A Q&A with Ariel Ruiz Soto from the Migration Policy Institute on Central America
Ruiz Soto talks about a new region-wide survey on Central American migration and why people choose to migrate or stay home...also join our open border discussion with invited experts this Thursday!
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A Q&A with Ariel Ruiz Soto from the Migration Policy Institute on Central America
Much has been written recently about the number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, but there’s been very little in depth information about people’s complex motivations for leaving home. With a global pandemic still devastating communities and economies, growing poverty and hunger are spurring more citizens from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to consider migrating north. Ariel Ruiz Soto, with the Washington, D.C.–based Migration Policy Institute, is the lead author of a new report, which surveyed 5,000 households in the three countries in the spring of 2021. Of those surveyed, 43 percent said they were considering making the difficult journey north—a threefold increase from just 8 percent in 2019.
Commissioned by the United Nations’ World Food Programme, the Migration Policy Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Civic Data Design Lab, the survey gives us a snapshot of the difficult decision-making process that people go through in their calculus to leave or stay. The report caught my attention because aid workers and volunteers spoke face to face with households in regions with the highest rates of migration in the three countries. The team also followed up with an online survey of 6,000 individuals after Covid-19 restrictions and community lockdowns were established, limiting their in-person outreach to 12 departments in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The new report gives some important on-the-ground information about what to expect migration-wise in the coming months.
What surprised me most from the report was not the significantly higher rate of people in 2021 who said they were considering migrating, but how few people actually do migrate after stating their intentions to leave.
Exactly. If you put all the Central American survey participants together, 43 percent of them say that they want to migrate internationally as compared to migrating internally. But that quickly drops to 6 percent of those who actually make plans to do so. And then out of that 6 percent, only 3 percent actually make preparations to go. So about less than 5 percent of people who say they want to migrate actually prepare to do so. That tells us two significant things. First, even though people want to leave, they don’t have the means to do so. Or they have many reasons for why they should stay. Second—and this varies by country—people don’t want to leave behind family or their community. So there are other issues, external issues outside their household, that affect their decision-making process. Things like violence and security, climate change, and, of course, economic factors. But if you just take a broad look at it, 43 percent seems like a high number. But after you go to actually making plans, it’s only 6 percent, and then from there only 3 percent actually leave. So the desire does not reflect what people actually do.
And so, for those people who do leave, what are their main reasons for migrating?
Overwhelmingly 92 percent of respondents said it was for economic reasons, including a better salary and better working conditions due to unemployment and a lack of money to buy food, or to cover other basic needs, including housing, health, education, and utilities. So we clumped all those different categories together in the 92 percent. But because of the way the survey question was designed, there are likely a number of people who said economics, when in fact there are clearly other factors at work. For example, they lost a job because of corruption, or they can’t run their business because they have to pay a monthly fee to a gang, or they don’t have a stable farming occupation because of climate change. In the survey we talked to a lot of farmers who said that if they had a choice to make their harvests profitable, they would not have migrated, but because of climate change, the dry corridor has become increasingly drier. And then when it does rain, there’s so much erosion that, you know, there’s landslides. So because of the way the questions were phrased, migrants, or people who wanted to migrate, may have pointed to economic conditions that result from other important factors, like climate change, insecurity, and violence.
El Salvador has converted its currency to Bitcoin. Has that had any impact on migration? Or is it still too early to tell?
Well, this survey was conducted before the change was made. But El Salvador was unique among the three countries, because we found that it had the highest perceptions of satisfaction with the economy. At least 55 percent of El Salvador respondents said that economically, they perceive things as having stayed relatively the same over the last couple of years. And 15 percent said things were getting better. And then you of course have about 20 percent who said things were getting worse. In comparison, in Honduras, 41 percent of respondents said things were getting worse economically. For all the controversy internationally around President Bukele, he remains a popular president. Internally, the perception, at least when we surveyed in April 2021, was that the country was changing in a better way.
We see so many indigenous Guatemalans arriving in the U.S. For historical and cultural reasons, I would think that indigenous communities might not trust or open up to outsiders asking them questions. How representative is your survey of indigenous communities in Guatemala?
We tried our best to include departments and communities that have high numbers of indigenous people in Guatemala. I think the enumerators tried their best to build rapport with indigenous households. But you’re absolutely right. Even when researchers have tried their best, to be sensitive, to be attentive to the dynamics that are in play with indigenous households, there’s still a lot to be said about how representative things are for communities. And frankly a lot of the communities that may be hardest hit are the ones that are hardest to reach. At the same time, we feel pretty good about the survey, because we did include a lot of different indigenous community households.
