Responding to Northern Triangle Immigration with Policies that Benefit Both Migrants and Hosts

Responding to Northern Triangle Immigration with Policies that Benefit Both Migrants and Hosts

by Cindy Huang and Jimmy Graham, Center for Global Development 

Despite claims of a crisis at the southern US border, undocumented migrants have in fact been apprehended at a much lower rate over the past decade than previous years. Since 2010, apprehension rates (the best measure of rates of undocumented migration) have been around 400,000 per year—compared to the peak of 1.7 million in 2000. And although rates have risen sharply this year, they are still far from record highs.

At the same time, there has been an unprecedented increase in people coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—the Northern Triangle. In 2000, less than 3 percent of apprehensions involved migrants from these countries; last year they accounted for 56 percent. Over the past five years alone, yearly apprehensions of Northern Triangle migrants grew from 139,000 to 226,000. Unlike the undocumented migrants of the past, who were mostly single adult men, migrants from the Northern Triangle are mostly families and unaccompanied children.

So how should US policymakers respond?

  1. Recognize that some level of migration is inevitable and implement policies to realize its mutual benefits.
  2. Focus on reducing the “push” factors that drive migrants from their homes—particularly violence.
  3. Partner with civil society organizations to understand the priorities of communities at origin and destination.

These responses don’t amount to a comprehensive solution and many face short-term political roadblocks. But they could go a long way in reducing the factors that force people to flee and in creating mutual benefits for migrants and hosts. US policymakers should start planning now for medium- and long-term solutions.

Manage migration for mutual benefit

There is a complex mix of factors driving migration from the Northern Triangle and elsewhere that indicate rates of immigration will significantly increase in the near future—regardless of attempts to curb them. Research from our colleague at CGD, Michael Clemens, shows that migration from the Northern Triangle is driven by both violence and economic factors, which are similar in influence. He finds that short-term increases in violence and long-term economic factors like high and stagnant unemployment rates cause more people to flee. Furthermore, demographic projections forecast that, by 2040, the number of working-age people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will expand by 9 million people. Across all low- and middle-income countries, the number is predicted to expand by 625 million. And as these countries grow richer, their rates of migration will likely increase (at least until they reach especially high incomes), as individuals will have more resources to fund migration.

Given these complex factors (many of them inevitable), the question should not be how to stop immigration, but rather how to get the most out of it.

In a recent paper, we argue that migration outcomes largely depend on the policy context. Thus, depending on the policy response, the flows from the Northern Triangle can either continue to create a sense of chaos at the border, or they can lead to a situation in which US communities and migrants are better off.

Research shows that when legal channels for migration are created, irregular migration falls. Thus, some of the current undocumented flows would likely shift to legal, orderly channels if pathways were created to allow for this. And if these pathways were linked to industries in the US facing labor shortages, the result could be higher incomes for migrants and an expansion of economic activity that could lead to the creation of higher-paying jobs for US citizens. Global Skills Partnerships (GSPs) would be an especially effective means to create these mutual benefits. Policymakers should also consider vulnerability criteria, prioritizing those who are at greater risk of violence and insecurity for some opportunities.

Can we (and should we) reduce migration?

Migration is an important tool for development and protection. It can lead to much higher incomes for migrants and their families who remain in countries of origin, and it enables people to flee violence—a major driver of migration from the Northern Triangle. Migration also benefits countries of destination, filling labor gaps and fostering innovation. Policymakers should not try to stop migration, but rather try to reduce the migration “push” factors (like violence) that force people from their homes.

How can policymakers reduce “push” factors? The answer is to focus on security, not economics (at least in the short term), and to develop more evidence.

Security assistance can substantially reduce violence, and in doing so can reduce migration. One well-evaluated program based in the Northern Triangle, USAID’s Central America Regional Security Initiative, cut reports of homicide and extortion by half. Given the link between migration and violence, such interventions are probably the best way to both reduce migration and support these communities.

Youth unemployment is also a major driver of migration, including from the Northern Triangle. But trying to reduce migration by creating jobs is unlikely to work for two reasons:

  1. Existing research shows that active labor market programs are not particularly effective at directly increasing employment rates; and
  2. The sort of economic growth that would have a meaningful impact on job creation would also raise incomes, which would, in turn, enable more emigration.

Thus, policymakers should accept that economic assistance will probably increase (or at least fail to decrease) emigration in the short term. Over the long term, however, economic assistance geared toward sustainable growth can support countries in reaching the levels of income at which emigration begins to fall.

An important caveat: Researchers know very little about how security and economic interventions affect migration “push” factors. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of such interventions (the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is one example) but few have been rigorously evaluated. Particularly considering the weak theoretical foundation for many of these approaches, policymakers need more evidence of their effectiveness—in improving people’s lives and reducing “push” factors.

Understanding the needs of potential migrants may be the key to success

To effectively address “push” factors, and realize migration’s mutual benefits, policymakers and program implementers should work more directly with civil society groups and social movements that represent communities in countries of origin and destination. These organizations can best articulate the needs and perceptions of migrants and hosts—in terms of safety, integration, and other priorities—and this information can be used to guide programming. Furthermore, these interventions should be rigorously evaluated.

For example, the recently launched MIGNEX project is collecting qualitative and quantitative data from people in 25 local areas across 10 countries. This project attempts to better understand the migration “push” factors from these communities, and the impacts of various policies and programs trying to address these factors. In doing so, researchers hope to form a holistic picture of the interrelationships between migration, development, and policy. While no Northern Triangle countries are represented, the general findings may be applicable to the region, and the methodology could be replicated in future.

Because of a difficult political environment, implementing some of these solutions (particularly those focused on legal pathways) may not be possible in the short term. However, discussing the evidence, looking for solutions, and planning for the implementation of policies over the medium to long term is vitally important. Until then stakeholders can focus on using foreign assistance to support what works and to evaluate new approaches.


Cindy Huang is co-director of migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy at the Center for Global Development (CGD). Jimmy Graham is a research assistant at CGD.

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