Understanding and Addressing Root Causes of Central American Migration to US

March 31, 2015

As the committee discusses the root causes of Central American Migration to the United States, Church World Service urges all members to consider the context of violence and poverty that are forcing children and families to flee from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.1 It is important to note that individuals are not only fleeing to the United States. There has been a 712% increase in asylum applications to nearby countries in the region, including to Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in the region, showing the desperation of individuals fleeing violence in the Northern Triangle. The Obama administration has responded to this increase in migration with a number of measures, including the “Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” which names four principal pillars: creating economic opportunities, fostering human capital, addressing violence and strengthening institutions.2 CWS urges the committee to focus on reforms that address impunity, complicity, the lack of secure protection programs, and poverty.

Impunity, Complicity and the Lack of Secure Protection Programs

This region is replete with corruption, human rights abuses by local authorities, militarization of the police, and weak institutions. All of these create environments of chaos, insecurity and vulnerability that force many to flee. In a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) entitled “Children on the Run,” 58 percent of children surveyed from Mexico and Central America were clearly in need of international protection. Child protection mechanisms in these countries are either non-existent, drastically under-resourced or lack implementation mechanisms to provide children the services needed for them to safely remain in their home countries. According to both international and U.S. law, many of these children should qualify for refugee status or asylum in the United States.3 The combination of high impunity rates, military and police complicity with gang violence, and lack of secure witness protection programs mean that there is little to no recourse for victims and that, in fact, reporting crime can put individuals at further risk. Women’s shelters in the region are also unable to provide adequate protection. As an example, there are only three women’s shelters in Honduras, and two are routinely invaded by police and military personnel who violate the women there. These realities often mean that migration is the only option that individuals have to protect themselves. Solutions will require multifaceted police and justice system reforms and clear accountability demands from donor countries.

Poverty and lack of opportunity

CWS also urges members to consider the systematic and cyclical links between violence, lack of infrastructure and poverty. The dire economic situation and lack of employment opportunities force people to pursue migration as their only means to survive and provide basic necessities for their families. CWS urges the committee to support the State Department’s investment in poverty reduction programs that provide job training and gang prevention programs for youth in communities most impacted by the control of gangs and organized crime groups, as a strategy to address the root causes of Central American Migration to the United States. Also, the way that deportations are conducted from both the United States and Mexico are leading to re-migration. Deportees are often even more vulnerable than when they initially fled the Northern Triangle, due to debt incurred along the journey, unemployment, the lack of housing, and the increased risk of threats, violence and extortion by gangs preying upon their situations. These realities encourage and in many cases necessitate their re-migration, creating a cycle of desperation. CWS urges the committee to work with the Department of State to expand reintegration and job training and placement programs for individuals who do not qualify for protection or status in the United States and are subject to deportation.

Without addressing the violence, insecurity, human rights violations and abuses by local police, migration from the Northern Triangle will continue. CWS urges the committee to explore ways to alleviate the root causes of impunity, complicity, the lack of protection infrastructures, and poverty that force individuals to flee for their lives.  CWS is committed to working with both the House and Senate to pursue reforms that will provide long-lasting solutions to enhance the stability of the region and the protection of vulnerable populations.

1 UNHCR “Children on the Run”, July 9, 2014.
2 Frank De Waegh, Jesuit Conference National Advocacy Office, “Central America’s Northern Triangle: Complex Solutions Needed,” January 18, 2015.
3 UNHCR “Children on the Run”, July 9, 2014.