What are people getting wrong about the Central American migrant crisis?

By Kerri Whelan
April 8, 2021

Myth 1: The migration of children and families from Central America is a recent phenomenon.

Though the number of asylum-seeking children and families has recently risen, Central American migration has been happening for decades. Large-scale migration from Central America to the U.S. goes back to the 1980s.

Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua were the starting points for large-scale Central American migration some 40 years ago. Peace accords brought formal ends to these conflicts, but crime, poverty, environmental degradation and a lagging economy continued to force families to migrate north. Hondurans began to migrate in large numbers after Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country in 1988, and natural disasters continue to heavily impact migration from Central America — including the movement of caravans in early 2021 following Hurricanes Eta and Iota.

Climate change, continuous surges of violence and lack of opportunity are causing more and more families to seek asylum in the U.S. today, even with the added risk of traveling while COVID-19 continues to spread.

Myth 2: Immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. are from Mexico.

The majority of asylum-seekers come from the northern Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as well as from Mexico. And about two-thirds of unaccompanied children at the border have been from Central America. Many of these children and families were forced to flee Central America in order to escape some of the world’s highest murder rates, as well as extreme poverty. And COVID-19 has made things so much worse. Just in 2020, 45.4 million people in Central America were forced into poverty. They’re leaving because they can’t survive at home, and Mexico is often just a stop along the way to the U.S.

Myth 3: Parents of unaccompanied migrant children are being negligent.

Children as young as 6 years old cross the border alone. But it’s not because the parents of these children are being negligent. It’s because they’re desperate for their children to survive.

Under former President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, families seeking asylum were sent to Mexico to wait for their immigration cases to be completed — regardless of their nationality. But children traveling alone were not sent back. This left thousands of parents making the difficult decision to send their children to the U.S. without them, knowing their children would receive asylum protections. Still today under the Biden administration, if parents cross the border with their children, they could be expelled under Title 42 — a controversial policy created under Trump to limit the spread of COVID-19 that the Biden administration has not changed. So, many parents still see sending their children alone as a better option.

Other children cross the border alone because they’ve been separated from their family members. Or, they travel unaccompanied in hope of reuniting with relatives who live in the U.S. They might leave their homes in Central America alone because of domestic violence, or because their schools are being targeted by criminal gangs and they want to finish their education.

Myth 4: Children and families deported back to Central America can return to life as they knew it.

For migrants, returning back home is extremely complicated. They often arrive feeling hopeless, ashamed and out of options. Girls and women go back to the threat of femicide, sexual assault and trafficking. LGBTQIA+ people are put back at very high risk of serious violence. Families go back and experience homelessness, especially now that Hurricanes Eta and Iota have destroyed so many homes. And the trauma of migration, followed by the experience of being sent back home, can be severely damaging.

Many gangs even target children returning from the border, committing violent acts toward them or forcing them to join the gangs. Children deported back to Central America are sometimes seen as failures in their home communities, particularly girls, who are sometimes viewed as “tainted.” For many girls and their families, returning home may feel like a death sentence.

Myth 5: Cutting funding will stop Central American people from migrating to the U.S.

Addressing migration at the source is what will help these children and families stay and live safely in their home countries. That means sustained humanitarian funding from the U.S. and other governments needs to be provided to support communities in Central America and minimize surges in migration.

Under the Trump administration, aid mostly focused on border enforcement. Less than $1 billion was spent on addressing the circumstances in Central America, and over $20 billion was spent on dealing with asylum-seekers when they arrived at the border. And, humanitarian aid was cut temporarily because the administration believed that Central American governments weren’t doing enough to stop mass migration. But regardless of the cut, the migrant crisis continued to deepen.

The Biden administration has proposed a four-year, $4 billion strategy to address the economy, climate change, violence and inequality in Central America. Urgent action to create a humane asylum system has to be prioritized by the U.S. government now to protect children and families.

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