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Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America: A historical and demographic outlook

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Abstract

In spite of a major economic slowdown in 2007-2009 and an increasing escalation of immigration and border enforcement in both the United States and Mexico over the last decade, unauthorized migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA, i.e., El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) has persisted. These trends are puzzling and stand in contrast to those of unauthorized migration from Mexico, which has decreased over the last seven years. To understand these trends, we briefly describe the history of international migration dynamics from the NTCA countries, discussing their main drivers, features, and demographic profile. We explain the role of economic and political contexts of emigration from each NTCA nation, as well as reviewing the immigration policies and the contexts of reception in the United States and Mexico; we then relate this to the socio-demographic profiles of the NTCA population in both countries. The continued history of political turmoil, violence, and uneven and unstable economic development –along with the growth and strengthening of migrant networks– largely explains the continuation of sustained emigration flows from all three NTCA nations despite the rise of unwelcoming contexts of reception and transit in Mexico and the U.S. Among the different recent issues, we discuss the recent rise in the flow of unaccompanied minors, and the respective roles of the sending, transit, and destination countries in driving the continuation of these flows. Finally, in light of this historical and demographic overview, we offer a set of basic policy recommendations for the management of the different migration flows, and the establishment of new data and research needs to better understand their drivers and future trends.
by CARLA PEDERZINI, FERNANDO RIOSMENA,
CLAUDIA MASFERRER AND NOEMY MOLINA
OCTOBER 2015
Three decades of migration from the
Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
PB#01
Policy Brief Series
POPULATION
Three decades of migration
from the Northern Triangle of
Central America: A historical and
demographic outlook
In spite of a major economic slowdown in 2007-2009 and an increasing escalation of
immigration and border enforcement in both the United States and Mexico over the last
decade, unauthorized migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA, i.e.,
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) has persisted. These trends are puzzling and stand
in contrast to those of unauthorized migration from Mexico, which has decreased over the
last seven years. To understand these trends, we briefly describe the history of international
migration dynamics from the NTCA countries, discussing their main drivers, features, and
demographic profile. We explain the role of economic and political contexts of emigration
from each NTCA nation, as well as reviewing the immigration policies and the contexts of
reception in the United States and Mexico; we then relate this to the socio-demographic
profiles of the NTCA population in both countries. The continued history of political
turmoil, violence, and uneven and unstable economic development –along with the growth
and strengthening of migrant networks– largely explains the continuation of sustained
emigration flows from all three NTCA nations despite the rise of unwelcoming contexts of
reception and transit in Mexico and the U.S. Among the different recent issues, we discuss
the recent rise in the flow of unaccompanied minors, and the respective roles of the sending,
transit, and destination countries in driving the continuation of these flows. Finally, in light
of this historical and demographic overview, we offer a set of basic policy recommendations
for the management of the different migration flows, and the establishment of new data and
research needs to better understand their drivers and future trends.
CARLA PEDERZINI, FERNANDO RIOSMENA,
CLAUDIA MASFERRER, NOEMY MOLINA*
SUMMARY
03 Introduction
12 Mexico: a country in the middle of the migration transition
05
Historical contexts of emigration and return in Central
America
19
The U.S. as a country of destination of Central American
migrants
23
Deportation of Central Americans and the dangers of
circularity in immigration policy
27 Conclusion
29
Policy Recommendations
*
Universidad Iberoameriana
University of Colorado Boulder
Institut National de la Recher-
che Scientique-El Colegio de
México
Fundación Iris de Centroameri-
ca-Partners El Salvador
T
he international migration dynamics originating from
transiting and returning to Guatemala, Honduras and
El Salvador, known as the Northern Triangle of Cen-
tral America (NTCA), have experienced considerable
transformations over the last few years. Emigration out of the
three NTCA nations, mostly directed towards the U.S. and passing
through Mexico, has continued at high levels in the recent past,
leading to a persistent growth of the NTCA-born population in the
U.S., particularly of those in unauthorized statuses (see Figure 1).
1
This persistence and growth has taken place despite the fact that
recent economic and immigration enforcement developments
would suggest a decline in the unauthorized population from the
NTCA and elsewhere. In particular, unauthorized migration should
have decreased during the most recent nancial crisis stemming
from the U.S. housing bust in 2007 and during its aftermath of
relatively slow recovery.
2
Furthermore, this slowdown would be
particularly warranted given the ramp-up in immigration enforce-
ment at the U.S. border, in the U.S. interior, and throughout the
Mexican territory.
3
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2015
0
200,000
100,000
300,000
500,000
700,000
400,000
600,000
800,000
200,000
100,000
300,000
500,000
700,000
400,000
600,000
800,000
Honduras El Salvador Guatemala Mexico (right y-axis)
Note: Mexican amounts are divided by ten.
Source: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2014/12/11/unauthorized-trends/. Last accessed
Aug 24, 2015.
Indeed, over the last decade a growing number of ntca and
Mexican nationals has been deported (or, in modern administrati-
ve parlance, “removed”) from the U.S. interior, or apprehended at
the U.S. or Mexico borders and “removed” or “returned” (a more
simple procedure of removal) to their places of origin. While an ad-
verse economic context and immigration
enforcement policies have recently been
associated with lower unauthorized migra-
tion from Mexico,
3
immigration from the
ntca appears to be impervious to these for-
ces. Combined with the slowdown of Mexi-
can migration,
4
the persistence of ows
from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatema-
la has resulted for the rst time in recorded
history, in apprehensions of more
ntca na-
tionals at the U.S. border than Mexicans.
The migration of highly vulnerable po-
pulation groups is an important and telling
case. The number of unaccompanied mi-
nors from each of the three
ntca nations
apprehended in the U.S. surged in 2014.
Apprehensions grew from 1,000-3,000
per year during scal years 2009 and 2011,
to 6,000-8,000 in FY2013, and doubled
and tripled in FY2014 to levels between
16,000 and 18,000 respectively.
5
A similar trend was observed in
Mexico where the number of unaccompanied minors born in the
ntca apprehended and returned by Mexican authorities increased
from 2,300 in 2000, to 3,300 in 2012, 4,200 in 2014; and to 6,800
just during the rst ve months of 2015.
Less publicized, the number of people apprehended trying
Figure 1. Estimates of the
unauthorized foreign-born
populaton from the NTCA
and Mexico in the U.S. by
year and country of birth.
While an adverse
economic context
and immigration
enforcement
policies have
recently been
associated
with lower
unauthorized
migration
from Mexico,
immigration
from the NTCA
appears to be
impervious to
these forces
4
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
to cross to the U.S. as part of a family unit almost quadrupled in
FY2014 compared to FY2013. Apprehensions for El Salvador in
FY2013 were 14,833, with 12,006 for Guatemala, and 34,495 for
Honduras. In contrast in FY2014, 5,639 Mexican apprehensions
were considered part of a family unit.
6
What motivates families and unaccompanied minors to risk life
and limb on the migrant journey? Why is enforcement less effecti-
ve for migration from the NTCA compared to its recent effect on
Mexican adult migration?
In order to understand the Central American response (or lack
thereof) to these economic and enforcement conditions, it is ne-
cessary to recognize the economic and socio-political contexts in
which emigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has
taken place historically. Despite having gained prominence in re-
cent years, these population movements from the NTCA countries
like most migration ows of this some magnitude, have been some
time in the making. They have been produced not only by recent
exceptional circumstances but also by long-standing structural
conditions in the sending nations.
7
In this policy brief we summari-
ze the international migration dynamics from each NTCA nation
with a historical perspective, disentangling their drivers, and rai-
sing new questions for the future. We also describe Mexico and
the U.S. as destination countries and Mexico as transit space for
Central American migrants. We wrap up both by discussing policy
recommendations with regards to the management of the ows
in light of their history and structural underpinnings, and also by
pointing to the need for additional data sources and new research
to better understand their drivers and future trends.
Historical contexts of emigration and return in
Central America
A long and complicated political-economic history, which has
produced large socio-economic inequalities within each of these
nations along with associated political turmoil, strife –in the case
of El Salvador and Guatemalaarmed conict
8
and –in all three
nations – gang-related violence — has produced large movements
of people from the NTCA. In the following sections, we provide
a summary of each nation’s recent history and population move-
ments. However, it is important to note that throughout the 20th
Century, authoritarian regimes in all three
ntca nations imposed
an “export-oriented” political economy based around basic agri-
cultural commodities, mainly bananas in the Caribbean lowlands
of Honduras and Guatemala and coffee in the Eastern highlands of
Guatemala and El Salvador. This national political-economic pro-
ject favored large domestic producers, foreign investment, foste-
Since the early
20th Century,
economic
hardship, lack
of land, violence,
and the impact of
natural disasters
have influenced
the departure
of many people
from the NTCA
countries
5
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
ring the dislocation of a large number of peasants.
During the rst half of the 20th century, international migration
out of Central American nations mainly occurred intra-regionally.
Since the early 20th Century, economic hardship, lack of land, vio-
lence, and the impact of natural disasters have inuenced the de-
parture of many people from the
ntca countries. Honduras, Mexi-
co, Nicaragua and Costa Rica became major recipients of refugees
in the region, mostly in camps or settlements along their borders.
The level of commitment to assist refugees differed substantially
over time and across the national origin groups involved, as dis-
cussed in more detail below in the case of the United States and
Mexico.
Year/Period Country(ies) Event
1940s
El Salvador,
Guatemala, and
Honduras
Fall of dictatorships who had come to power
in the early 1930s
1952 El Salvador
First law managing migration in the country.
Included complex controls.Updated in 1993
and 2004
1954 Guatemala
Guatemalan Coup d’etat (June 18) by Carlos
Castillo Armas with support from the CIA,
who became president on July 7
1964 U.S. End of the Bracero Program
1965 U.S.
Immigration and Nationality Act reformed.
Creation of permanent immigration
preference system favoring family
reunication and only allowing labor-related
migration
1969
Honduras and El
Salvador
Migration from El Salvador to Honduras
increased creating border tensions. Four day
“Soccer War”
1980
Honduras and El
Salvador
Peace treaty
1982 Mexico Economic crisis
1983 Guatemala Return of democracy
1983
Mexico, Panama,
Venezuela and
Colombia
Meeting in Contadora Island to draft regional
peace plan. The word continued until 1985
1986 U.S.
Passage of Immigration Reform and Control
Act, (backbone of the current immigration
enforcement system) 3 million migrants were
regularized.
