With the U.S. “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,” as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement March 16, immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border has emerged as one of the toughest challenges facing the Biden Administration. Last week, President Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of “stemming” the flow of migrants, Biden was questioned about the immigration situation at his first official press conference, immigrant detention centers began to fill up once again, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle made trips to the border to publicize the issue and propose solutions.
Biden’s attempts to address immigration may be new, but the issue is one that has dogged his predecessors for decades. Since the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to address undocumented immigration by constructing ever more draconian policies of border control, deportation and detention—border theater that grabs headlines and sometimes leads to short-term change, but never actually solves the problem.
There’s a reason why the U.S. government has failed for so many years to “control” the border: none of these policies have addressed the real reasons for migration itself. In migration studies, these are known as “push” and “pull” factors, the causes that drive migrants from one country to another.
Today, the countries sending the most migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border–especially the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador–are experiencing a combination of push factors that include poverty and inequality, political instability, and violence. And while the current situation may be unique, it is also deeply rooted in history.
Many countries in Central America have struggled with poverty since the time of independence from Spain in the early 19th century. While they are beautiful countries that are rich in culture and history, that colonial past has meant they have historically been home to large, landless, poor, rural populations, including many indigenous people of Mayan descent. In the years after Spanish control, they were typically ruled by small oligarchies that disproportionately held wealth, land and power, and their economies were primary export-dependent, which brought great riches to landowners but also exacerbated and perpetuated inequality and the poverty of the majority. Those dynamics have carried forward to today. More recently, climate change–in particular, drought and massive storms–has forced the vulnerable rural poor out of the countryside.
Throughout Central America, political instability has also been a long-term problem. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were constant struggles between liberal and conservative elites. While rural, landless populations—such as the followers of guerrilla insurgent Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua in the 1920s—would occasionally rise up in popular resistance, more often than not these uprisings were suppressed in violent conflicts. The United States often exacerbated these conflicts, deploying the U.S. Marines in Latin America whenever political uprisings seemed to threaten U.S. business interests or national security.
By the mid-20th century, there were new and worse waves of political violence. Popular movements on the Left—some influenced by Marxist movements, others by the labor movement or by anti-imperialism—aggressively, and sometimes violently, attempted to challenge old hierarchies and ruling classes. Conservative political elites often responded to these movements by inviting the military to take power, and the resulting conflict would eventually develop into civil wars in Guatemala (1960-1996), El Salvador (1980-1992) and Nicaragua (1979-1990). The United States played a central role in many of these conflicts, propping up military dictatorships and supporting them with logistical aid, money, training and weapons, even as many of them committed human rights atrocities. These conflicts generated huge surges in emigration from Central America, establishing the migration patterns that persist today.
A final push factor—with a very important transnational history—is gang violence. MS-13 is now one of the largest gangs in the world, and has contributed to violent crime across the region. What many Americans don’t know is that MS-13 was founded in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the 1980s, within communities of Central American refugees who had fled civil wars. Many of these gang members were subsequently imprisoned in the United States, and then deported to Central America through a program that began under President Bill Clinton. With governments weakened by decades of war and incapable of dealing with this criminal influx, there was a huge rise in violence, extortion and impunity across Central America, contributing to a new increase in emigration as people sought the security and safety that their governments could not provide.
Pull factors in the U.S. have also created the conditions for continued unauthorized migration from Central America. Since the 1990s, entire sectors of the U.S. economy have become increasingly dependent on low-wage immigrant labor. Today, undocumented immigrants make up significant proportions of the labor force in certain industries, especially agriculture, the service industry (restaurants and housecleaning), and construction.
Despite the demand for their labor, U.S. immigration policy makes it very difficult for would-be migrants from Latin America to come to the United States legally. Although U.S. immigration laws allow for family reunification, it can take a decade or more for U.S. citizens of Central American origin to successfully sponsor family members for visas, and other paths are mostly limited to “highly skilled” immigrants with at least a college degree. Nevertheless, would-be migrants, desperate for a better life, know that if they can make it across the border, odds are they can get a job even without papers. This situation incentivizes risky border crossings and unauthorized entry into the United States.
There is one way that immigrants from Central America can legally migrate immediately—and that is by requesting asylum after they arrive in the United States. To gain asylum, immigrants must prove that they had to leave their country owing to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” And while many Central Americans could indeed qualify for asylum based on their experiences of persecution, the previous administration made every effort to limit their ability to obtain it. Now the Biden Administration must decide whether to restore the asylum framework, which has become the only possible path to legal migration (as well as safety and security) for Central Americans and other migrants who—due to these combined push and pull factors—are desperate to come to the United States.
Given the complicated and deep-rooted reasons behind migration, lawmakers cannot control or “solve” the ongoing crisis at the border by simply pouring money and resources into ever more militaristic border theater. It’s no wonder that decades of such policies have done little to change the underlying dynamics.
Instead, if Americans are serious about changing the situation at the border, we need to address the push and pull factors behind Central American migration. We need to acknowledge the reality of the U.S. economy (in particular, that it demands immigrant labor to work low-wage jobs) and work to construct new legal frameworks that reflect that reality. We need to target financial and logistical support to encourage Central American countries to address the poverty and inequality that fuel migration, rather than cutting foreign aid, as the Trump Administration did. We need to do all we can to end the pervasive gang violence that pushes so many migrants out of their homelands. And of course, we must continue to evaluate our own historical and contemporary role in creating the longstanding problems that are pushing Central Americans to migrate.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Julia G. Young is an associate professor of history and historian of immigration and Latin America at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.