Study Examines Motivations of Asylum Seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States

USC study looking at motivations of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras finds that family ties and economic opportunities are important motivators; evidence on the influence of crime and violence is mixed. 

Completing a 12-month study on immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States, researchers found that juvenile migrants are primarily motivated by economic opportunities and reunification with family members, while economics have motivated adult migrants. The study found mixed evidence on the impact of crime and violence on migration from these countries.

The report was completed by USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) in collaboration with the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).  CREATE is an interdisciplinary national research center based in the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. IDA provides independent and objective scientific and technological expertise to assist national security decision-makers to address urgent and challenging issues. The study, funded by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), was peer-reviewed by seven migration experts, and the final report responded to these reviews. 

Asylum seekers from the so-called “Northern Triangle” countries represent a significant shift in the categories of migrants entering the United States. For decades, the vast majority of those attempting illegal entry across the U.S.-Mexico border were adult Mexican nationals crossing between authorized ports of entry. Those numbers decreased dramatically in recent years due to a tightening of border security and demographic changes in Mexico. However, a new trend emerged in 2011 and continues today: migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are applying for legal asylum in the United States, claiming credible fear of returning to their home country. These migrants include unaccompanied children, family units, and adults who often request various forms of relief from removal and use the adjudication process to secure entry into the United States for extended periods of time. 

In response to this development, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asked the DHS S&T to study the Northern Triangle migration flow. DHS S&T funded CREATE with assistance from the Institute for Defense Analyses to research this non-traditional flow and to gain a better understanding of its causes and likely reactions to changes in United States immigration policy. The study assessed the primary question of whether these migrants would stay in Mexico as a final destination or return home if seeking asylum in the United States was not an option. The research team concluded that it is unlikely that a significant number of these migrants would seek asylum in Mexico if they could not apply for it in the United States. 

The research team carried out an extensive inventory of what is known about the migrants’ options (for example, asylum in Mexico versus the United States or attempting to enter the United States between ports of entry); the levels and flows of migrants from each country; and their motivations for migrating, including economic opportunity, crime and safety, and family reunification. A combination of migrant-level survey data about motivations and national and regional data on economic and crime conditions in Northern Triangle countries and the United States was used to assess the relative importance of these factors in explaining the surge in non-traditional migration. 

Researchers found that Mexico does not offer enough increase in economic opportunities and reduction in exposure to crime and violence to justify the costs of immigration. The study includes the first research to quantify the rise in wages earned that a migrant from the Northern Triangle can expect to obtain from migrating to Mexico or the United States, and it found that the growth is roughly 10% when going to Mexico but over 1,000% when going to the U.S. 

Table 1 shows values for another economic indicator (per capita income) as well as the homicide rate (murders per 100,000 population) and perceptions of neighborhood safety and gang presence from a nationally-representative survey. Although murder rates in Mexico and the United States are significantly lower than in the Northern Triangle, perceptions of crime risk in Mexico and the Northern Triangle are quite similar and significantly lower in the United States.

Table 1. Per Capita Income, Murder Rates, and Perceived Violence Indicators (Average Values 2008-2016)

Further, the study found that juvenile migrants seek our family members and networks already present in the United States that do not exist in Mexico. The number of juvenile apprehensions from each municipality strongly correlated with the number of adults from the same municipality apprehended two years prior. This suggests that juvenile migrants seek to enter the United States after a facilitating social network is established. “Opportunities to reunite with family already inside the United States is an important consideration for juveniles migrating from the Northern Triangle,” said Jonathan Eyer, study participant and Research Assistant Professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “Because having an established social structure in the destination country is so important, juvenile migration to the United States won’t change quickly if violence in the Northern Triangle declines or if asylum opportunities in other countries arise.”

Researchers also found that many adults from the Northern Triangle who are apprehended on the border and who are not accompanied by a child do not actually claim asylum, and of those who do, a majority lose their asylum case in U.S. immigration court. During 2012-2016, 76% of these single adults did not claim asylum after apprehension, and of those who did claim asylum, 88% were not given permission to stay in the U.S. or were unlikely to obtain permission as their case goes through immigration court. Many adults who are accompanied by a child also do not file an asylum claim or lose their asylum case in immigration court.

Immigration policies are also an important influence on the asylum seeker flow. Project Leader Bryan Roberts notes that “root causes such as poverty, desire for family reunification, and crime, and violence provide underlying motivations to emigrate from Northern Triangle countries. However, change in actual or perceived policies in both the United States and Mexico have played a key role in encouraging or limiting the flow of asylum seekers to the U.S.” The report reviews policy changes over the past decade and how they correlate with the flow of asylum seekers from the NorthernTriangle.

Major contributors to the study were CREATE1 and IDA2 team members Bryan Roberts2 (Project Leader), Sarah Burns2,Amelia DiAngelo2, Jonathan Eyer1, Ann Song Lee1, Maggie Li2, Brian Rieksts2, Detlof von Winterfeldt1, and John E. Whitley2.