1986-1987
El Salvador,
Guatemala,
Nicaragua,
Honduras, Costa
Rica
The Esquipulas process.A plan for
reconciliation, democratization, and economic
cooperation within the region was signed
1989 Mexico
Short-term multiple-entry visitor visas put
in place that allowed Guatemalans residing
in border regions to enter Mexico’s southern
border
1989
5 Central
American
countries, Mexico
and Belize
International Conference on Central
American Refugees (
cirefca) refugee rights,
repatriation and integration, and assistance
were discussed
6
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Year/Period Country(ies) Event
1990 Mexico Promulgation of rst general law on asylum
1991 U.S.
Settlement of American Baptist Churches
vs. Thornburg case, allowing Salvadoran and
Guatemalan irregular migrants to reapply for
asylum after their cases had been previously
quickly dismissed
1991-1992 El Salvador
Negotiation between government and
guerrillas. Political violence, disappearance,
and violations of human rights continued
1993 Mexico
Creation of National Migration Institute
(Instituto Nacional de Migración) to manage
and control migration
1994
Mexico, US,
Canada
North American Free Trade Agreement came
into force January 1
st
creating a trilateral
trade block
1996 Guatemala
End of Civil War with a peace accord
negotiated by the UN between the
government and the guerillas. Return of
Guatemalan refugees
1996 U.S.
Illegal Immigration and Immigrant
Responsibility Act passed. Increased burden
of proof for asylum cases and lower bar for
deportation
1997 Mexico
Short-term multiple-entry visitor visas
program was expanded to include agricultural
workers
1997 U.S.
Nicaraguan and Central American
Adjustment Act (
nacara) passed,. Granted
effective “amnesty” to Nicaraguans and
Cubans arriving before 1995, and allowing
Guatemalans and Salvadorans to reapply for
asylum
1998
Honduras,
Guatemala,
Nicaragua, and El
Salvador
Mitch Hurricane brought historic rainfall and
catastrophic ooding in the region
2001 El Salvador
A 7.7 Earthquakes on January was followed
by a 6.6 earthquake on February, producing
signicant damage in the country
2005
Guatemala,
El Salvador,
Honduras
Stan Hurricane hits Central America, with
most of its fatalities and damage in Guatemala
2009 Honduras
Coup détat creates a general climate of social
and political violence
2011 Mexico
Migration Law signed in response to
increasing settlement and transit migration
Gradually, since the 1960s and 1970s, El Salvador, Guatemala, and
Honduras were incorporated into the North American migration
system, generating considerable growth in the
ntca-born popula-
tion living in the United States (see Figure 2). While some of this
growth might have been associated with increasing political re-
pression in these nations, ows from El Salvador and Guatemala
increased rapidly in the 1980s due to the continuation and esca-
lation of violent conict between left-leaning guerrilla groups and
conservative governments in Guatemala and El Salvador, within
the geopolitical context of the late Cold War. In Honduras, while
7
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
full-scale violent conict did not break out, emigration would ac-
celerate throughout the 1990s for the reasons discussed below.
Adding to this, once migrant communities were established in the
U.S. and Mexico, additional population movements also followed
the devastating economic effects of the armed conict; regio-
nal economic crises (e.g., the Latin American “lost decade” of the
1980s); and natural disasters (e.g., hurricane Mitch in Honduras,
Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua in 1998, the earthquakes
in El Salvador in 2001).
9
Throughout, family reunication motiva-
tions and migrant networks have also played an important role in
directing and sustaining migration ows.
1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2006-2008 2009-2011 2012-2014
0
400,000
200,000
600,000
1,000,000
1,400,000
800,000
1,200,000
400,000
200,000
600,000
1,000,000
1,400,000
800,000
1,200,000
Honduras El Salvador Guatemala Mexico (right y-axis)
Note: Mexican amounts are divided by ten.
Source: Authors’ calculation from data from 1960-2000 based on decennial census data
long forms; data from 2006-2008 through 2012-2014 based on three-year averages from
the 2006-2014 American Community Surveys.
These migration ows took place despite the fact that ntca natio-
nals faced somewhat unfavorable reception in the U.S. Throughout
the 1980s and 1990s this unwelcoming context of reception was
(legally, but also economically), particularly evident with regard to
the possibilities of obtaining asylum. Despite the reality of their
motivations, not even during the worst times of the different civil
wars emigrants from the
ntca nations were treated like refugees/
asylees.
10
Likewise, migrants –most hailing from the NTCA– have
faced hostile contexts of transit and reception in Mexico, especia-
lly in recent years.
11
Next, we discuss these contexts of emigra-
tion, transit and reception in more detail. See also Figure 3 for a
streamlined illustration of the different migratory context for each
of the NTCA countries over time.
Figure 2. Estimates of
total stocks of foreign-
born individuals from
the NTCA and Mexico
according country of
birth
8
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Guatemala: three decades of conict
Labor ows between Guatemala and Mexico, mostly in their Pa-
cic Ocean border area known as the Soconusco regionhad
been well established for decades prior to the beginning of the
long Guatemalan Civil war (1960-1996), which disproportionate-
ly affected the Mayan population. The Guatemalan army regar-
ded highland Mayans as subversive and supportive of the leftist
insurgency operating in their region at the time. Security forces
responded with a contra-insurgency war in which acts later do-
cumented as genocidal took place. The rst large-scale emigra-
tion began in the late 1970s when a ood of refugees, overwhel-
mingly Mayan sparked by the conict, moved across the border
with Mexico. Many of them ended up in refugee camps run by
UNHCR in the southeastern states of Chiapas, Campeche and
Quintana Roo. With the intensication of the war in the early
1980s, 440 highland Guatemalan villages were destroyed and
150,000 Highland Mayas were reported as disappeared. Around
one million Mayan villagers were internally displaced and some
200,000 ed over the border to southern Mexico (though only
23% of them to refugee camps). Economic activities were also
affected by violence: commercial-trade patterns were disrupted,
Figure 3.
1950’S 1960’S 1970’S 1980’S 1990’S 2000’S 2010’S
HONDURAS
GUATEMALA
EL SALVADOR
Lack of land and work »
Outmigration to other
CA Countries (Mainly
Honduras)
Lack of
jobs
Persistent growth of
the NTCA-Born
population in the U.S.
and Mexico
Outmigration
Emigration of
Banana Workers
to New Orleans
Inmigration
from
El Salvador
Inmigration from El Salvador,
Guatemala and Nicaragua
Civil War
Migrant flow
with Mexico
Civil War,
migration to US
intensifies
Peace
Hurricane Mitch
Earthquake
War with
Honduras »
Return
migration
to US starts
9
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
and due to the army’s brutality, Guatemala was cut off from in-
ternational economic assistance. Both of these factors further
stimulated additional migration.
After 1996 and during the post-war era, Guatemalans became
a more signicant share of the foreign born population in the U.S.
(almost 900,000 in estimates from 2012-2014).
12
Most of these
new migrants were labor migrants building on family and commu-
nity contacts with immigrants and refugees already in the U.S.,
where over the prior fteen years, social violence stemming from
high levels of common crime and coercive practices of gangs and
organized crime has triggered more forced displacement of Gua-
temalans.
El Salvador: 12 years of civil war and its implications
on emigration
During the algid moments of the armed conict (1980-1991), an
upsurge in violence and political persecution worsened a series
of structural economic problems and contributed to the intensi-
cation of northbound migration ows. Once the armed conict
ended in 1992, a vision of peace contributed to a deceleration of
the outow and to the return of many migrants who left during
the war. However, longstanding economic problems reappeared.
Unemployment, inequality, lack of opportunities and political con-
frontation pooled together with the effects of Hurricane Mitch in
1998 and the 2001 earthquakes to rekindle emigration. Increasin-
gly, gang-related violence (initially, very much fueled by the depor-
tation of gang members from the U.S., as discussed later) would
also increasingly contribute to emigration.
In addition to this out-migration, the most recent period has wit-
nessed the reverse phenomenon: a massive (mostly forced) return
from Mexico and the U.S. More than 400,000 returns of Salva-
dorans are estimated between 1999 and 2013, with 45% of them
returning from the U.S. by air, and the rest returning from Mexi-
co by land.
13
The number of deportations from both the U.S. and
Mexico to El Salvador rose dramatically from 2001 to 2002 (from
3,200 to 20,423 events). Most of the increase (80%) can be explai-
ned by land deportations, suggesting a change in Mexican policy in
2002.
14
Since then, the number of deportations has remained high
(around 30 thousand a year) with a peak number in 2005 (43,017).
Honduras: A later but swifter full incorporation to the
North American migration system
Migration ows from Honduras to the United States are techni-
cally more than a century old. Since the end of the 19th century, a
signicant ow of Afro-descendants, employees of banana com-
10
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
panies, emigrated from the Northern Coast of Honduras to New
Orleans in the U.S., where the parent companies of these opera-
tions where located. From this period, emigration continued at a
stable and modest rate until the 1990s (Figure 2). This would be
the foundation of Honduran immigration to the United States in
years to come.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the high level of political violence in
Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador –caused by dictatorships
and the armed groups ghting against them– brought a large ow
of immigrants to Honduras. Most Nicaraguan and Salvadoran mi-
grants only went to Honduras seeking safe passage further Nor-
th, to Mexico and the U.S.
15
Those that sought refuge in Hondu-
ras however, found a different context of reception depending of
which conict they were eeing: Salvadorans and Guatemalans
where hosted in camps and settlements, while Nicaraguans ee-
ing the Contra-Sandinista conict were allowed to move and work
freely, a situation similar to that faced by immigrants from these
same nations in the U.S. Meanwhile, emigration from Honduras to
the U.S. continued, albeit growing at a more modest pace relative
to that from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico (Figure 2).
Honduras-U.S. migration increased at the non-trivial rate of
10% per year in the 1970s and 1980s and continued unabated in
the 1990s, likely due to the liberalization of labor markets.
16
Na-
11
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
tural disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998, had devastating
consequences for the Honduran population (6,500 deaths and 1.5
million displaced or homeless)
17
and contributed to continued mi-
gration out the country.
Nowadays Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the
world. Its second largest city, San Pedro Sula, caught in the cross-
re between criminal gangs, has a murder rate of 171 per 100,000
and has been identied as the largest source of the 18,000 Hon-
duran children who have ed to the U.S. in recent years.
18
Con-
frontation and political violence originated by the military coup on
28 June 2009 has further increased migratory ows.
19
While data in the sending country is scarce, this growth can
be appreciated in both the growing stock of the Honduran-born
population in the U.S. (see Figure 2) and in the rising number of
Honduran deportees from (and with increasing of immigration
enforcement in) the U.S. and Mexico. For example, the number
of Hondurans deported from Mexico increased from 20,600 in
2010 to 33,000 in 2013, and to 41,600 in 2014; in other words,
it doubled in a ve-year period. Likewise, the number of Hondu-
ran removals in the U.S. went from 31,515 in FY2012 to 37,049 in
FY2013, to 40,695 in FY 2014.
Mexico: a country in the middle of the migration
transition
With about 12 million Mexicans residing in the U.S. today, Mexico
is by far the largest immigrant group in the country, a gure rising
from around 500,000 in 1965 (see Figure 2). Besides a 2,000 mile
shared border, migration between Mexico and the U.S. over the-
se ve decades has been the result of labor demand in the U.S.,
political, demographic and socio-economic conditions in Mexico,
strong social networks and cultural ties that enable migration, and
U.S. immigration policies that shape its size, geography and nature.
The legal and temporary nature that characterized the pre-1965
period has been transformed itself over time. During the last de-
cade, Mexican emigration from Mexico has declined substantially
and return migration from the U.S. to Mexico has increased, inclu-
ding a large number of deportees and U.S.-born minors of Mexican
parents. The end result of this reversal in historic trends has been
zero net migration from Mexico to the U.S. and a stable, or even
declining stock of Mexican-born immigrants in the U.S.
Mexicos historical position as an emigration country is well
known, and the phenomenon of the Mexico-U.S. migration era
has been well documented. However, it was not until very recently
that the role of Mexico as a country of transit migration, settle-
ment destination for temporary and permanent migrants, as well
12
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
as return migration, has gained academic and political attention.
Next, we review how the legal context of reception in Mexico has
evolved in the last three decades in relation to the arrival of
ntca
nationals, and we provide a basic socio-demographic description
of immigrant stocks from these
ntca countries.
The historical legal context of reception of
ntca nationals in
Mexico
While Mexico had accommodated the immigration of Jews, Leba-
nese, Eastern Europeans, Spaniards, and other groups eeing per-
secution throughout the twentieth century, it had not established
any legal mechanisms to provide refugee status when displaced
Nicaraguans arrived in the late 1970s, and would only do so when
UNHCR camps were installed within its territory to receive Guate-
malans and Salvadorans during the early 1980s. The magnitude of
the arrival of Central American migrants to Mexico at the end of the
1970s challenged Mexican asylum policy with the upsurge of Cen-
tral Americans eeing political instability. The processing of asylum
and refugee claims according to Mexican legislation –and following
international agreements– had to be based on an individual´s ra-
ting of danger of persecution, but soon turned politically unfeasible
due to the high volume. In 1980, Mexico created its Commission
for Aid to Refugees (COMAR its acronym) and even though it was
intended to oversee all refugees in the country, it ended being li-
mited to the attention of Guatemalan refugees in camps receiving
support from UNCHR due to budget constraints. Although it is es-
timated that about 200,000 Guatemalans sought refuge in Mexi-
co between 1981 and 1983, only 46,000 registered ofcially with
the UNHCR).
