Beyond Borders: What Drives the Exodus? Unraveling the Factors Behind Economic Migration from Central America and Mexico to the US

Economic insecurity, government corruption, criminality, violence, and – increasingly – climate change are driving migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The majority of Guatemalans and Hondurans live in poverty, and the majority of individuals in the Northern Triangle work in the informal sector, which denies them social rights and insurance. The pandemic, which has disproportionately afflicted Latin America in terms of public health and economic impact, has exposed governance flaws throughout the region. Meanwhile, populist politicians and unscrupulous officials have eroded democratic checks and balances, leaving many Northern Triangle people frustrated and alienated.

Since the reopening of the US-Mexico border in 2021, the number of migrants travelling via Mexico to the US has increased dramatically. For many migrants, the reasons for leaving have gotten worse, including increased violence, political instability, pandemic-related poverty, and the effects of climate change on harsh weather, agriculture, and livelihoods.

In 2021, there will be around 10.7 million Mexican-born people in the United States. Despite the continuous appeal of the United States as a destination, the Mexican immigration population fell by around one million persons (or 9%) between 2010 and 2021. According to Pew Research Center estimates, the number of Mexicans departing the United States surpassed the number of new arrivals between 2005 and 2014, although this trend then reversed, with the number of returns to Mexico declining.

Since January 2013, MSF teams have been providing medical and mental health care to migrants and refugees traveling through Mexico. Many of our patients require mental health care owing to tremendous stressors in their home countries as well as while on the run. Medical and emotional care for victims of sexual violence is frequently included in treatment for women. When possible, teams provide primary care as well as treatment for acute and chronic disorders.

Reintegrating migrant children and families securely back into their communities is more difficult than simply being sent home. Families regularly find themselves in debt, unable to recoup the funds spent to finance the trip. Children face enormous psychological stress as a result of being separated, jailed, and deported to a country and socioeconomic situation that are completely foreign to them. They are frequently ostracized by their communities and considered as failures, or, in the case of certain teenage girls, as ‘tainted’. The threat of violence remains. In many situations, the presence of families in the United States makes them a target for local gangs. Mexican and Central American people often face a variety of challenges and issues when migrating to or living in the United States. These challenges can stem from factors such as immigration policies, economic conditions, social attitudes, and cultural differences. Here are some of the key problems that Mexican and Central American individuals may encounter in the USA.

Immigration Policies and Legal Issues

A considerable number of individuals hailing from Mexico and Central America confront a series of daunting challenges directly linked to the complex web of immigration policies established by the United States. These challenges unfold in various ways, often commencing with the act of entering the U.S. without the required legal documentation. This act, though often driven by factors such as economic necessity or a search for better opportunities, places these individuals in a precarious position. The consequences of unauthorized entry can be severe. Many of these individuals live under the constant shadow of potential detention by U.S. immigration authorities. Once detained, they may find themselves facing the prospect of deportation to their countries of origin, a process that can entail the upheaval of established lives, separation from loved ones, and a return to potentially unfavorable conditions.

One of the heartrending outcomes of these immigration policies is the potential for family separation. Undocumented immigrants, including parents and children, may find themselves torn apart due to differing immigration statuses or legal complications. The emotional toll of family separation can be profound and enduring. Navigating the intricate landscape of the U.S. immigration system is a task fraught with challenges. Its complexities can baffle even the most determined individuals, making it exceedingly difficult for them to comprehend the necessary steps to rectify their legal status. This convoluted system, coupled with limited access to legal resources and assistance, can leave many in a state of legal limbo.

Detention and Deportation

Undocumented immigrants, a group that notably includes individuals from Mexico and Central America, are susceptible to apprehension and subsequent detention by the immigration authorities of the United States. These individuals, lacking the proper legal documentation to reside in the country, can find themselves in a complex and challenging situation. Upon being apprehended, these undocumented immigrants are placed within detention centers, facilities designed to hold individuals during the process of determining their immigration status or handling deportation procedures. These centers have faced substantial criticism due to the often-substandard living conditions they offer. Detainees might find themselves confined within these centers for extended durations, a period characterized by uncertainty, anxiety, and limited access to various resources.

One notable consequence of this confinement is the potential deterioration of mental health among the detained immigrants. The combination of prolonged detention, uncertain outcomes, and less-than-adequate conditions can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health issues. The toll on mental well-being is a concerning aspect of this situation, with long-lasting implications for the individuals involved. Moreover, the impact isn’t limited to the individuals detained; it extends to their families as well. The separation caused by detention can strain family relationships to a considerable degree. Spouses, parents, and children may be forcibly separated, leading to emotional distress and challenges in maintaining connections across borders.

Labor Exploitation

Many individuals from Mexico and Central America seek employment opportunities in the United States, and a considerable portion of them end up working in jobs that offer meager wages. These jobs are frequently characterized by substandard working conditions and a notable absence of legal protections. Unfortunately, the vulnerability of these immigrants is exploited by certain unscrupulous employers. These employers take advantage of the immigrants’ precarious situation, subjecting them to various forms of labor exploitation. One common form of exploitation is wage theft, where employers unlawfully withhold or underpay the wages that these workers rightfully earned through their labor.

Furthermore, these immigrants often find themselves compelled to work in unsafe environments, lacking proper safety measures or protective gear. This jeopardizes their well-being and can lead to work-related injuries or health issues. The exploitation of labor extends beyond these aspects. Immigrants, facing the fear of potential legal consequences due to their immigration status, may be less likely to report or protest against unjust working conditions. This further emboldens unscrupulous employers to continue mistreating their workers. In essence, the reality for many Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States involves a challenging combination of low-paying jobs, subpar working conditions, and limited legal safeguards. This situation creates an environment where exploitation, in various forms, is unfortunately prevalent.

Discrimination and Xenophobia

Immigrants, which includes people originating from countries like Mexico and Central America, frequently confront unjust treatment and unwarranted fear or hostility due to their distinct cultural heritage, the language they speak, or their legal status in a new country. This prejudiced attitude and unfounded aversion, collectively termed as discrimination and xenophobia, can significantly influence various facets of their lives. In the realm of employment, immigrants may encounter bias when seeking jobs or during the course of their work. Employers might unfairly favor individuals from the host country or exhibit hesitancy to hire based on the immigrants’ background. This can hinder their professional growth and limit their career opportunities. 

In conclusion, the experiences of Mexican and Central American immigrants within the United States are rife with challenges stemming from various factors, including immigration policies, labor exploitation, discrimination, and family hardships. These individuals often navigate a complex and sometimes hostile environment, facing the risk of detention, deportation, and separation from their loved ones due to their immigration status. The difficulties they encounter extend beyond legal aspects, affecting their well-being, mental health, and ability to access basic rights such as employment, housing, and education. The stories of these immigrants shed light on the need for comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform, one that acknowledges the contributions and aspirations of those seeking a better life in a new country. Efforts to address these challenges should encompass not only policy changes but also a broader societal shift toward inclusivity, understanding, and support for those who have embarked on a journey in pursuit of a brighter future. Recognizing the shared humanity and potential of these individuals can ultimately lead to a more just and harmonious coexistence for all members of society, regardless of their origins or immigration status.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Policy Watcher’s editorial stance.

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