Another surprising finding is that migration is happening at all income levels, from low-to high-income.
This was a very interesting finding. Economists have said that the people who can leave in higher numbers are those who have the most income to do so. And I absolutely think that’s true. Again, this is a snapshot in time. And this is during the pandemic, when there were different things in play. The key piece here is that the caravans have become a different means of mobility, making migration more affordable. It’s still not secure, of course, but it has increased access for migrants who otherwise would have been unable to afford to migrate.
With Title 42 in place and Remain in Mexico having been reinstated, ports of entry are essentially closed to legal migration and asylum seekers. I imagine this forces many people to hire smugglers and try to cross undocumented. In the report you note that migrants from the three countries spent an estimated $1.7 billion annually on traveling with smugglers. That’s a huge amount of money.
When things become more restrictive at the U.S.-Mexico border, it becomes more costly to migrate. We found that on average the cost of migrating with a smuggler was about US$7,500. That includes some transportation and food costs as well. So it’s not just the fees that go to the smuggler directly, but it’s still a significant amount of money. And if you compare it to the amount that it would cost to go through legal means (an estimated US$4,500), it’s a significant difference. That’s why we think there needs to be more options for migrants to migrate circularly and temporarily through legal means.
One solution you suggest is temporary employment visas, which people can use to come work in the United States, then return home.
One of the key things that we’ve tried to do with this report and previous ones is to elevate the importance of temporary and secure migration, not only to the United States but also to Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Now, I want to be very clear with this, that providing more visas for work in these countries will not, on its own, solve the problem of irregular migration. But even if we can just shift a fraction of the total number of people who migrate every year with a smuggler, we can make a significant dent.
What are some other solutions that could be implemented to help keep people at home?
First, we recommended that there be more targeted investment, working directly with communities at the municipal level on economic development projects. Time and time again, people have told us that they’re looking for entrepreneurial and workforce trainings that are consistently provided to communities where migration is occurring. Another is work and training programs for youth. Second, we have to address issues in populations that are early in the process of thinking about migrating. When you try to reach people already on the move, your strategies are not going to be as successful. You have to focus on younger kids, women, and those who may consider staying in the region if they are given significant protection mechanisms to work, and more stability or security in their workplaces.
Do you see the Biden administration moving toward any of these solutions?
Well, in May, Vice President Harris had some very promising conversations with Central America. Unfortunately, we haven’t really been able to see the results of this conversation just yet. In May, Harris called for establishing a partnership for Central America. And 12 U.S. companies were going to catalyze or stimulate development in the region, including Microsoft, MasterCard, Chobani, Duolingo, and a bunch of big companies that wanted to try to invest directly where it was needed the most in the region. I don’t know that we’ve seen the real outcomes of that effort yet other than some computer training and donations of some money.
In July the administration released its strategies for addressing the root causes of migration. And I think we have yet to see a lot of those pieces implemented. There have been a lot of vaccine donations, there’s been a lot more money, at least more than under the Trump administration, being channeled into Central America. But how these efforts are being evaluated and monitored is not as clear to me. And as our report notes, we cannot expect to solve migration with money and U.S. funds overnight. And the programs that we fund for the U.S. should be evaluated and monitored, not only because taxpayers deserve to know what their money is going for, but also because we can be more nimble in changing programs that don’t work.
Perhaps it’s still too early in the administration to see the outcomes of these strategies?
Frankly, I think the conversation around the caravans and with Haitian migration and everything on the U.S.-Mexico border diverged efforts and political focus from the U.S. side to address those issues. The problem is that there’s so much attention at the border that there’s very little breathing room to do anything else in the region. Especially when things that we do in the region are going to take years to address, and, you know, people in Washington, in Mexico City, and other parts of the region want solutions now. But having short-term results for a such a complicated, long-term issue is not set up to succeed. Especially regarding Central American migration, which is so complex.
So, the work on more meaningful, long-term policy changes is being hijacked by the politics of the day?
Well, the the politics of the border, yes. And the budget and everything else. So yes, there’s not a lot of breathing room for migration to be considered consistently, systematically, and intelligently in the region. But then again, the recent summit was a pleasant surprise. At least, it’s good to see that Mexico, Canada, and the United States are again trying to do more together.
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