20
In 1993, COMAR organized the rst mass return
of Central Americans and, at the same time, the UNHCR, COMAR
and the Mexican Ofce of Migration Affairs (Instituto Nacional de
Migración, in Spanish or INM) began a process known as “migration
stabilization, which sought to facilitate the integration of refugees
who wished to remain in the country.
21
In 1990, Mexico created a
legal framework regulating asylum and providing temporary visas
for Guatemalans to enter and work in its southern border region.
However, not all settled in Mexico. It has been estimated that a
total of half a million Salvadorans and 200,000 Guatemalans had
left their countries by 1990. For instance, according to data from
COMAR, more than 4,000 Guatemalan refugees returned to their
country by 1989 within a special program of voluntary return, with
another 39,000 doing so by 1999. Because of Mexicos restrictive
immigration policies, and their urban origins, Salvadorans were
more likely to move further north to large cities in the U.S. or Cana-
da than Guatemalans.
13
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
With the creation of the INM in 1993, Mexico started dening
formal channels to control and manage migration through the de-
velopment of special programs, as well as gathering statistics on
arrivals and removals. Examples of such programs include the Pro-
grama Paisano supporting the reincorporation of Mexican retur-
nees, the Programa de Repatriación, aiming to ease the return of
deportees, and the Grupo Beta, which provides basic support to
migrants at risk at the Northern and Southern border.
In response to a rise in transit migration from Central America
during the 2000s, and an increase in violence towards migrants
and an escalation of human rights violations cases mainly from or-
ganized crime, in 2011 the Mexican government adopted a new
migration law (Ley Nacional de Migración) as well as a refugee and
protection law (Ley de Refugiados y Protección Complementaria).
The rst law aimed at securing the rights of the foreign-born po-
pulation regardless of their legal status, their intention to settle in
the country, or transit to the U.S. However, although it has created
channels to provide access to public services and concrete rights,
such as basic access to health care via the Seguro Popular (see Po-
licy Brief PB05 of this series) the implementation of the law has
been challenging. While the Ley Nacional de Migración facilitates
immigrant regularization and the granting of permanent residence
for high-skilled immigrants, the two laws provide limited options
14
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
for Central Americans. Various other Policy Briefs in this CANA-
MID series provide full details about the issues that have recently
arisen in Mexico as a new country of immigration, transit and re-
turn migration. We here provide a general demographic and histo-
ric context.
Mexico as country of destination of Central Americans: A basic
demographic prole
A look at the trends in the demographic proles of Central Ameri-
can migrants in Mexico provides valuable insight into the changing
migrant ows to Mexico and complements the historical discus-
sion presented in the previous section. Empirically, it is hard to
know if the Central American population living in Mexico at any
particular point in time is aiming to reside temporarily, permanent-
ly, or is just in transit on their way to a northern country. Lack of
longitudinal data, or cross-sectional data that allow distinguishing
how long
ntca migrants have been in Mexico blurs our understan-
ding of the phenomenon. It is hard to determine how many Cen-
tral Americans lived in Mexico prior to 2000 because of a lack of
nationally representative data publicly available from Mexican
Censuses and surveys. Mexican census data show that the
ntca
population “normally residing” in the country increased by 50%
between 2000 and 2010, going from 33,000 to 50,000 (see Table
1). The majority (more than 70 percent) of
ntca nationals in Mexico
in 2000 were born in Guatemala, reecting a migratory tradition
and stronger relations and exchanges than with the other coun-
tries. Towards the end of the decade however, the relative presen-
ce of Salvadorans and especially Hondurans increased, motivated
by the economic, political and violent context described above.
Table 1 shows basic demographic characteristics (sex, age, and
education) of the NTCA population in Mexico in 2000 and 2010
22
by period, country of origin, and place of residence ve years prior
to the Census. This last dimension allows us to distinguish between
recent and earlier arrivals.
23
The Central American population from
these three countries living in Mexico is predominantly female, and
the Salvadoran population is on average older than the other
ntca
nationals. In both time periods, the Guatemalan population has
had on average the lowest educational attainment in contrast with
the Salvadoran population which has the highest average years of
schooling. This is consistent with the characteristics of out-migrants,
as well as average differences in the countries of origin. However,
distinguishing between recent and earliest arrivals, and place of re-
sidence in 1995 and 2005, we note several differences by country.
First, we observe that the Salvadoran population of recent arrivals
is predominantly male and younger than earliest arrivals and than
15
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Table 1. Sociodemographic
characteristics of the NTCA-born
population living in Mexico by
Period, Country of Birth, and Place of
residence ve years prior
I. All durations of stay
Female Age Yrs. school-
ing
Moving from
country |
Residence 5
years prior
(1995/2005)
State of residence TOTAL
(N)
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) Origin
coun-
try
U.S. Chia-
pas
Q.Roo DF Edo-
Mex
Others
2000 El Salvador 52,2 (0,5) 37,4 (15,1) 8,7 65,3 20,3 5,6 9,6 (5,3) 10,7 4,0 12,3 2,2 16,8 12,9 55,9 5.533
Guatemala 52,3 (0,5) 32,1 (16,5) 21,0 58,8 15,2 5,0 3,7 (4,8) 16,1 0,8 59,8 7,1 4,6 2,8 25,8 23.950
Honduras 57,9 (0,5) 32,4 (15,2) 15,5 67,8 12,6 4,1 9,6 (5,1) 25,3 3,3 26,3 4,0 14,3 7,4 47,9 3.718
2010 El Salvador 58,9 (0,5) 40,1 (16,6) 11,9 47,3 33,8 7,0 9,1 (5,1) 11,8 6,8 22,4 2,7 10,3 13,4 51,2 8.864
Guatemala 54,8 (0,5) 33,2 (16,4) 21,5 54,7 19,9 3,9 5,0 (5,1) 16,8 2,4 65,9 4,5 3,4 2,1 24,2 31.888
Honduras 54,0 (0,5) 31,7 (12,8) 15,3 69,6 13,9 1,2 8,1 (4,3) 20,4 4,5 34,6 2,5 4,4 7,1 51,5 9.980
II. Recent move: Living in their country of origin ve years prior
Female Age Yrs. school-
ing
Moving from
country |
recent int’l
move
State of residence TOTAL
(N)
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) Origin
coun-
try
U.S. Chia-
pas
Q.Roo DF Edo-
Mex
Others
2000 El Salvador 46,5 (0,5) 27,7 (12,8) 20,4 71,8 4,9 2,9 10,9 (6,1) - - 22,0 0,8 19,9 7,6 49,7 592
Guatemala 54,4 (0,5) 23,7 (12,9) 44,4 48,4 6,0 1,3 5,1 (5,9) - - 81,5 0,8 4,8 2,4 10,6 3.859
Honduras 58,5 (0,5) 24,4 (10,9) 28,9 68,0 2,4 0,8 10,2 (5,3) - - 38,8 3,1 13,4 4,7 40,0 939
2010 El Salvador 46,8 (0,5) 25,4 (13,0) 43,1 49,7 7,0 0,3 10,6 (4,9) - - 38,5 0,0 0,1 25,0 36,5 1.045
Guatemala 55,1 (0,5) 24,3 (12,7) 43,8 46,7 8,2 1,3 5,5 (6,0) - - 81,1 2,4 3,6 0,3 12,6 5.346
Honduras 54,1 (0,5) 23,7 (11,2) 39,8 54,9 5,4 0,0 8,3 (4,7) - - 42,8 2,2 1,5 1,7 51,9 2.034
III. Recent move: Living in the U.S. ve years prior
Female Age Yrs. school-
ing
Moving from
country |
recent int’l
move
State of residence TOTAL
(N)
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) Origin
coun-
try
U.S. Chia-
pas
Q.Roo DF Edo-
Mex
Others
2000 El Salvador 54,3 (0,5) 33,9 (10,8) 5,9 82,3 10,5 1,4 9,6 (4,3) - - 1,8 0,9 7,7 5,4 84,2 221
Guatemala 54,4 (0,5) 32,2 (10,3) 7,7 80,2 11,0 1,1 9,0 (4,9) - - 7,7 0,6 6,6 3,9 81,3 182
Honduras 59,8 (0,5) 29,8 (10,5) 13,2 78,5 7,4 0,8 9,8 (4,4)
- - 6,6 0,8 6,6 5,7 80,3 122
2010 El Salvador 56,0 (0,5) 33,8 (12,7) 5,0 75,8 16,5 2,7 9,9 (3,9) - - 0,7 0,0 0,0 3,2 96,2 600
Guatemala 43,4 (0,5) 35,9 (12,5) 6,4 70,2 23,4 0,0 9,6 (4,1) - - 14,6 2,9 0,0 21,8 60,8 762
Honduras 23,1 (0,4) 33,7 (11,1) 2,0 82,0 14,0 2,0 8,4 (3,2) - - 5,8 1,3 2,7 4,2 86,0 450
IV. Earlier move: More than ve years in Mexico
Female Age Yrs. school-
ing
Moving from
country |
recent int’l
move
State of residence TOTAL
(N)
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) Origin
coun-
try
U.S. Chia-
pas
Q.Roo DF Edo-
Mex
Others
2000 El Salvador 52,9 (0,5) 39,4 (14,5) 5,8 64,7 23,2 6,3 9,5 (5,3) - - 11,4 2,5 16,4 13,9 55,8 4.556
Guatemala 51,8 (0,5) 34,8 (15,9) 13,6 62,7 17,7 6,0 3,4 (4,5) - - 55,5 8,6 4,4 2,8 28,7 18.959
Honduras 58,3 (0,5) 36,5 (14,9) 7,7 69,4 17,2 5,7 9,5 (5,0) - - 22,4 4,7 14,7 8,6 49,7 2.495
2010 El Salvador 48,4 (0,5) 26,9 (14,8) 34,0 54,5 10,5 1,1 10,2 (4,5) - - 27,4 0,0 0,2 17,6 54,8 1.794
Guatemala 52,6 (0,5) 23,1 (14,6) 46,1 44,2 8,7 1,0 6,9 (6,0) - - 73,9 2,2 4,8 2,9 16,4 7.056
Honduras 47,7 (0,5) 24,3 (12,9) 36,8 56,3 6,6 0,3 8,4 (4,5) - - 36,5 1,9 2,3 2,0 57,4 2.686
16
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
I. All durations of stay
Female Age Yrs. schooling State of residence Sample
size
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) CA TX DC
Area
NY
Area
FL NC-
GA
Others (N)
