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North America to Central America Migration: An Overview

The North America – Central America migration system formed by the three North American countries (Canada, the United States, and Mexico), along with the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA, formed by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) is one of the busiest migration corridors in the world, with a long history of social and economic exchanges.
© Claudia Masferrer

The following text has been written by Claudia Masferrer, Colegio de Mexico, MX.

The North America – Central America migration system formed by the three North American countries (Canada, the United States, and Mexico), along with the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA, formed by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) is one of the busiest migration corridors in the world, with a long history of social and economic exchanges.

Whereas Canada and the United States have a longstanding role as destination countries, the foreign-born population in Mexico barely reaches 1% of its total population of 126 million, according to the most recent data for 2020. This contrasts sharply with one in five being foreign-born in Canada, or 14% in the United States. However, Mexico has increasingly become a destination country, after being for long a country primarily characterized by emigration, and has become a country simultaneously challenged by return, transit, immigration, and a site for providing refuge and protection, mainly due to an increase of emigration from Central America.

Migrants in the U.S.

Over 10 million migrants live in the United States (U.S.) with an irregular status. More than half of this population was born in Mexico. From the undocumented population, most define United States as home, as most of them are not recent arrivals. In the last few years Mexicans have been arriving at much fewer numbers to the U.S. than in other periods and mostly through legal channels due to an increase in H2 temporary work visas issued, yet the policy debate and the politics of migration tend to focus on border control and immigration enforcement, both under President Trump and Biden administrations. Although around 500,000 Mexican nationals have been granted a temporary relief of deportation through the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA), most of the long-term Mexican residents in the United States fear a forceful return. Current discussions for a comprehensive immigration reform are underway, but risk to be stalled by the political debates surrounding immigration.

Since 2009, due to the economic effects of the Great Recession and increased immigration enforcement in the U.S., the number of Mexicans and their U.S.-born children and spouses who returned or arrived to Mexico surpasses the number of those who emigrated to the United States. In fact, out of the 751 thousand U.S.-born population living in Mexico in 2020, half a million are under age 18; they are spread throughout the territory, and most of them live with a Mexican parent. Although many returnees arrive after being deported, others arrive for family, health or other considerations. The challenges of returnees and their family members for integrating into the labour market, the educational system, and Mexican society in general, has been widely documented, but still Mexico lacks comprehensive integration policies.

Since 2008, while Mexican migration to the United States declined, irregular immigration from Central America increased. From that date, until the end of 2019, the number of apprehensions of Mexican nationals at the Mexico-U.S. border was less than the number of apprehensions from the NTCA ( U.S. Customs and Border Protection – CBP). On top of return migration and immigration from the U.S., Mexico faces an increase of arrivals from Central America due to both structural and contingent factors: from economic hardship to political unrest and the effects of climate change, as well as flight from violence, insecurity and direct threats of gang recruitment or extortion.

Flows from Central America going North date back to the 1980s, when the region suffered from civil wars, coup-d’états, and violence; in the last decade an increasing number of children and families have fled Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Most of them aim arriving to the United States but increasing numbers of Central Americans are seeking asylum in Mexico, along with others from countries hit by violence and political unrest, mainly from Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Cuba and even from some African countries.

The Mexican asylum system is overwhelmed and although many have called for regional cooperation for managing migrant and refugee flows, this is still something pending. As a result, larger populations of Central Americans are spending longer periods under uncertainty in Mexico, and are subject to violations of human rights.

Since 2018 the situation has particularly worsened for Central Americans increasingly crossing the Mexican southern borders to seek asylum in the United States because the U.S. government increased the pressure on Mexican and Central American authorities to process asylum applications or retain asylum seeker. President Trump implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) that were later ended by Biden, but under MPP, asylum seekers in the United States had to wait for a decision to their case while remaining in Mexico, often in border cities hit by violence and insecurity.

North America to Central America Migration: What Next?

At the turn of 2020, we wonder about the future of the North America – Central American migration system. We wonder about its future, not only with a new President Administration in the United States, that promised a different approach to immigration than the one of its predecessor, but with a complex political, economic and social scenario in the region due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as structural factors such as corruption, violence insecurity, poverty and inequality, and lack of rule of law in some areas of the region.

In any case, a regional approach to migration needs to consider this complex scenario of mixed migration flows going North, as well as those going South.

© Claudia Masferrer
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