The majority of Central Americans who want to migrate internationally are driven by economic factors, report says

Key Points
  • The majority of Central Americans who want to migrate internationally are motivated by economic factors, a new Migration Policy Institute report found.
  • About 92% of individuals surveyed from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who expressed a desire to migrate internationally cited economic reasons such as unemployment, the lack of money for food and basic necessities, the desire to send remittances and the need for a better job, salary or working conditions.
Central American migrants wait to be transported by the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in La Joya, Texas, U.S. April 27, 2021.
Go Nakamura | Reuters

The majority of Central Americans who want to migrate internationally are motivated by economic factors, a new report released Tuesday found. 

About 92% of individuals surveyed from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who expressed a desire to migrate internationally cited economic reasons such as unemployment, the lack of money for food and basic necessities, the desire to send remittances and the need for a better job, salary or working conditions, according to the report from bipartisan immigration research group Migration Policy Institute.

"Economic factors are not new to the extent that other research has documented it before, but what was different with our survey was that the numbers citing those factors are bigger than any other conducted in the past," said Ariel Ruiz, the lead researcher of the report. 

The report comes as migration from Central America has increased substantially over the past three decades, by 137% between 1990 and 2020. An estimated 16.2 million from the region resided in a country other than their country of origin in 2020, according to data from the United Nations. 

It also comes as the U.S. grapples with the highest number of migrant encounters along the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades, which has jumpstarted efforts by the Biden administration to identify and address the root causes of migration. In July, for instance, Vice President Kamala Harris launched a plan to "consistently engage" with Central America to address the hardships that drive people to leave the region for the U.S. 

Tuesday's report draws from an in-person survey of nearly 5,000 migrant-sending households and an online survey of 6,000 more across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras 

Ruiz said both surveys were conducted in Spring 2021 when there was a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Central America, which increased mobility restrictions and decreased economic conditions in the region. 

For example, the report cited a United Nations World Food Programme that found the overwhelming majority of households across all three countries reported income losses or unemployment during the pandemic. 

And the proportion of households employing "severe consumption-based coping strategies," such as reducing the size or number of meals consumed by adults, almost doubled in Guatemala and surpassed half of all households in Honduras after the onset of the pandemic, according to the report. 

The pandemic's impact on the economic conditions in Central America can partially explain why so many of those who want to migrate internationally cited economic reasons, Ruiz said. 

"The pandemic has triggered a spillover effect into other areas of industries and economics, making a decent livelihood in Central America so much more difficult to have," Ruiz said. 

"Clearly, there's a lot of economic inequality now, which can explain why it is motivating so many people to want to migrate internationally," he continued. "That's something that occurs across Latin America, but particularly in the three countries we surveyed." 

Interrelated factors driving migration

Those that expressed the desire to migrate internationally were allowed to cite multiple motivating factors. Overall, climate and environment, violence and family reunification were less commonly cited than economic factors, according to the report. 

Climate and environment, which includes natural hazards, was cited as a reason by 6% of survey respondents. Violence, including domestic violence and insecurity, was cited by 5% of respondents. And family reunification was cited by 6%. 

About 15% of respondents cited an "other" category, which includes wanting to move for academic studies, tourism and health-related reasons such as surgeries and treatments. 

Immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala arriving illegally from Mexico disembark from an inflatable boat on a bank of the US side of the Rio Grande river before seeking asylum by turning themselves in to border patrol agents at the border city of Roma on March 28, 2021.
Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

Despite their lower numbers, Ruiz emphasized that such factors are interrelated to economic factors. 

"There is an interplay here between other factors that contribute to these economic conditions that make people want to leave the region," Ruiz said. 

Climate change, for instance, has negative effects on the Dry Corridor in Central America, he noted. The corridor and in particular, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is experiencing one of the "worst droughts" of the last decade, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 

As a result, farmers in such countries are unable to harvest crops from much of their land, which leaves them with nothing to profit from, according to Ruiz.

Violence also plays a role in economic factors, Ruiz added. 

Some Central Americans are pressured by gang members to pay certain quotas to be able to run their businesses.  And others, especially women, have limited independence from violent spouses because they depend on them economically, he said. 

Nuances between countries

While the overwhelming majority of survey respondents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras cited economic factors, Ruiz emphasized that there are still nuances between the three countries.

For example, the survey found that 45% of respondents from Guatemala specifically attributed their desire to migrate internationally to the lack of money for food and other basic necessities, according to the report. A smaller 32% of respondents from El Salvador cited this same reason.

Income levels also varied between the three countries, according to the report.

The average per capita monthly expenditure for households in Guatemala was $70, while households in El Salvador was $90, the report said.

Despite lower income levels in Guatemala, about one-fifth of respondents from the country reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their household income levels, the report said. Only 11% of respondents from El Salvador and 18% of respondents from Honduras reported living comfortably with their income levels.

"It is important to highlight and elevate and these are not monolithic countries, even though they're all sort of united by different kind of persistent economic motivations," Ruiz said. "They're not the same, they still have different dynamics."

Addressing economic factors

Several policy recommendations are included in the report to address the economic factors that motivate Central Americans to migrate internationally. 

This includes expanding national social protection programs and stimulating investments to increase economic opportunities and alleviate poverty for at-risk populations El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the report said. 

Rosa Villa, 30, and her five-month-old son Esteban from Honduras, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, are pushed back from the border wall between the U.S and Mexico by Mexican police in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

"Despite small differences across each country, households reported that the lack of economic prosperity and difficulty meeting basic needs had significant and far reaching impacts on decisions to migrate," the report said. 

Ruiz said the "most important" recommendation in the short term is to offer economic support to Central Americans that have migrated to countries like the U.S. 

He said the U.S. has begun to do this, noting recent increases in H-2A and H-2B visas for Central American migrants. 

The H-2A visa allows U.S. employers to bring foreign nationals to the country to work in low-skill, temporary or seasonal agricultural jobs for which U.S. workers are not available. And the H-2B visa permits employers to temporarily hire foreign nationals to perform non-agricultural labor or services in the U.S..

In April, the Biden administration made 22,000 more seasonal H-2B visas for fiscal year 2021, in addition to the 66,000 that were already available, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

And weeks earlier, the administration lifted a ban on H-2B visas and other work visas imposed by former President Donald Trump in June 2020 amid the economic downturn of the pandemic, according to the Journal. 

"That is the right approach, more should be done to increase those work visa numbers," Ruiz said.

"Just providing visas to Central Americans is not a solution for migration," he continued. "We need to expand labor pathways for Central Americans in the United States."