1980 El Salvador 56,7 (0,7) 30,1 (0,2) 20,2 65,1 12,2 2,5 9,3 (0,1) 71,8 2,6 4,1 13,3 2,1 0,2 7,0 4.790
Guatemala 54,5 (0,9) 30,5 (0,3) 22,5 60,9 13,8 2,8 9,6 (0,1) 57,8 2,3 3,5 14,2 3,6 0,3 19,8 3.285
Honduras 59,5 (1,1) 33,4 (0,4) 20,2 56,5 18,2 5,0 10,3 (0,1) 18,0 3,5 2,7 34,5 12,3 0,5 26,4 1.943
1990 El Salvador 48,4 (0,4) 29,8 (0,1) 21,6 65,6 10,3 2,6 8,4 (0,0) 60,0 10,0 9,6 11,6 2,2 0,5 8,1 21.616
Guatemala 49,0 (0,5) 30,1 (0,2) 21,2 64,8 11,4 2,6 8,9 (0,1) 60,2 4,7 3,7 10,9 4,7 0,7 18,6 10.509
Honduras 56,1 (0,8) 31,4 (0,2) 21,7 59,9 14,4 4,0 10,2 (0,1) 23,3 9,6 3,5 23,5 20,5 0,8 32,2 5.193
2000 El Salvador 48,5 (0,3) 34,3 (0,1) 12,0 67,7 16,8 3,5 8,5 (0,0) 43,9 12,2 13,8 13,0 3,0 2,8 14,1 38.630
Guatemala 44,8 (0,4) 32,9 (0,1) 15,6 65,3 15,9 3,2 8,6 (0,0) 43,8 5,5 5,1 12,5 6,4 4,5 28,0 22.665
Honduras 50,3 (0,5) 33,4 (0,1) 15,4 64,7 16,0 3,9 9,6 (0,1) 16,7 11,9 5,5 22,6 18,0 6,5 32,4 13.084
2008-
2012
El Salvador 48,7 (0,3) 39,1 (0,1) 6,9 60,3 27,6 5,3 9,5 (0,0) 34,5 13,9 16,0 13,0 3,5 4,4 17,9 44.561
Guatemala 41,3 (0,3) 35,0 (0,1) 11,3 64,5 20,5 3,7 9,1 (0,0) 31,5 7,3 7,0 13,1 8,0 6,0 34,6 30.633
Honduras 47,3 (0,5) 36,1 (0,1) 9,3 65,3 21,2 4,1 9,9 (0,0) 12,2 15,8 8,8 16,6 17,0 8,1 33,8 17.530
II. 5 years or less in the United States
Female Age Yrs. schooling State of residence Sample
size
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) CA TX DC
Area
NY
Area
FL NC-
GA
Others (N)
1980 El Salvador 53,0 (1,0) 25,2 (0,3) 29,6 62,7 6,3 1,4 8,2 (0,1) 73,0 3,7 4,2 11,1 2,2 0,3 6,8 2.399
Guatemala 52,0 (1,4) 24,3 (0,4) 35,1 56,9 7,0 1,1 8,4 (0,2) 65,2 2,0 3,1 10,4 2,9 0,3 17,9 1.277
Honduras 58,4 (2,2) 24,5 (0,7) 39,5 50,8 6,9 2,9 9,5 (0,3) 22,5 3,4 3,4 29,8 13,4 0,4 30,3 524
1990 El Salvador 45,2 (0,6) 24,2 (0,2) 34,5 59,1 4,9 1,5 7,2 (0,1) 55,5 8,5 13,4 13,2 2,3 0,5 8,7 7.642
Guatemala 45,1 (0,8) 23,7 (0,2) 32,1 62,9 4,3 0,7 7,8 (0,1) 61,5 4,9 4,2 10,3 5,1 0,8 17,7 4.227
Honduras 53,0 (1,2) 23,4 (0,3) 36,6 57,5 4,8 1,1 9,1
(0,2) 24,2 10,8 3,7 22,6 22,3 0,9 34,3 2.141
2000 El Salvador 43,9 (0,6) 24,6 (0,2) 33,3 58,7 5,4 2,5 7,7 (0,1) 28,7 14,2 18,8 15,4 3,9 4,9 17,9 7.743
Guatemala 36,5 (0,7) 24,0 (0,2) 32,3 61,3 4,9 1,4 7,4 (0,1) 28,7 6,3 7,1 14,2 8,5 7,9 35,6 6.212
Honduras 43,8 (0,8) 25,4 (0,2) 27,8 65,8 5,1 1,3 8,7 (0,1) 13,0 15,6 7,4 19,2 15,4 11,5 31,5 4.440
2008-
2012
El Salvador 48,1 (0,8) 27,3 (0,2) 24,0 66,4 7,5 2,1 9,1 (0,1) 26,0 14,3 19,0 14,9 3,6 5,4 19,8 5.805
Guatemala 34,3 (0,7) 25,2 (0,2) 23,7 70,5 4,7 1,1 7,7 (0,1) 21,8 8,1 8,7 13,9 8,8 8,1 38,8 6.594
Honduras 39,2 (0,9) 26,9 (0,2) 20,5 73,0 5,4 1,1 8,8 (0,1) 8,3 20,0 10,1 13,4 13,0 11,0 31,7 3.635
III. More than 5 years in the United States
Female Age Schooling
(years)
State of residence Sample
size
Mean (S.E.) Mean (S.E.) 0-19 20-
44
45-
64
65+ Mean (S.E.) CA TX DC
Area
NY
Area
FL NC-
GA
Others (N)
1980 El Salvador 60,6 (1,0) 35,0 (0,3) 10,5 67,6 18,3 3,6 10,0 (0,1) 70,6 1,4 4,1 15,5 2,0 0,2 7,2 2.330
Guatemala 56,1 (1,1) 34,7 (0,3) 14,1 63,6 18,4 4,0 9,9 (0,1) 52,9 2,4 3,9 16,7 4,0 0,4 21,0 1.910
Honduras 60,0 (1,3) 36,8 (0,4) 12,7 58,8 22,7 5,9 10,3 (0,1) 16,2 3,6 2,4 36,3 11,9 0,6 24,8 1.342
1990 El Salvador 50,1 (0,5) 32,8 (0,1) 14,5 69,1 13,2 3,2 8,8 (0,1) 62,4 10,9 7,5 10,7 2,1 0,5 7,8 13.974
Guatemala 51,6 (0,7) 34,4 (0,2) 13,9 66,0 16,2 3,9 9,4 (0,1) 59,3 4,6 3,4 11,3 4,5 0,6 19,3 6.282
Honduras 58,2 (1,0) 36,9 (0,3) 11,6 61,5 20,9 5,9 10,6 (0,1) 22,7 8,8 3,3 24,2 19,3 0,7 30,8 3.052
2000 El Salvador 49,6 (0,3) 36,7 (0,1) 6,6 70,0 19,7 3,8 8,6 (0,0) 47,8 11,7 12,5 12,4 2,8 2,2 13,1 30.887
Guatemala 48,0 (0,4) 36,4 (0,1) 9,2 66,8 20,1 3,9 8,8 (0,0) 49,6 5,3 4,3 11,9 5,6 3,2 25,1 16.453
Honduras 53,6 (0,6) 37,5 (0,2) 8,9 64,2 21,7 5,2 9,8 (0,1) 18,6 10,0 4,5 24,3 19,4 3,9 32,8 8.644
2008-
2012
El Salvador 48,8 (0,3) 41,1 (0,1) 3,9 59,2 31,1 5,8 9,6 (0,0) 36,0 13,8 15,5 12,6 3,5 4,3 17,5 38.756
Guatemala 43,5 (0,4) 38,1 (0,1) 7,3 62,6 25,5 4,6 9,3 (0,0) 34,6 7,1 6,5 12,8 7,7 5,3 33,3 24.039
Honduras 49,8 (0,5) 38,9 (0,1) 6,0 63,0 26,0 5,1 10,1 (0,0) 13,4 14,5 8,4 17,5 18,3 7,2 34,4 13.895
Source: authors’ calculations using data from IPUMS-USA (Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated
Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2015. Last accessed September 9, 2015).
Data from 1980-2000 come from Decennial Censuses and the 2008-2012 American Community Survey. Weighted estimates.
Table 2. Demographic characteristics
of the NTCA-born population living in
the United States by Period, Country
of Birth, and Duration of Stay in the
United States.
17
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
those who had previous migration experience in the U.S. Second,
Salvadorans constituted the oldest group in 2010, and Guatemalans
showed the highest proportion of immigrants who were already re-
siding in Mexico prior to 2005, consistent with the idea that Guate-
malans have a longer tradition of settlement in the country. Third,
Guatemalans (except for those with previous residence in the U.S.)
are highly concentrated in Chiapas, while Salvadorans and Hondu-
rans show a wider distribution in other states (see Table 1). Fourth,
the change in the geographic distribution, along with the stark de-
cline in the share of the population already living in Mexico in 2005,
reects the fact that Salvadoran and Honduran populations include
a larger share of recent immigrants, who arrived in the 2005-2010
period both from the U.S. and from their
countries of origin. The population from the
NTCA with residence in the U.S. ve years
prior to the Census increased more than
threefold between 2000 and 2010 (3.1, 4,
and 4.6 times respectively for Salvadorans,
Hondurans, and Guatemalans). This last fact
is consistent with the knowledge that many
Central Americans aim to return to the U.S.
Mexico as country of transit mi-
gration for Central Americans:
Recent trends
Estimates on the ow of unauthorized Cen-
tral Americans through Mexico show an
increasing trend since the mid-1990s un-
til 2005, when it reached its highest point
with an annual volume estimated between 390,000 and 430,000
migrants. Between the years 2006 and 2009, the ow suffered a
drastic slowdown of about 70%, and then stabilized in 2010-2011,
after which the ows increased once again reaching 183,000 mi-
grants in 2012.
24
Since 2012, data from U.S. Customs and Border
Protection (CBP) and Mexicos INM, show a sustained increase
of apprehensions from
ntca countries, with Honduras at the top,
followed by Guatemala and El Salvador. Mexican data show that
Mexican authorities apprehended 81,000 NTCA nationals in
2012, and this number increased to 118,000 in 2014 (23,000 na-
tionals from El Salvador, 47,800 Guatemalans, and 47,500 Hondu-
rans). Without considering data on immigration enforcement from
the interior, but only apprehensions in U.S. southwest border, it is
possible to note how transit migration through Mexico increased.
In FY 2013 CBP apprehended on the southwest border 31,000
nationals from El Salvador, 29,000 from Guatemala, and 53,000
Mexican census
data show
that the NTCA
population
“normally
residing” in
the country
increased by 50%
between 2000
and 2010, going
from 33,000 to
50,000.
18
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Hondurans. In FY 2014 this increased to 66,600, 81,000, and
91,000 for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, respectively.
One of the main differences before and after 2009 is the increase
in the proportion of unaccompanied minors who are detained by
Mexico and the U.S. Almost 21,000 unaccompanied
ntca children
were apprehended at the U.S. Southwest border in FY2013, and
this more than doubled to 51,000 in FY2014. Salvadoran and Hon-
duran minors mostly drive this increase. In Mexico, while the share
of minors travelling alone or accompanied was similar in 2009, two
thirds of the minors detained in 2012 were traveling unaccompa-
nied through the country. This decreased later; during the rst
semester of 2015 8,500
ntca unaccompanied minors were detai-
ned by Mexican authorities, fty three percent of the 16,000
ntca
minors who were detained in Mexico from January to June 2015.
The U.S. as a country of destination of Central
American migrants
Historical context of reception: U.S. Immigration Policy.
Many scholars have pointed out how large unauthorized inows
from the
ntca, Mexico, and elsewhere are the product of dee-
ply-entrenched historical processes in which conditions in sen-
19
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
ding areas described above, labor demand in the U.S., family re-
unication needs, and immigration policy itself have engendered
unauthorized movement.
25
In particular, despite being ineffective
overall as a strategy to stop the ows per se,
26
U.S. immigration en-
forcement policies and practices have had a very deep effect on
how unauthorized migration takes place (who leaves, under what
conditions, and where they settle). This is particularly true for mi-
gration from the three NTCA countries.
Major reforms to U.S. immigration law between the mid-1960s
and the mid-1970s restricted legal ows from Latin America by
establishing a preference system heavily favoring family reunica-
tion, and for the rst time in history setting limits on immigration
from nations of the Western Hemisphere.
