In short, we find overwhelming evidence that the nature of emigration from these two countries in recent years is fundamentally distinct from the standard economic migrant narrative that has been used to describe those arriving at the U.S. border from Mexico and Central America over the past thirty years. While the emigration decision is never based on a single factor, the role of crime and violence appears to be decisive for those individuals both the Obama and Trump administrations have been trying to deter in recent years.
Our second objective in this study was to try to discern the impact of the U.S. deterrence strategy on individuals living in high violence contexts in Central America. We turned, then, to a second survey carried out by LAPOP in late July and early August of 2014, precisely at the height of the Obama administration's efforts to "send a message" to Central Americans to stay home. Indeed, at the time this particular survey went into the field, the "Dangers Awareness" campaign, a multi-million dollar media blitz throughout Central America on television, radio, and billboards, had been underway for two months. Not surprisingly then, we found in this survey of over 3,000 respondents living in twelve municipalities in Honduras, that close to 80% thought that deportations in the U.S. had increased, 84% thought crossing the border was less safe, and over 85% thought crossing the border was more difficult than in August 2013 (see Figure 2). From these results, it seems clear that the U.S. efforts to make Central Americans aware of the hardening of U.S. border policy and the low probability of successfully immigrating to the U.S. had its intended effect – an overwhelming majority of our respondents knew full well that the decision to leave for the U.S. in August of 2014 was fraught with danger and had a very low chance of success.
The question, however, is whether or not this message had its intended effect? The short answer we arrive at is a resounding "No." In repeated multivariate analyses of emigration intentions among these respondents, in no instance did any of these perceptions of the U.S. immigration climate reduce the likelihood that an individual reported intentions to emigrate.
Once again, the most powerful predictor of such intentions, even after controlling for perceptions of the risks and chances of success, along with a host of other relevant variables, was crime victimization. No matter how accurate and well-informed an individual's perception of U.S. immigration policy was, the question of whether or not she was considering emigrating hinged on her direct experiences with the crime and violence that have plagued Honduras in recent years. Specifically, for individuals living in high crime contexts in Honduras, the probability jumped by 18 points when moving from non-victims (19.5) to those victimized multiple times (37.6). In sum, they were simply trying to leave the devil they know, no matter how bad the one they don't may be.
The toughening of immigration laws, greater migration dangers, and increased awareness of those dangers may deter economic migrants but not those fleeing for their lives. Knowledge of this "selection effect" currently at work among those choosing to leave El Salvador and Honduras for the U.S. makes the current deterrence efforts on the part of the U.S. all the more egregious as the rapid deportation and denial of asylum claims increases the chances that those individuals being returned to their home countries are even more likely to face a life-threatening situation upon return. In other words, such a strategy, aimed specifically at those likely to have the most credible claims for asylum, would seem to place the U.S. in direct violation of the non-refoulement principle of international and domestic refugee law – the principle that prohibits a signatory state from returning individuals seeking asylum to their country of origin if such actions place them in danger of persecution. Rather than such expedited removal efforts, then, our analysis suggests that a U.S. strategy that places far greater attention on providing due process and adequate legal representation to those border arrivals deemed to have credible fears of persecution, along with continued assistance in addressing the root causes of those fears across northern Central America, will ultimately have a greater chance of success than a strategy based on deterrence.
Hiskey, Córdova, Malone & Orces (2018) Leaving the Devil They Know: Violence, Migration, and U.S. Policy in Central America. Latin American Research Review, 53 (3), Forthcoming.