untested.
This report aims to investigate this assumption and answer two related questions: “What motivates Central Americans to consider migration?” and “What did Central Americans know about the risks involved in migrating to the United States in August 2014?”
An analysis of data from a survey of Northern Triangle residents conducted in the spring of 2014 by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project -LAPOP reveals that respondents were more likely to have intentions to migrate if they had been victims of one or more crimes in the previous year.
In a separate LAPOP survey of residents of selected municipalities across Honduras, carried out in late July and early August of 2014, we find that a substantial majority of respondents were also well aware of the dangers involved in migration to the United States, including the increased chances of deportation.
This widespread awareness among Hondurans of the U.S. immigration climate in the summer of 2014, however, did not have any significant effect on whether or not they intended to migrate.
In sum, though the U.S. media campaigns may have convinced —or reminded— Hondurans, and perhaps their Salvadoran and Guatemalan counterparts, that migration to the United States is dangerous and unlikely to be successful, this knowledge did not seem to play a role in the decision calculus of those considering migration.
Rather, we have strong evidence from the surveys in Honduras and El Salvador in particular that one’s direct experience with crime emerges as a critical predictor of one’s emigration intentions.
What these findings suggest is that crime victims are unlikely to be deterred by the Administration’s efforts. Further, we may infer from this analysis of migration intentions that those individuals who do decide to migrate and successfully arrive at the U. S. border are far more likely to fit the profile of refugees than that of economic migrants.
Upon arrival, however, they are still subject to the “send a message” policies and practices that are designed to deter others rather than identify and ensure the protection of those fleeing war-like levels of violence.
What do these findings suggest in terms of the effectiveness of the U.S. deterrence efforts and awareness campaign carried out over the past year and a half?
First, it seems that the campaign successfully sent the message to residents of the primary sending countries in Central America that the United States will “send you back.”
It is also clear that the trip north is perceived as being far more dangerous than it was in previous years, at least for Honduran survey respondents.
After 18 months of concerted efforts by the United States and Mexican governments to dissuade Central Americans from making the trip, it is a safe assumption that most considering such a journey in the future are well aware of the dangers and low chances of success.
Yet Central American men, women, and children continue to make the trip.
Between October 2015 and January 2016, CBP apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children in the southwest border increased more than 100 percent compared to the same period in the previous year.
Why do these individuals continue trying to make the trip when seemingly fully aware of the dangers involved?
The findings reported here suggest that no matter what the future might hold in terms of the dangers of migration, it is preferable to a present-day life of crime and violence.
The unprecedented levels of crime and violence that have overwhelmed the Northern Triangle countries in recent years have produced a refugee situation for those directly in the line of fire, making no amount of danger or chance of deportation sufficient to dissuade those victims from leaving.
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