27
Importantly, the new
system offered virtually no legal permanent migration options to
unskilled” laborers without family ties to U.S. citizens or legal per-
manent residents, in 1965, as implied in the 1960 estimates shown
in Figure 2, only a few NTCA nationals or even Mexicans had such
family ties or resident status. While legally closing the door to uns-
killed migrants, the law did not change the structural conditions
in which prior international ows of labor –including those from
Mexico and
ntca nations such as Honduras– had emerged: at the
end of the Bracero Program (a large guest worker program that
was in place between 1942 and 1964, and under which more than
5 million Mexican migrants used to migrate to the U.S. temporarily).
Employers continued to use immigrant labor, except now more irre-
gularly. From the point of view of the employers, these restrictions
in immigration did not greatly affect things given that –since at least
the mid-1950simmigration law explicitly allowed for the hiring of
unauthorized migrants (and did so until 1986). In this environment,
unauthorized labor migration, especially from Mexico and, even-
tually from the
ntca, increased and in a way, “ourished”. For more
details about how this legal context impacted on Central American
labor conditions in the U.S., see Policy Brief PB03 in this series).
Legal refuge and asylum options also were severely limited for
most
ntca nationals despite the fact that they were leaving con-
ict-ridden areas in the 1970s and 1980s. Overall, the U.S. gover-
nment effectively did not consider the cases of the vast majority
of the thousands of Guatemalans and Salvadorans as worthy of
asylum, granting it to only 2-3% of applicants from these two na-
tions throughout most of the 1980s.
28
While many Salvadorans
and Guatemalans would eventually obtain legal permanent resi-
dency via asylum, this only took place in the 1990s –more than a
decade after the arrival of most migrants. Major social mobiliza-
tion and legal battles by immigrants and allies, were won in out-of-
court settlements which helped to have bills passed to give those
There is a
large number
of Mexican
and NTCA
nationals in the
U.S. without
authorization
to live or work
in the U.S. The
latest estimates
put these
numbers at 5.8
million Mexicans
in 2012, 675,000
Salvadorans,
525,000
Guatemalans,
and 350,000
Honduras
20
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
previously rejected new opportunities to obtain asylum.
29
This included the creation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS),
a mechanism that provides provisional but renewable relief from
deportation and also grants work authorization to people from
countries affected by political strife or natural disasters. TPS, crea-
ted by Congress in 1990 rst offered protection to Salvadorans
from removal, but has ever since covered a range of national ori-
gins and situations (though never in the case of Guatemalans, not
even at the height of armed conict in their country of birth). Sal-
vadorans were covered for a second time in 2001 in the context of
the devastating earthquakes that deeply affected the country that
year (their TPS status is still current for those present in the U.S.
today thanks to several renewals). Eventually, both Salvadorans
and Guatemalans –whose asylum pleas had been seemingly all
too easily thrown out in the 1980s– were allowed to re-apply for
asylum throughout the mid-late 1990s thanks to the settlement of
the American Baptist Churches (ABC) v. Thornburg court case, or
via the provisions of the Nicaraguan and Central American Adjust-
ment Act (NACARA), passed by Congress in 1997.
30
A basic demographic outlook of Central Ameri-
cans in the U.S. (1980-2012)
There is a large number of Mexican and ntca nationals in the U.S.
without authorization to live or work in the U.S. The latest estima-
tes put these numbers at 5.8 million Mexicans in 2012, 675,000
Salvadorans, 525,000 Guatemalans, and 350,000 Honduras (see
Figure 1).
31
As shown in Figure 1, while the population of unautho-
rized migrants from these nations was already substantial in 1990
(40,000 Hondurans, 120,000 Guatemalans, 300,000 Salvado-
rans, and 2 million Mexicans), they have experienced considerable
growth over the last two and a half decades, especially for Hondu-
rans, for whom these gures increased almost nine fold. For Gua-
temalans, these numbers quadrupled while they more than dou-
bled for Salvadorans during that period. Finally, while they almost
tripled for Mexicans, this growth took place before 2007, after
which the stock of unauthorized Mexicans seem to have stabilized.
As described before, migrants from Guatemala and El Salvador
started emigrating to the U.S. in somewhat larger numbers when
their respective national civil conicts broke out in the 1970s and
1980s, severely affecting lives and livelihoods in many commu-
nities. Table 2 depicts the basic socio-demographic prole of the
ntca-born population in the U.S., regardless of status.
32
Like in the
case of Mexico, the NTCA migrant population in 1980 in the U.S.
was disproportionately female, young, and well-educated. In the
case of El Salvador and Guatemala, it was highly concentrated in
21
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
California where 73% and 65% of recent arrivals from El Salvador
and Guatemala respectively.
Because these movements took place after the 1965 reforms of
the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, and due to their relati-
vely low levels of human and social capital, many people from the
ntca seeking to escape violence did not have access to legal labor
or family reunication options. Some of those arriving irregularly
up to the early 1980s would be able to regularize their status using
two legalization programs contained in the Immigration Control
and Reform Act (IRCA) of 1986. However, because these programs
required continued presence in the country since 1982,
33
this hel-
ped only a minority of Salvadorans and Guatemalans displaced by
the conicts in their countries. It is estimated that 136,000 Salva-
dorans and 50,000 Guatemalans were legalized through IRCA.
34
This represents around a fth of the unauthorized population
from these nations in 1990 (see Figure 1).
While it remained quite youthful, with much larger inows the
incoming population from the region became less feminized after
IRCA than in 1980. This suggests large movements of men and mi-
nors post-1986. On average, people arriving in the late 1980s also
had slightly lower levels of schooling than those arriving in the late
1970s (see Table 2 panel II and gure 4). As these populations arri-
ved, Salvadorans in particular settled in slightly more diversied
destinations than the traditional Californian stronghold of NTCA
nationals, expanding their reach to Texas, and the Washington
D.C. area. Eventually, NTCA migrants (like their Mexican brethren)
would also begin settling in the Southeast in larger numbers, as
shown in Table 2.
12
10
8
6
4
2
1980 1990 2000 2008-2012
0
El Salvador (in U.S.)
Guatemala (in U.S.)
Honduras (in U.S.)
El Salvador (in Mexico)
Guatemala (in Mexico)
Honduras (in Mexico)
YEARS OF SCHOOLING
Note: Mexican data until 2010.
Source: Tables 1 and 2.
Figure 4. Years of
schooling (average)
of the NTCA-born
population living in the
United States and in
Mexico by period and
country of birth.
22
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Irregularity and exclusion among at-
risk Central American youth
Although court and policy battles solved
the legal situation of many NTCA natio-
nals in the 1990s, they continued to live
in tenuous and grey legal statuses such as
TPS for many years, which has left a deep
imprint on migrants’ lives
35
and made the
transition into their new lives in the United
States particularly difcult. Adapting to a
new setting and country is rarely easy for
migrants, especially for those displaced.
Being uprooted means that one does not
always have the resources to migrate or
navigate the destinations terrain (e.g., the
contacts to nd affordable housing, jobs,
to understand the schooling system, etc.).
Because of the disruptive nature of displa-
cement, the destination States generally
provide refugees and asylees with nancial
aid and other forms of support. Yet, becau-
se the U.S. government did not deem that
most Salvadorans and Guatemalans had
valid claims to asylum for several years af-
ter their arrival, their adaptation was even
less easy than it had been for other migrants and refugees.
36
They
struggled to nd good jobs and housing even more than other
groups who were also settling in Los Angeles because they lacked
the social capital that even relatively poor Mexican migrants had.
The harsh reality of a new setting was most striking for immigrant
children. While moving into the safer environment of a developed
nation was most certainly welcome for many, conditions were not
fully safe in many of the neighborhoods and schools where NTCA
immigrants settled in cities like Los Angeles. Like many other at-
risk youth across the world,
37
immigrant kids from the NTCA joined
gangs such as 18th Street, and formed their own such as MS-13 to
protect themselves, socialize, and nd a sense of belonging.
Deportation of Central Americans and the
dangers of circularity in immigration policy
After U.S. interior immigration enforcement toughened in the
late 1990s, hundreds of thousands of both unauthorized mi-
grants and permanent residents have been deported to Mexico
and the
ntca: Between FY2012 and FY2014, more than 100,000
Hondurans, 67,000 Salvadorans, 141,000 Guatemalans, and
The harsh
reality of a new
setting was
most striking
for immigrant
children.
While moving
into the safer
environment
of a developed
nation was
most certainly
welcome
for many,
conditions were
not fully safe
in many of the
neighborhoods
and schools
where NTCA
immigrants
settled in cities
like Los Angeles
23
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
725,000 Mexicans were formally removed from the U.S. Around
a third of this cohort came from the U.S. interior, and thus compo-
sed of people who had been living in the country for some time.
38
Because many deportees had been uprooted from their families
and customary lives, their adaptation to their countries of birth
has often been difcult, especially for young people. Also at the
population level of the NTCA countries, the relatively massive in-
ux of deportees and related returnees was challenging for labor
and housing markets and for educational systems.
Changes in U.S. immigration law in 1996 lowered the bar of de-
portability for legal permanent residents with prior convictions.
Sadly, this change was applied retroactively and without clear
knowledge of the situation of many of these families and indivi-
duals, sending thousands of unauthorized and otherwise legal im-
migrants back to Central America.
39
This group also included many
active and former gang members. In addition to the deportation
gures discussed before, the demographic effects of deportation
on the population of long-term residents in the United States born
in NTCA countries is apparent on Table 2, panel III. In both 2000
and 2008-2012, these populations have become somewhat older,
likely due to the natural aging of a group increasingly composed of
24
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
even more experienced migrants, but also reinforced by the de-
portation of many minors and young people in particular (Figure
5). For instance, the percentage of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and
Honduran long-term migrants (i.e., with more than 5 years in the
U.S.) who were younger than 20 years-old decreased noticeably
from 10.5%, 14.1%, and 12.7% in 1980, respectively, to 6.6%,
9.2%, and 8.9% in 2000. By 2008-2012, these gures stand at a
paltry 3.9%, 7.3%, and 6.0%, a change too quick and large to be
only driven by aging. In contrast, note that recent arrivals (shown
in Table 2, panel II) were still heavily composed of young people in
2000, with a quarter to a third of recent migrants being younger
than 20 years-old.
AGE
45
40
35
30
25
1980 1990 2000 2008-2012
20
El Salvador (in U.S.)
Guatemala (in U.S.)
Honduras (in U.S.)
El Salvador (in Mexico)
Guatemala (in Mexico)
Honduras (in Mexico)
Note: Mexican data until 2010.
Source: Tables 1 and 2.
Specialists in the topic emphasize that only a minority of at-risk
youth eventually join a gang, and that only a minority of those who
join, engage in hardcore activities such as serious violence and
crime.
40
Yet, because the large growth in gang membership throu-
ghout the 1980s and 1990s indeed cast a wide net, hundreds of
NTCA immigrant youth did get in trouble with the law. Many –in-
cluding a nontrivial share who had recently gained legal perma-
nent residence by way of family sponsors, IRCA, or asylum– ended
up serving prison sentences.
Because deportation is a form of uprooting, readjustment after
removal –even to ones own country of birth– may be as challen-
ging as adapting to more traditional forms of displacement out of
one’s country of birth. With family, work, and school life severely
disrupted by separation, the involuntary return weighs on people
in a variety of ways.
41
Children and adolescents are, again, not only
more psychologically vulnerable to the disruptions of relocation,
but often do not have a frame of reference to readapt to since they
Figure 5. (average) of the
NTCA-born population
living in the United
States and in Mexico by
period and country of
birth.
25
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
may not remember or know their places of
birth in any signicant way, and may not
even speak the language uently. As a re-
sult, they nd themselves lost, in unstable
living arrangements, and with poor educa-
tional and job prospects.
