CREATE Researchers Study Motivations of Northern Triangle Migrants

CREATE study shows that asylum-seeking migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador,
Guatemala, and Honduras
are primarily motivated by economic opportunities to come to the United States, 
and that they are unlikely to divert to migrating to Mexico if U.S. asylum policies are changed.

For decades, the large majority of migrants attempting illegal entry into the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border were adult Mexican nationals, but this migrant flow has fallen dramatically in recent years. A new migrant flow began to emerge in 2011 that is composed primarily of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who rely less on clandestine crossing of the border and usually request various forms of asylum upon entry into the U.S.

The Customs and Border Protection agency of the Department of Homeland Security asked the USC Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) to research this non-traditional flow in order to gain a better understanding of its causes and likely migrant reactions to changes in policy. The specific questions directed asked by CBP were:

•  If asylum in the United States is not an option, would this deter asylum seekers from Central America from crossing into Mexico?

•  Of the migrants who are already in Mexico, how many would stay in Mexico, return to their home country, or migrate elsewhere?

CREATE’s research team conducted an extensive inventory of what was known about the options available to these migrants (e.g., asylum in Mexico versus the United States), their levels and flows, and their motivations for migrating, including economic, crime and safety, and family reunification. This information, along with data collected on the conditions in Northern Triangle countries, Mexico, and the United States (e.g., economic and crime conditions), were then used to conduct a range of empirical analyses on motivating factors to identify their relative importance and the role they play in the timing of the emergence and surging of the nontraditional flow. This included regression analysis of apprehension records, cross-country regression analysis, and a range of other statistical investigations. The research team also developed case studies of other recent asylum-seeker flow experiences in Europe and Canada.

The research team found that it is unlikely that there would be any appreciable diversion of non-traditional flow into Mexico as a final destination if asylum in the United States were not an option. Except for Guatemala, most migrants from Northern Triangle countries who enter Mexico illegally are there in order to transit to the United States and would likely continue their journey even with a U.S. policy change, but substitute to attempting clandestine entry at the U.S. border instead of seeking asylum. It is possible that some would be deterred from continuing their journey and return to their home country.

Specific findings of the research team are that:

•  Long-term illegal migration to the United States of adults from Northern Triangle countries has primarily been driven by economic motivations, and of juvenile migrants by economic opportunities and reunification with family that migrated previously. Northern Triangle migrants to the U.S. can typically increase their wage earnings by 10 times or more.

•  Mexico offers very little economic gain to Northern Triangle migrants, and the increase in income that a migrant could typically expect from migrating to Mexico would not justify the costs of doing so.

•  Statistical analysis shows mixed evidence on whether crime and violence are a contributing factor to juvenile migration decisions with regard to the U.S. Migrants are unlikely to go to Mexico for crime reasons, because although the murder rate in Mexico is significantly lower than in Northern Triangle counties, other data on crime perceptions suggest that Mexico is not perceived as a safer destination.

•  Juvenile migrants generally require that other family members already be present in the destination country in order to migrate, and the small populations of Northern Triangle migrants that reside in Mexico will not support large flows of juvenile migrants to Mexico, regardless of the migrant motivation or U.S. policies on asylum.

•  The proximate cause of the timing (i.e., the surge) of migration from the Northern Triangle is likely related to actual and perceived policy changes in the United States and Mexico.

The full report can be found here

CREATE is continuing its research on migration from the Northern Triangle in a new study that analyzes the potential impact on migration if economic development in Northern Triangle countries is intensified. Data from nationally representative household surveys are being used to assess the potential impact of improvements in economic outcomes on the intention to emigrate, and case studies of Mexico and Puerto Rico are being developed to assess how change in economic outcomes in those countries historically impacted migration flows.

Posted: April 20, 2021