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When the Push Outweighs the Pull: The Root Causes of Immigration from the Northern Triangle

In President Biden’s first news conference this past March, a reporter asked him to comment on the broader influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border by highlighting the story of an unaccompanied nine-year-old boy from Honduras. President Biden pushed back on accusations that he is the cause of this recent surge of migrants to the border by making clear the desperation of the mother’s decision and acknowledging the horridness of their environment that forces a parent to make that choice. Herein lies the age-old debate about the push and pull factors that cause individuals to immigrate to the United States.

The demographics of the recent immigration increases and the motivations of migrants arriving have changed from those of the early 21st century. Gone are the days when Mexican adult males were arriving en masse at the border following the allure of increased economic opportunity. Now, they have largely been replaced by a rise in children, mainly of Central American nationality. Unfortunately, these children are no longer being sent because of the pull of economic fortune, but rather, due to a push of factors within their own countries that make the risks of the multi-week, unaccompanied trip pale in comparison to the situations they face at home. If we are to adapt to the immigration challenges of the 21st century, is critical that the United States understand and address these push factors in the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras when crafting policy.

One of the most prominent push factors that causes migrant children to make the difficult trek is the increasing threat of gang violence and organized crime. The three Northern Triangle countries all rank among the highest in the world in terms of homicide rate per capita and list homicide in the top five leading causes of death. But what is more harrowing for parents is the child homicide rate (from birth to 19 years old), with El Salvador and Guatemala placing first and second among all countries, and Honduras faring not much better at tenth place.  One of the biggest purveyors of these high rates, the countries’ notorious gang populations, can only sustain themselves by recruiting children to join the ranks. Their work has been made easier by the pandemic and is forcing parents to make more difficult decisions as 97% of Latin American students are currently not attending in-person classes.

Another deeply-rooted push factor that motivates migrants to leave the Northern Triangle countries is the lack of economic opportunities. This issue disproportionally impacts their youth populations. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the three Northern Triangle countries score among the worst across various metrics measuring job quantity. In particular, the youth populations of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala received the lowest aggregate scores of the index out of 17 Latin American countries. Two further complications that are further exacerbating these pre-pandemic figures are the countries’ feckless leadership and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The three Northern Triangle countries are governed by leaders who have allowed corruption, narcotrafficking, and authoritarianism to flourish, which only further siphons off illicit economic capital. And the pandemic also continues to ravage youth employment prospects as recent reports note that one in six Latin American youth have left work since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The most distant, but devastating, push factor we are beginning to see early effects from is climate change. The Northern Triangle countries faced one of the most challenging hurricane seasons ever in what was a historic year. Hurricane Eta and Hurricane Iota both made landfall as Category 4 storms and caused massive damage. USAID’s most recent figures estimate that 7 million individuals between Guatemala and Honduras were affected by the storms, with almost 300,000 individuals in Honduras forced into informal housing accommodations.

Climate change isn’t only uprooting lives, it is claiming jobs just as aggressively. In Guatemala, a historic, and once thriving coffee industry is under siege as a result of increased storms, floods, and droughts. Coffee rusts, a fungi that attacks and decimates the plants, spread more prevalently and to higher elevations in warmer temperatures, which is unsurprisingly increasing as we yet observed another hottest year ever recorded. The effects of the rusts have been overwhelming for the country with half of Guatemalan farms affected and over a million jobs lost. Climate change acceleration will only lead to increases in climate migration and force parents to make painstaking decisions about their children’s futures.

The massive influx of child migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border is only a harbinger of larger future waves as the United States needs to adapt to the migration challenges of the 21st century. In a recent Gallup poll across Latin American and Caribbean countries, 27% of respondents would prefer moving to another country permanently, and of that group, 35% selected the US as their preferred destination. Even if future migration from the region is a fraction of Gallup’s figures, the end result involves millions of people. And to combat this growing existential displacement for so many, it is critical that the United States act intently and boldly through diplomacy, targeted economic assistance, transparency and accountability mechanisms, and humanitarian measures to address migration, especially that of climate migrants

To find a sufficient solution to any problem, the first step is defining the true root of the problem. Rather than trying to keep migrants out, the most effective approach will focus on improving the conditions within countries to deter them from permanently leaving. Until significant attention, energy, and resources are dedicated to working with the Northern Triangle countries to reduce the push factors that cause emigration, the United States will continue to neglect the root causes of 21st century migration trends of the Western hemisphere.


Connor Paul

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