After deportation, many youngsters
formerly belonging to gangs in the U.S. for-
med cliques in all three countries especially
in El Salvador maintaining the 18th Street
and MS-13 symbolic culture while recrui-
ting new members, effectively bringing
the street conicts of Pico-Union and Ko-
reatown to their neighborhoods. Gang-re-
lated violence spread to the NTCA with a
vengeance because of the vulnerable economic social conditions
these youth came into, and was aggravated by the weak judicial
systems in the NTCA. A further aggravating factor was that mem-
bers of rival gangs which had been organized in broad and distant
territories in L.A. and other American cities, ended up living next
to each other in barrios populares upon their forced return to their
country of birth, making conict more likely.
42
The spread of gangs to Central America via massive deportation
has been a key contributing factor to the rapidly rising homicide ra-
tes in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala over most of the last
two decades, among the highest in the world today.
43
While the-
se gangs have continued to increase their ranks more from home-
grown recruitment than from deportees,
44
U.S. immigration policy
had a preponderant role in their growth and, thus, the violence.
Coming full circle, this mounting violence has now permeated
these societies enough to be a likely major driver of emigration
out of all NTCA nations,
45
now including Honduras too.
46
In par-
ticular, the link between violence and displacement seems to be
clear enough for those most at risk of getting caught up in it. Ac-
cording to a recent UNCHR report, many adolescents and children
have ed their home communities and try to make it to the U.S.
on account of this and other forms of violence.
47
While migration
of unaccompanied minors from Central America is by no means a
new phenomenon,
48
the almost uninterrupted rise in violence des-
cribed before, could indeed help explain the recent surge of these
ows from the NTCA.
Because
deportation is a
form of uprooting,
readjustment after
removal –even to
one’s own country
of birth– may be
as challenging as
adapting to more
traditional forms
of displacement
out of one’s
country of birth
26
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Conclusion
In light of the deep history of NTCA migration dynamics to Mexico
and the U.S. summarized here, the persistence of emigration from
the NTCA despite the recent temporary economic slowdown in
the U.S. and more sustained heightened enforcement in both the
U.S. and Mexico, is not fully surprising. This perseverance may be
mainly attributed to the general political-economic and insecuri-
ty situation in all three sending nations, the continued demand for
immigrant labor in several sector of the U.S. economy, as well as to
multiplier effects” created by the now long history of migration
from the region, some of which derive from the “unintended” con-
sequences of U.S. immigration enforcement.
Every act of migration contributes to changing conditions in both
the destination and sending areas that can stimulate the migration
of others in the future. Some of the mechanisms by which this oc-
curs are common to many other labor migrations ows and are, in
fact, one of their most regular features. Most notably, this includes
the role that migrants already play in destination areas facilitating
the migration of relatives and other fellow countrymen embedded
in the same networks of kinship, both of blood and of the legal and
traditional kinship of in-laws and compadres, friendship, and other
forms of ethnic and regional or national solidarity among paisanos.
A specic example of these, also common in other labor migration
27
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
ows but perhaps more common in the ntca (especially Honduras
in recent years), is the motivations of many adolescents and chil-
dren to migrate in order to reunite with family members who had
previously migrated to the U.S. – a situation that, despite its recent
growth, is not new in the NTCA but dates back a few years.
The deportation of migrants well established in the U.S. creates
harsh difculties for returnees and for their communities of origin
in the sending countries. However, U.S. immigration enforcement
policies and practices have ironically contributed to creating the
conditions that motivate many people from the
ntca to leave their
home communities today and help to “perpetuate” unauthorized
migration. As described above, the large inux of deportees from
the U.S., particularly during the 1990s contributed to the escala-
tion of gang-related violence in the region. Additional violence,
caused by drug trafcking in places like the Eastern Honduran and
Guatemalan lowlands, involves Mexican cartels moving cocaine
from the Andean region to the U.S. The worst of this violence has
helped displace people, perhaps especially the very adolescents
and children who have lled up detention facilities in the U.S. and
more recently, in Mexico.
28
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
This is one of the issues discussed in this policy brief in which
the shared responsibility between destination, transit and sending
countries is quite clear, but there are several others, regardless of
whether or not countries hold equal responsibility. The situation
today urges for action from all involved parties with the design of
plans for change that are transnational in nature and scope. With
this in mind, we offer the following recommendations.
Policy recommendations
Recommendations are targeted to the three types of “functions
performed by each of the ve countries involved, namely as coun-
tries of destination, transit, and origin.
I. Countries of destination
Evidence shows that immigration enforcement has not been
an effective immigration policy, bringing much pain to separa-
ted families and to the social fabric of immigrant communities
in destinations and sending areas alike. Instead, we recommend
that countries of destination:
29
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
1) Enact a more formal recognition of violence, insecurity, and
persecution as motivations for emigration from the NTCA. Both
the United States and Mexico should revise the processes for
claiming asylum and refugee status and respect the application
of non-refoulement – the non-return of refugees to places where
their lives are threatened –, stopping the deportation, especially
of children who have limited networks and resources in origin
countries, and who lack appropriate representation in, e.g., U.S.
immigration courts. Mexico and the U.S. should stop coordina-
ting efforts to return migration from the NTCA in their Southern
borders until they properly identify and process asylum cases.
2) The U.S. Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or other forms
of regularization (e.g., the still yet to be implemented Deferred
Action for Parental Arrivals Program) that grant protection
from return to violent conditions in sending countries should
be extended not only to Salvadorans arriving after 2001, but to
Guatemalans and Hondurans eeing or unable to return to their
sending countries due to difcult situations caused by violence
in their communities.
II. Countries of transit
3) The provision of legal status and documentation for transit
that provide access to health care, education, labor, housing,
and the full respect of human rights. These provisions need to
go beyond the mere creation of the legal frameworks but must
include a reasonable budget and bureaucratic channels that
allow for its implementation on the ground, something that has
been extremely slow, for example, in the case of the Mexican
Migration Law signed in 2011.
III. Sending countries
4) In addition to continuing their work aimed at improving the li-
ving and safety conditions of all residents, to develop effective
programs targeted to the specic needs of different populations
that facilitate the reintegration of migrants upon return. For
example, the formation and use of socio-demographic proles of
those deported by the Mexican or US border patrols, by interior
immigration enforcements, or who return for reasons of health
status, family or economic considerations, nostalgia, etc.
5) Improve migration data from population-based Censuses and
surveys in order to understand who has emigrated from and re-
turned to the
ntca, and for which reasons. One of the challenges
associated with studying the migrant populations has been the
lack of nationally representative data. Convinced of the impor-
tance of empirical studies, we make the following specic re-
commendations.
30
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
a) To include in future surveys and censuses a question on
the year of arrival to the country and date of rst emigration
from the country of origin.
b) To include a question on the place of residence one year
prior to the census in order to identify recent ows. The new
question would be in addition to the question on residence 5
years prior to the census currently in place in most US and Latin
American censuses.
c) These data should be used to investigate the different
causes that motivate migratory movements –dened in a broad
manner, capturing the different stages of the migration process
in order to enable a better characterization of the contexts of
emigration, transit, reception, and return.
d) Finally, these data should be shared between countries
and institutions, creating repositories of regionally comparable
data.
31
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
1 Passel, J. S. & D’Vera Cohn, G. B. A. (2014). “Unauthorized Immigrant Totals Rise in 7 Sta-
tes, Fall in 14: Decline in those hose From Mexico Fuels Most State Decreases.Washing-
ton, D.C. Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, November.
Also see http://www.pewhispanic.org/2014/12/11/unauthorized-trends/.
2 U.S. Department of the Treasury (2013) The Financial Crisis Five Years Later RESPONSE,
REFORM, AND PROGRESS http://www.treasury.gov/connect/blog/Documents/Finan-
cialCrisis5Yr_vFINAL.pdf.
3 Villarreal, A. (2014). Explaining the Decline in Mexico-US Migration: The Effect of the
Great Recession. Demography, 51(6), 2203-2228.
4 Despite this large slowdown, the numbers of Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. remain at
nontrivial levels, with an approximate fth of a million migrating northward every year.
However, this number has been more than offset by return migration to Mexico, including
a large number of deportees who are slightly less likely to attempt reentry than in the re-
cent past (but still at relatively high levels of intent). See Passel, J. S., D’Vera Cohn, G. B.
A., & Gonzalez-Barrera, A. (2012). “Net migration from Mexico falls to zero--and perhaps
less”. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/04/23/
net-migration-from-mexico-falls-to-zero-and-perhaps-less/. Last accessed on August 24,
2015.
5 United States Border Patrol Southwest Border Sectors Family Unit* and Unaccompa-
nied Alien Children (0-17) apprehensions FY 14 compared to FY 13 http://www.cbp.gov/
sites/default/les/documents/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Family%20Units%20
and%20UAC%20Apps%20FY13%20-%20FY14_0.pdf. Last accessed September 19,
2015.
6 United States Border Patrol Southwest Border Sectors Family Unit* and Unaccompanied
Alien Children (0-17) apprehensions FY 14 compared to FY 13 See http://www.cbp.gov/
sites/default/les/documents/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Family%20Units%20
and%20UAC%20Apps%20FY13%20-%20FY14_0.pdf. Last accessed September 19,
2015.
7 Conditions in destinations as well as transit nations may also have an effect on migration
dynamics (in either their magnitude, or in their “selectivity.”) However, their role in shaping
the magnitude of ows more deeply could be muddled by different factors. See, for instan-
ce, Massey, D. S., & Riosmena, F. (2010). “Undocumented migration from Latin America in
an era of rising US enforcement”. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social
Science, 630(1), 294-321.
8 Although the case of Nicaragua has similar historical features, we do not discuss it here
because it has had a different contemporary evolution, with much smaller ows. For
more historical background on Nicaraguan migration, see Lundquist, J. H., & Massey, D.
S. (2005). “Politics or economics? International migration during the Nicaraguan Contra
War”. Journal of Latin American Studies, 37(01): 29-53.
9 Castillo, M. (2000), “Las políticas hacia la migración centroamericana en países de origen,
de destino y de tránsito”, Papeles de población, 24. y Menjívar, C. (2006). “Liminal Legality:
Salvadoran and Guatemalan Immigrants’ Lives in the United States”. American journal of so-
ciology 111 (4): 999-1037.
10 García, M. C. (2006). Seeking refuge. Central American migration to Mexico, the United States,
and Canada. University of California Press. Coutin, S. B. (2003). Legalizing moves: Salvado-
ran immigrants’ struggle for US residency. University of Michigan Press.
11 Martínez, O. (2013). The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Verso
Books.
12 See Figure 2.
13 Ofce of Migration and Foreign Affairs (DGME, for its name in Spanish)
14 The fact that repatriations by land showed a steep increase between 2001 and 2002 su-
ggests a policy change in Mexico after 9/11 while repatriations by air grew steadily throu-
ghout the period.
15 INEDIM-INCEDES (2011). “Construcción de espacios y estrategias de diálogo y comuni-
cación en torno a la problemática de migración y seguridad en Centroamérica y xico”.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
32
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
Capitulo Honduras por David Figueroa (página 269 y siguientes), México. Organización In-
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16 OIM, 2011.
17 National Climatic Data Center “Mitch: The Deadliest Atlantic Hurricane Since 1780” http://
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18 Haugaard, L., Kinosian, S. & Hartung, W. (2015) “Can the Violence in Honduras be Stopped?
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19 INEDIM-INCEDES
20 Alba, F. & Castillo, M. (2012). New Approaches to Migration Management in Mexico and Central
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21 Castillo, M. Á., & Venet Rebiffe, F. (2010). El asilo y los refugiados: una visión histórica y
crítica hasta nuestros días”. In Alba, F. Castillo M. & Verduzco, G., Los grandes problemas de
México: Migraciones Internacionales (Vol. III). México, D.F., México: El Colegio de México.
