PRINCETON, New Jersey — The situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is rapidly escalating to a crisis. Record numbers of unaccompanied minors and children are crossing every day, overwhelming the system and leading to overcrowded facilities. Migrants had more than 100,000 “encounters and arrests” with U.S. authorities in February 2021 alone, a number that has historically been much lower in the winter. This paints a grim picture for the coming spring. These numbers represent the desperation of migrants wanting to escape their homes in Northern Triangle countries. They journey to the U.S. in the hope of a better, safer life for themselves and their families as well as more economic opportunities.
Causes of Migration
The state of the U.S.-Mexico border has completely changed as years have passed. Historically, 90% of crossings were by single, adult Mexican men looking for work in the U.S. As time has passed, this has changed. More and more migrants who show up at the border are families seeking refuge.
A combination of push and pull factors has led to changes in migration patterns. Push factors, including violence, corruption and inadequate educational opportunities, cause migrants to leave their home countries and seek asylum elsewhere. Pull factors, including economic prospects, the possibility of improving the quality of life and more access to essential services attract migrants to certain countries.
More Push, Less Pull
In Central America, the push factors are powerful. The Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are among the most violent globally with 19 out of 20 murders remaining unsolved. Gang violence is a significant threat and citizens feel the police force cannot protect them. As a result, citizens pay hefty extortion fees to keep themselves and their families safe from gangs and violence.
Salvadorans pay more than $390 million a year in extortion fees while Hondurans pay around $200 million and Guatemalans an estimated $61 million. These fees thus force the already poverty-stricken population even deeper into impoverishment, resulting in extremely high poverty rates in the region. About 60% of people in rural areas in the Northern Triangle live in poverty, which therefore pushes people into desperation.
The U.N. has deemed the situation a refugee crisis as push factors have compelled about 900,000 people to flee their homes in the Northern Triangle. Most of them come to the United States, where they attempt to seek asylum. Migrant families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador made up almost 92% of the estimated 457,871 migrants forming part of family units arriving in the U.S. in 2019. There are also more unaccompanied minors than ever before waiting in shelters at the border because the system cannot handle the volume of migrants.
The US Citizenship Act of 2021
On his first day in office, President Biden introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. It is an immigration reform bill that provides aid to Central America to “address root causes of migration.” The four-year, $4 billion plan will increase aid to the Northern Triangle countries in order to reduce the need for citizens to flee and seek asylum elsewhere.
To minimize the impact of governmental corruption and maximize the benefits of the aid money, most of the $4 billion will be distributed to communities and NGOs to provide economic opportunities and fight inequality and violence. The U.N.-led Humanitarian Country Team in Honduras is likely to receive part of the aid package. The team requires $80 million for its Humanitarian Response Plan for Honduras to be completely operational.
The bill provides more than just humanitarian aid money though. It also creates safe and legal channels for migrants to seek asylum by establishing Designated Processing Centers throughout Central America. These centers register and process people for refugee resettlement and other lawful migration avenues to the U.S. or partner countries. The bill also creates a Central American Family Reunification Parole Program to speedily reunite families with approved family sponsorship petitions.
The bill was introduced in the House and Senate in February 2021 and awaits voting. The House confirmed that it would not vote on it throughout March 2021 but rather when it reconvenes in April. Instead, Congress voted on two other immigration bills in March 2021. The American Dream and Promise Act creates a citizenship pathway for Dreamers and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented farmworkers. Both are important pieces of legislation because they aim to improve the lives of migrants. Once passed, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 will help better the conditions in the Northern Triangle countries and directly address the cause of migration.
– Brooklyn Quallen