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Violence at home pushes Central American migrants to U.S.

Lorena Arriaga, 27, and her son Jason Ramirez, 7, from El Salvador, turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico on September 8, 2014 to Mission, Texas. (Credit: John Moore/Getty Images)

Being a victim of crime is a powerful motivation for migrants from El Salvador and Honduras to come to the United States, despite understanding the risks of the journey and challenges of the US immigration system.

The findings of a new study suggest that current migration deterrence policies, which mainly target economic migrants, are ineffective against those fleeing violence.

In 2014, the United States saw a dramatic spike in migration from Central America, creating a humanitarian crisis along the US-Mexico border. In response, the Obama administration implemented a number of efforts to detain and deport the newcomers, as well as launching “know before you go”-type multimedia campaigns throughout Central America to deter potential migrants by warning them about the dangers of the journey north and the high risk of detention and deportation upon arrival. However, these efforts did little to stem the tide.

Since several of these nations have exceptionally high crime rates, and there is anecdotal evidence that crime is a heavy driver of migration from these countries, researchers sought to measure the phenomenon empirically.

To do so, they analyzed data from the university’s Latin American Public Opinion Project’s 2014 AmericasBarometer survey, which included questions about respondents’ personal experience with crime and whether they intended to migrate to the US in the next three years.

The AmericasBarometer survey, which fieldworkers conduct entirely in person, is considered to be the gold standard for public opinion research, making the data highly reliable.

Migration motivator

“We found that one of the most powerful predictors of migration is if the person has been victimized by crime in the previous 12 months, and an even more powerful predictor is if that person has been victimized multiple times by crime,” says Jonathan Hiskey, associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

Of those from El Salvador expressing an intent to migrate who said they had been the victim of a crime in the previous year, 35 percent had been victimized once, and 44 percent had been victimized multiple times. Of those from Honduras, 39 percent had been victimized once, while 56 percent had been victimized more than once.

In El Salvador and Honduras, violence is often a widespread daily occurrence, where families routinely face extortion, and where gangs recruit children by force or make them participate in violent initiation rituals, Hiskey says.

“It’s a situation of constantly being exposed to violence and crime, in addition to a government that is either unwilling or unable to do anything to improve the situation,” Hiskey explains. “Once individuals have lived through this for several years, they reach a point where they just say, simply, ‘I don’t care what lies in front of me, I have to leave, I have to get my kids out.'”

While Guatemala also has a high crime rate, it didn’t appear to be influencing the immigration decision nearly as strongly. This was likely due to the difference in the type and distribution of crime in that country, though it is a question the authors plan to explore more thoroughly in future research.

Desperate to leave

The researchers then tested the reach of the deterrence campaign with a special survey LAPOP in Honduras conducted and found that people were overwhelmingly aware of the US warnings. Nearly 9 in 10 understood that crossing the US border was more difficult, while 8 in 10 understood it to be less safe and that deportations had increased. Further, two-thirds also believed that migrants were being treated worse in the US than they used to be.

This suggests that migrants who have been repeatedly victimized are likely so desperate to leave that they are willing to take their chances in the US, no matter how hard it seems, Hiskey says. These are not the kind of migrants who are likely to respond to measures designed to stem economic migrants.

“What we see is a very different demographic profile of the individuals arriving now. The US policy approach to unauthorized migration at the Southwest border, in my mind, has to change fundamentally to match who’s arriving,” Hiskey explains.

Though the findings may not be all that surprising, given how violent these three Central American countries are known to be and given the stories that migrants have been telling, it’s important to be able to attach real numbers to the problem in order to solve it, he says.

“I think what our survey-based research does, through the work of the Latin American Public Opinion Project, is provide empirical, statistical support for the anecdotal and qualitative evidence that’s already out there.”

The findings will appear in an upcoming edition of Latin American Research Review. Additional researchers are from the University of New Hampshire, the University of Kentucky, and the American Immigration Council research.

Source: Vanderbilt University