22 We use data from the complete set of individual records from the 2000 Mexican Census and
weighted data from the 10% analytic sample of the 2010 Mexican Census, the most updated
nationally representative data that is available.
23 Individuals living in Mexico in a given census year (e.g. 2000/2010) are asked about their
place of residence ve years ago (i.e. 1995/2005). Unfortunately, there is no information of
the year of arrival to Mexico, or departure from their country of origin.
24 Rodríguez, E. (2014). Migración Centroamericana en tránsito por México hacia Estados Unidos:
Diagnóstico y recomendaciones hacia una visión integral, regional y de responsabilidad comparti-
da, México, ITAM.
25 See, for instance, Ngai, M. M. (2014). Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Mo-
dern America: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press.
26 Massey & Riosmena (2010).
27 For a more detailed description, see e.g., Massey, D. S., & Pren, K. A. (2012). Unintended
consequences of US immigration policy: explaining the post‐1965 surge from Latin Ameri-
ca”. Population and Development Review, 38(1): 1-29.
28 Wasem (1997). Asylum success rates were a little higher for Salvadorans than for Guate-
malans.
29 For a detailed description, see Coutin, S. B. (2003). Legalizing moves: Salvadoran immigrants’
struggle for US residency. University of Michigan Press; and Hagan, J.M. (1994). Deciding to be
legal. A maya community in Houston. Temple University Press.
30 See U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh
(ABC) Settlement Agreement” in http://www.uscis.gov/laws/legal-settlement-notices/
american-baptist-churches-v-thornburgh-abc-settlement-agreement and U.S. Citizenship
and Immigration Services NACARA 203 - Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American
Relief Act” in http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/asylum/nacara-203-ni-
caraguan-adjustment-and-central-american-relief-act.
31 Pew Research Center (2014). “Unauthorized Immigrant Population Trends for States, Birth
Countries and Regions” December 11,
http://www.pewhispanic.org/2014/12/11/unauthorized-trends/. Last accessed August 27,
2015.
32 These gures refer to NTCA-born population captured by the U.S. Census long form sam-
ples and the American Community Surveys.
33 Another program allowed for the legalization of farm workers working on specic commo-
dities in the U.S. Southwest in 1982-1985. While some NTCA nationals were able to use
this program, the vast majority of the almost 1.3 million recipients (82%) were Mexican. See
Martin, P. L. (1994). Good intentions gone awry: IRCA and US agriculture. The Annals of the
American Academy of Political and Social Science, 44-57.
34 Wasem, R. E. (1997). Central American asylum seekers: Impact of 1996 Immigration Law. CRS
Report. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
33
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America:
A historical and demographic outlook
35 Menjívar, C. “Liminal Legality”.
36 For a more nuanced description of the problems related to their adaptation, see Menjívar
(2006).
37 Hagedorn, J. (2008). A world of gangs: armed young men and gangsta culture (Vol. 14). Univer-
sity of Minnesota Press.
38 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report Fiscal Year 2014 http://www.ice.gov/do-
clib/about/ofces/ero/pdf/2014-ice-immigration-removals.pdf
39 Golash-Boza, T. (2012). Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the U.S. Routledge.
40 Ward, T. W. (2013). Gangsters without borders: An ethnography of a Salvadoran street gang.
Oxford University Press.
41 Abrego, L. (2014). Sacricing families: Navigating laws, labor, and love across borders. Stanford
University Press.
42 Zilberg, E. (2004). “Fools banished from the kingdom: Remapping geographies of gang vio-
lence between the Americas (Los Angeles and San Salvador)”. American Quarterly, 56(3):
759-779.
43 Arana, A. (2005). How the street gangs took Central America”. Foreign Affairs, 84(3): 98-
110.
44 Cruz, J. M. (2005). Los factores asociados a las pandillas juveniles en Centroamérica. ECA: Estu-
dios Centroamericanos, (685), 1155-1182.
45 Note, however, that violence may not not drive people internationally in every situation,
but is related to broader structural conditions. See Alvarado, S. E., & Massey, D. S. (2010).
“Search of peace: Structural adjustment, violence, and international migration”. The Annals of
the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 630(1): 137-161.
46 Center for American Progress Statistical, “Analysis Shows that Violence, Not Deferred
Action, Is Behind the Surge of Unaccompanied Children Crossing the Border”, by Tom K.
Wong, Tuesday, July 8, 2014 https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/
news/2014/07/08/93370/statistical-analysis-shows-that-violence-not-deferred-ac-
tion-is-behind-the-surge-of-unaccompanied-children-crossing-the-border/.
47 UNCHR. (2014). Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America
and Mexico and the Need for International Protection. UNHCR Regional Ofce for the U.S.
and the Caribbean: Washington, D.C. http://www.unhcrwashington.org/sites/default/-
les/1_UAC_Children%20on%20the%20Run_Full%20Report.pdf
48 Nazario, S. (2007). Enrique’s journey. Random House.
CANAMID POLICY BRIEF SERIES
The main objective of the CANAMID project is to generate useful and current evidence to support the design of public
policies that address the problems of Central American migrants, including the conditions they face in their countries of
origin, in transit, and upon arrival to the United States or settlement in Mexico, as well as their potential return to their
places of origin (El Salvador, Guatemala y Honduras).
CANAMID is directed by Pablo Mateos and Agustin Escobar, at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social
Anthropology (CIESAS, Mexico), and is funded by the MacArthur Foundation (Chicago). The participant institutions are:
Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), Georgetown University (U.S.)
Institute for Research and Policy Management (INGEP), Rafael Landivar University (Guatemala)
Simeón Cañas Central American University (El Salvador)
The organization “Reection, Research and Communication Team” (Honduras)
International Studies Department, Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM)
CANAMID Policy Brief Series is a peer reviewed set of papers in which experts from these countries have synthesized the
best available evidence covering ve priority areas that affect the issue of migration: population, health, education, labor,
and governance and security.
CANAMID theme coordinators:
- Population: Carla Pederzini, Claudia Masferrer, Fernando Riosmena
- Education: Silvia Giorguli, Bryant Jenssen
- Labor: Pia Orrenius, Phil Martin, Liliana Meza
- Health: Nelly Salgado
- Governance and Security: Pablo Mateos
The CANAMID Policy Brief Series publications are available to download for free in English and Spanish at
www.canamid.org
Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America: A historical and
demographic outlook, CIESAS, Guadalajara: México.
First Edition, 2015
Author(s): Carla Pederzini, Fernando Riosmena, Claudia Masferrer and Noemí Molina
Keywords: Migrant ows and stocks; Immigration enforcement; North and Central America; Historical migratory patterns;
Migration policy
CANAMID Policy Brief Series
Directors: Agustín Escobar Latapí and Pablo Mateos
Editorial design: Punto asterisco
Editorial assistance: Laura Pedraza and Jessica Coyotecatl
CANAMID project is funded by The John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation
This publication has been peer reviewed and endorsed by CIESAS Editorial Committee, ensuring academic quality and rele-
vance. The editor responsible for this publication was Pablo Mateos.
D.R. © 2015 Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social
All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored or transmitted by an information re-
trieval system in any form or by any means, either electronic, mechanical, photochemical, magnetic, elec-
tro-optical, recording or otherwise, without prior permission from the publisher.
ISBN: Requested
Impreso en México. Printed in Mexico.
Suggested citation:
Pederzini, Carla, Riosmena, Fernando, Masferrer, Claudia, and Molina, Noemí (2015) “Three decades of migration from the
Northern Triangle of Central America: A historical and demographic outlook”, CANAMID Policy Brief Series, PB01, CIESAS:
Guadalajara, Mexico. Available at: www.canamid.org
In spite of a major economic slowdown in 2007-2009 and an increasing escalation of immigration and
border enforcement in both the United States and Mexico over the last decade, unauthorized migration
from the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA, i.e., El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras)
has persisted. These trends are puzzling and stand in contrast to those of unauthorized migration from
Mexico, which has decreased over the last seven years. To understand these trends, we briefly describe the
history of international migration dynamics from the NTCA countries, discussing their main drivers,
features, and demographic profile. We explain the role of economic and political contexts of emigration
from each NTCA nation, as well as reviewing the immigration policies and the contexts of reception in the
United States and Mexico; we then relate this to the socio-demographic profiles of the NTCA population
in both countries. The continued history of political turmoil, violence, and uneven and unstable economic
development –along with the growth and strengthening of migrant networks– largely explains the
continuation of sustained emigration flows from all three NTCA nations despite the rise of unwelcoming
contexts of reception and transit in Mexico and the U.S. Among the different recent issues, we discuss
the recent rise in the flow of unaccompanied minors, and the respective roles of the sending, transit,
and destination countries in driving the continuation of these flows. Finally, in light of this historical
and demographic overview, we offer a set of basic policy recommendations for the management of the
different migration flows, and the establishment of new data and research needs to better understand their
drivers and future trends.
SUMMARY
TITLES PUBLISHED IN THE POLICY BRIEF SERIES:
PB#01 Three decades of migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America: A historical and demographic
outlook
Carla Pederzini, Fernando Riosmena, Claudia Masferrer and Noemí Molina
PB#02 A portrait of U.S. children of Central American origins and their educational opportunity
Bryant Jensen and James D. Bachmeier
PB#03 Central Americans in the U.S. labor market: Recent trends and policy impacts
Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny
PB#04 Visitors and residents: Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran workers in Mexico
Liliana Meza González
PB#05 Access to health services for Central American migrants in transit through Mexico
René Leyva Flores, César Infante, Edson Serván-Mori, Frida Quintino and Omar Silverman-Retana
PB#06 Deportation and mental health of Central American migrants
Ietza Bojorquez
PB#07 Consular protection as state policy to protect Mexican and Central American migrants
Jorge A. Schiavon
... With the imposition of a patrol system known as the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil or Civil Defense Patrols, more than four hundred villages were destroyed and millions were displaced. Largescale migration (mostly Mayan) occurred with the movement of people to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camps in the Mexican states of Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo (Pederzini et al. 2015). With vast numbers of Guatemalan IDPs, economic activities in the country were affected by violence from the military brutality. ...
... As mentioned in this essay, there has been a decline in economic migration-mainly from Mexico-and an increase in non-labor migration from the countries of the NTCA. Driven by environmental effects, social and political instabilities and the movement of asylum seekers, emigration from the NTCA has had a transformational effect on Mexico and the United States (Pederzini et al. 2015). The arrival of migrant caravans at the US-Mexico border has forced both countries to pay attention to the struggles that these migrants face and their desperate pleas for asylum. ...
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El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras account for some of the most consequential migration streams in the Western Hemisphere. They are some of the largest contributors to Latino migration in the United States. Fleeing political persecution, gang violence, poverty and natural disasters, migrants are often desperate for social and economic stability. As migration from the region continues, legislation in the United States has grown more punitive and unforgiving. Amid hardline stances taken by the Trump administration, the revocation of temporary protected status and denials of asylum, this essay evaluates the complicated emigration from these three countries. It also evaluates the role of Mexico as a country of transit migration and settlement. Using data from the 2016 American Community Survey (5-year estimates) and the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, this work also evaluates the settlement patterns of migrants as they settle in the United States.
... The majority of unaccompanied children come from the "Northern Triangle" of Central America: in FY 2016, almost one-third (32% or 18,913) arrived from Guatemala, followed by 29% (17,512) from El Salvador and 18% (10,468) from Honduras; an additional 20% (11,926) arrived from Mexico [7]. Between FYs 2012-2016, the number of unaccompanied children from these four countries more than doubled [7]. ...
... In 2012, Honduras was ranked the most violent country in the world, with a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people; El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico had homicide rates of 41.2, 39.9, and 21.5 respectively, while the global average rate was 6.2 per 100,000 [10]. Such an extraordinary level of violence in the region stems from continuing political turmoil, relative weakness of governmental institutions, widespread domestic and sexual abuse, and the power of organized crime [11]. Three types of organized crime groups-street gangs, Central American drug transporters, and Mexican drug cartels-are primary agents of forced displacement [12]. ...
