Leaving Home and Starting the Journey: Who Are Migrating to the US and Why?

(CNN Spanish) — They fear for their lives. They have nothing to eat. They lost everything after the passage of a hurricane. They want to reunite with their relatives. Millions of Latin Americans—especially from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—leave the countries of their birth and embark on a journey to the United States, often fraught with danger, in search of a better future. Here’s a look at his motivations.

USA and Mexico, at the two extremes

The United States is the country in the world where the most international migrants arrive: there are 51 million, according to the report of the International Organization for Migration from 2022 with data from 2020. To put it in perspective, globally the total number of migrants —representing 3.6% of the population— was 281 million that year.

By 2020, 25 million migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean were living in North America, a considerable increase from the estimated 10 million in 1990.

Mexico is on the other side of the extreme: it is the second country with the most emigrants (11 million), surpassed only by India (almost 18 million).

The migratory corridor from Mexico to the United States is the largest in the world.

Where are the migrants arriving at the US southern border from?

80% of the migrants who arrived at the southern border of the United States in fiscal year 2021, which ran from October 2020 to September 2021, came from four countries: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to a report by the WOLA organization.

The majority is solid, but less than that registered between 2016 and 2018, when 95% were from those countries. In 2021 and this year, the organization explains, encounters between Border Patrol authorities and migrants from other countries increased. An example is the figures for April 2022, when almost 50% of those encounters were with people who are not from the Northern Triangle or from Mexico. Cuba stands out among the countries of origin.

In recent years, the focus has been mainly on migration from Central America. Some data allow us to understand the dimensions of this migration. By the end of 2020, there were close to 900,000 forcibly displaced people in Honduras, Guatemala and Salvador. More than half a million had left the borders of their countries and 79% were in the United States.

This Thursday, the United States Supreme Court made an especially important decision for migrants from those countries: it gave President Joe Biden the green light to put an end to the “Remain in Mexico” policy, from the Trump era, which allows send non-Mexican citizens who entered the United States through that border to Mexico while immigration procedures proceed.

Why do those who migrate migrate?

The IOM cites a cocktail of factors that explain migration from and through Central America: economic insecurity, violence and crime, and the effects of climate change. Ultimately, what people are looking for is both human and economic security.

1. “We need the money”

“We are poor, we need the money,” Bonifacia Sánchez, the grandmother of José Luis Vásquez, one of the Mexican migrants who managed to survive the tragedy that has so far left at least 53 dead in San Antonio, Texas, told CNN this week.

The search for economic opportunities was mentioned by 74% of Central American migrants in the United States surveyed for an IDB study as the main reason for wanting to settle in the north.

The situation, multiple organizations explain, has only worsened with a pandemic that has not yet ended. In 2021, in fact, extreme poverty affected 86 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Cepalwhich registered an increase of five million between 2020 and last year.

2. Escaping violence

Many of those who cross into the United States through the southern border “do so because they have no choice but to flee their countries,” explains the International Rescue Committee. And it specifically mentions three groups: families and children who need protection from the violence of organized gangs, women who are fleeing situations of gender violence, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities who are fleeing persecution.

According to the NGO Ayuda en AcciónIn Central America, one out of every two women migrates “for fear of losing their lives or suffering physical and emotional harm in their communities of origin.”

41% of the migrants from the Northern Triangle studied by the IDB mentioned violence as a main cause.

Meghan Lopez, IRC regional vice president for Latin America, says that people “usually” mobilize within their countries first. “However, the vast majority encounter risks and deteriorating living conditions similar to those they fled, leaving them with no choice but to seek safety elsewhere,” she explains.

El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela and Honduras were, by the end of 2020, four of the five countries from which the largest number of refugees in the United States came, according to the UN Refugee Agency. And those four, along with Mexico, made up the five from which there were the most asylum seekers.

3. Family reunification

43% of migrants from the Northern Triangle surveyed by the IDB they mentioned family reunification as one of the main causes. The organization explains that this migratory flow will be difficult to stop “what continues to make human trafficking by means of coyotes lucrative and angular.”

4. Extreme weather events

A woman looks at the destruction in Haulover, a community south of Bilwi in Nicaragua on November 28, days after Hurricane Iota.

Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, have “direct and indirect effects” on migration in the region, says the IOM, recalling some particular events such as hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 that resulted in 1.7 million displacements.

But it’s not just about hurricanes. The organization also mentions landslides, mudflows and drought in arid regions as influencing factors. “In Guatemala, for example, people frequently migrate due to drought and floods that destroy crops and cause food insecurity and poverty,” their report says. In Latin America there are currently 267 million people in a condition of food insecurity, according to the FAO.

“People don’t have to eat,” he recently told CNN en Español Natalia Lever, director for Latin America of The Climate Reality Project, the non-profit organization founded by Al Gore, former vice president of the United States and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, when analyzing the impact of climate change on migration. And this crisis is “inevitable unless we start investing in these new technologies for sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture and also in greater job opportunities in this new green economy,” she explained.

For the future, the environmental perspective is not encouraging: the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, known by the acronym in English IPCC, predicts that tropical cyclones, as well as strong storms and dust storms, will become more extreme in the East Coast and the Gulf Coast of the United States, the Caribbean and Central America.

The profile of migrants: young and with children

The IDB delved into in 2017 what were the characteristics of Northern Triangle migrants living in the United States. Among them they highlighted that it is a “markedly young” migration (32 years of average age) and “relatively more educated” compared to the general level of the population in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

15% of those interviewed for this study considered themselves part of an indigenous people or culture, a percentage that increased to 33% in the case of Guatemalans.

About half reported having children, who in more than 50% of cases had remained in their countries of origin, living with one of the parents or grandparents.

What about gender? In North America, 51.8% of international migrants (of all origins) were women by 2020, according to IOM data.

unaccompanied minors

Analyst: They must guarantee the reunification of migrant minors 1:57

A profile of migrants under special attention is that of the least unaccompanied.

In February of last year, the alarms went off in the United States Government due to the increase in minors arriving at the southern border without accompanying adults. From 2003 to 2021, more than 400,000 minors crossed the border without their parents.

More than 65% of unaccompanied minors are male, according to official data from 2019. Although about 40% are between 16 and 17 years old, there are cases of much younger children, for example six years old.

Gang violence and persecution are reasons for this migration. In addition, in 2019, some parents began to send their children alone when they realized that the United States Government did not return them if they had arrived without adults. Many of them, in addition, already have relatives living in the North American country.

Ukrainians at the southern border

This year there was also a “unique situation” on the southern border, explains WOLA, which was the presence of a “high” number of Ukrainians who fled the war in their country and arrived there.

The situation changed in April, when the United States launched the “United for Ukraine” program to allow the temporary entry of migrants of that origin. Until then, they were being processed at the border based on different mechanisms and the restrictions of Title 42, which do affect thousands of Latin Americans, did not apply to them.

With information from Priscilla Alvarez, Geneva Sands, and Catherine E. Shoichet.

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Leaving Home and Starting the Journey: Who Are Migrating to the US and Why?