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Full-text available
In recent years, unaccompanied minors have been journeying to the United States (U.S.)-Mexico border in great numbers in order to escape violence, poverty and exploitation in their home countries. Yet, unaccompanied children attempting to cross the United States border face treatment at the hands of government representatives which violates their inherent rights as children. The result is a human rights crisis that has severe health consequences for the children. Their rights as children are clearly delineated in various, international human rights documents which merit increased understanding of and recognition by the U.S. government. This paper calls for the improvement of policies and procedures for addressing the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; it provides specific, rights-based recommendations which work together to safeguard the rights of the child at the U.S. southwestern border.
... Integration concerns have inverted. New questions address how Mexican institutions should incorporate migrants, not only from the U.S. but also from Central America (Pederzini, Riosmena, Masferrer & Molina, 2015). There is little empirical work on these issues (Escobar Latapi, Lowell & Martin, 2014), and less so for children and youth. ...
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Full-text available
The number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. is now greater than the number coming to the U.S., signaling monumental shifts in U.S.-Mexico relations. This is evoking new questions about bi-national collaboration, particularly regarding the wellbeing of transnational children and youth. Analyzing data from the Mexican Census, we identify basic demographic trends of “returnee” children and youth —those in Mexico after living in the US. Most are US-born with a Mexican-born parent, relatively young, and dispersed across the country, with concentrations in municipalities in northern and central states. We frame classroom-learning needs for these students and share descriptive findings from a recent study of equitable teaching —i.e., high quality, adequate quantity, and meaningful (Jensen, Perez Martinez & Aguilar Escobar, 2016)—through video recordings of classroom interactions in early elementary settings in the state of Aguascalientes. We conclude with a series of recommendations to enrich learning opportunities for returnee students in Mexican classrooms.
... (Jensen & Sawyer, 2013)-siguen siendo relevantes. Las preocupaciones sobre la integración se han revertido; las nuevas preguntas abordan cómo las instituciones mexicanas deberían incorporar a los migrantes, no solo de EUA, sino también de Centroamérica (Pederzini, Riosmena, Masferrer & Molina, 2015). ...
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El número de mexicanos que dejan Estados Unidos de América (EUA) es ahora mayor que el que ingresa a ese país, lo cual señala un cambio monumental en la relación EUA-México. Este fenómeno genera preguntas nuevas acerca de la colaboración binacional, particularmente del bienestar de niños y jóvenes transnacionales. Un análisis de datos del Censo y la Encuesta Intercensal de México permite identificar tendencias demográficas básicas de niños y jóvenes “retornados” que se encuentran en México después de haber vivido en EUA. La mayoría de ellos son nacidos en EUA, relativamente jóvenes, con un padre o madre nacido en México y dispersos a lo largo del país, y se concentran en municipios de los estados del norte y del centro. En este artículo enmarcamos las necesidades de aprendizaje en las aulas para dichos estudiantes y presentamos los hallazgos de un estudio descriptivo reciente que analiza tres aspectos de la equidad en la enseñanza: ser de adecuada cantidad, de alta calidad y significativa (Jensen, Pérez & Aguilar, 2016), en videograbaciones de interacciones en salones de tercer año de preescolar y primer año de primaria en el estado de Aguascalientes. Concluimos con una serie de recomendaciones de investigación futura y acciones en las instituciones educativas encaminadas a enriquecer las oportunidades de aprendizaje para estos estudiantes retornados en las aulas mexicanas. Palabras clave: equidad, enseñanza y aprendizaje, migración familiar, teoría sociocultural.
... Integration concerns have inverted. New questions address how Mexican institutions should incorporate migrants, not only from the U.S. but also from Central America (Pederzini, Riosmena, Masferrer & Molina, 2015). There is little empirical work on these issues (Escobar Latapi, Lowell & Martin, 2014), and less so for children and youth. ...
Article
Full-text available
The number of Mexicans leaving the U.S. is now greater than the number coming to the U.S., signaling monumental shifts in U.S.-Mexico relations. This is evoking new questions about bi-national collaboration, particularly regarding the wellbeing of transnational children and youth. Analyzing data from the Mexican Census, we identify basic demographic trends of “returnee” children and youth —those in Mexico after living in the US. Most are US-born with a Mexican-born parent, relatively young, and dispersed across the country, with concentrations in municipalities in northern and central states. We frame classroom-learning needs for these students and share descriptive findings from a recent study of equitable teaching —i.e., high quality, adequate quantity, and meaningful (Jensen, Perez Martinez & Aguilar Escobar, 2016)—through video recordings of classroom interactions in early elementary settings in the state of Aguascalientes. We conclude with a series of recommendations to enrich learning opportunities for returnee students in Mexican classrooms.
Chapter
This chapter discusses different cases that exemplify an increasing problem in the small Central American country of Costa Rica: the discovery of unidentified remains, sometimes buried in clandestine graves. Immigrants in Costa Rica come mainly from Nicaragua, with Colombia a distant second. Despite relatively low levels of violence in Costa Rica, the country is heavily affected by violent events and mass migration stemming from other countries in the region. The undocumented migrant population and those involved in criminal activity related to drug trafficking are far less likely to be reported as missing by family members. Standard forensic procedures work towards matching unidentified victim DNA with that of families, but the essential element of victim family DNA seems to be increasingly absent, resulting in a lack of positive identifications. Standard forensic identification procedures include pathological, radiological, odontological, biochemical and, if remains are discovered in clandestine graves and soft tissue is partially or wholly decomposed, anthropological examination.
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In enacting the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the US Congress rewrote provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act that pertain to the circumstances under which certain foreign nationals subject to expulsion from the United States may be permitted to stay here as legal residents. Central Americans who first came to seek asylum the United States in the 1980s were especially affected by the 1996 law. For the most part, these Central Americans —fleeing civil conflicts in their native countries — came as “illegal” immigrants lacking proper documents. While most of these Central Americans were denied asylum and placed in deportation proceedings, policy decisions (including an out-of-court legal settlement) enabled these otherwise deportable aliens to remain in the United States with employment authorizations The report is organized into five sections: an overview of the asylum and cancellation of removal procedures; three sections describing the situations of the Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans; and, finally a section discussing legislative issues.
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La movilidad de personas desde Centroamérica hacia Estados Unidos, en condición migratoria indocumentada o irregular, es un fenómeno transnacional que ha cobrado importancia en la región en las últimas décadas. Estos movimientos migratorios irregulares hacia Estados Unidos se han producido en un contexto de incremento de la inseguridad y, por tanto, de mayor vulnerabilidad de las personas migrantes frente a amenazas de extorsión, asalto, violación, secuestro e incluso homicidio, entre otras. No obstante la importancia de la migración en tránsito irregular y la magnitud de su impacto humanitario, este tema aún no se ha consolidado como campo de conocimiento. Frente a esta situación, el documento ofrece un diagnóstico sobre: 1. Las tendencias de la migración centroamericana en tránsito irregular por México; 2. La inseguridad de los migrantes en tránsito; 3. Los riesgos en la migración de tránsito; 4. La gestión fronteriza en el sur mexicano y la política hacia los migrantes en tránsito. De igual forma, presenta una serie de recomendaciones dirigidas a los diversos actores involucrados en la atención a estos flujos migratorios, con el propósito de incidir en la formulación de políticas públicas, la gestión migratoria, la investigación académica y el trabajo de organizaciones civiles.
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This essay explores how the policing, incarceration, and deportation of Salvadoran immigrant youth are reshaping the parameters of urban experience between Los Angeles and San Salvador. It argues that these disciplinary governmental practices have transformed the geographies of belonging, exclusion, and citizenship between the once putatively separate cultural and political spheres of the United States and Central America. These efforts to reassert national sovereignty through zero-tolerance policing strategies as they combine with the growing intersection between criminal and immigration law, only, and most ironically, induce and reproduce transnational flows. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted with deported youth and young adults, the essay focuses on the crucial place of the city and of the local police beat in the production of their emergent transnational subjectivities. The experiences of these immigrant youth indicate that the complex flows and the multiple geopolitical scales of analysis at work in Los Angeles's urban barrios now make it impossible to engage with the cultural politics of one side of this social field without simultaneously accounting for those at play on the other side in San Salvador. These politics of simultaneity demonstrate the analytical power that both transnational and urban studies stand to gain from a mutual engagement with each other, and call for transnational urban studies as a new domain for research.
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The political upheaval in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala had a devastating human toll at the end of the twentieth century. A quarter of a million people died during the period 1974-1996. Many of those who survived the wars chose temporary refuge in neighboring countries such as Honduras and Costa Rica. Others traveled far north, to Mexico, the United States, and Canada in search of safety. Over two million of those who fled Central America during this period settled in these three countries. In this incisive book, María Cristina García tells the story of that migration and how domestic and foreign policy interests shaped the asylum policies of Mexico, the United States, and Canada. She describes the experiences of the individuals and non-governmental organizations-primarily church groups and human rights organizations-that responded to the refugee crisis, and worked within and across borders to shape refugee policy. These transnational advocacy networks collected testimonies, documented the abuses of states, re-framed national debates about immigration, pressed for changes in policy, and ultimately provided a voice for the displaced. García concludes by addressing the legacies of the Central American refugee crisis, especially recent attempts to coordinate a regional response to the unique problems presented by immigrants and refugees-and the challenges of coordinating such a regional response in the post-9/11 era.
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This book traces the origins of the "illegal alien" in American law and society, explaining why and how illegal migration became the central problem in U.S. immigration policy-a process that profoundly shaped ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and state authority in the twentieth century. Mae Ngai offers a close reading of the legal regime of restriction that commenced in the 1920s-its statutory architecture, judicial genealogies, administrative enforcement, differential treatment of European and non-European migrants, and long-term effects. She shows that immigration restriction, particularly national-origin and numerical quotas, remapped America both by creating new categories of racial difference and by emphasizing as never before the nation's contiguous land borders and their patrol.
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Due process protections are among the most important Constitutional protections in the United States, yet they do not apply to non-citizens facing detention and deportation. Due Process Denied describes the consequences of this lack of due process through the stories of deportees and detainees. People who have lived nearly all of their lives in the United States have been detained and deported for minor crimes, without regard for constitutional limits on disproportionate punishment. The court's insistence that deportation is not punishment does not align with the experiences of deportees. For many, deportation is one of the worst imaginable punishments.
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For a decade, the United States has exported its gang problem, sending Central American--born criminals back to their homelands--without warning local governments. The result has been an explosive rise of vicious, transnational gangs that now threaten the stability of the region's fragile democracies. As Washington fiddles, the gangs are growing, spreading north into Mexico and back to the United States.
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The rate of Mexico-U.S. migration has declined precipitously in recent years. From 25 migrants per thousand in 2005, the annual international migration rate for Mexican men dropped to 7 per thousand by 2012. If sustained, this low migration rate is likely to have a profound effect on the ethnic and national-origin composition of the U.S. population. This study examines the origins of the migration decline using a nationally representative panel survey of Mexican households. The results support an explanation that attributes a large part of the decline to lower labor demand for Mexican immigrants in the United States. Decreases in labor demand in industrial sectors that employ a large percentage of Mexican-born workers, such as construction, are found to be strongly associated with lower rates of migration for Mexican men. Second, changes in migrant selectivity are also consistent with an economic explanation for the decline in international migration. The largest declines in migration occurred precisely among the demographic groups most affected by the Great Recession: namely, economically active young men with low education. Results from the statistical analysis also show that the reduction in labor demand in key sectors of the U.S. economy resulted in a more positive educational selectivity of young migrants.