Why Are Central American Migrants Entering Illegally? Part 1

Analyses err by focusing on the ‘push factors’

By Andrew R. Arthur on April 23, 2021

[Read Part 2.]

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) recently published an analysis of “Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border”, by a “CFR Expert”. Well, you can’t argue with expertise, but he fails to address any pull factors save two, and ignores loopholes in U.S. law that “experts” agree are “pull factors” encouraging illegal immigration. He’s not alone.

Briefly, immigration — legal and illegal — is influenced both by “push factors” that encourage foreign nationals to leave their countries and “pull factors” that encourage them to come here.

This is best thought of in terms of moving to another state. Your spouse takes a better job in North Carolina (for more money), so you move with her. There are push and pull factors in that scenario. The push factors are that you don’t want to live alone and pay for two residences and the pull factors are that North Carolina is where your spouse and a higher living standard will be.

The CFR article exclusively examines the push factors behind illegal immigration, beginning: “Economic precariousness, government corruption, crime, violence, and — increasingly — climate change are all driving migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”

“Driving migration” is a simple restatement of the phrase “pull factors”, but that’s not the stated premise of the analysis (again, “Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border”). That is like me saying I am moving to North Carolina because it is too expensive to live in Virginia without including (saliently) that my wife lives in the Tar Heel State.

The “CFR expert” does allude to pull factors, but only indirectly, asserting: “The [Trump] administration’s closure of the U.S. southern border and disruptions to the U.S. asylum system reduced cross-border migrant flows temporarily, but Trump’s policies failed to alleviate the pressures to migrate.”

Note that he never explains why exactly those actions “reduced cross-border migrant flows”. He also never explains how a “border closure” would reduce migrant flows of those entering illegally, given the fact that the border should be closed to them already.

I would first dispute the contention that Trump “closed the southern border”. As I explained in March 2020, the White House did announce that month that “it had reached a ‘mutual agreement’ with Mexico to restrict all ‘non-essential travel’ across the Southwest border” in response to the pandemic.

And the CDC did implement orders starting in March 2020 under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to expel migrants who entered illegally and without documents at the land borders and coastal ports of entry, again in response to the pandemic.

But millions of people crossed the Southwest border legally even after that “mutual agreement” was reached with Mexico and after those Title 42 orders were issued, according to the Department of Transportation — there were more than 1.5 million personal vehicle passengers at the Port of San Ysidro (Calif.) in December 2020 alone.

Note that even those who entered illegally were not all expelled under Title 42. In fact, while Border Patrol expelled almost 200,000 migrants it apprehended under Title 42 between March and September 2020, it processed more than 19,000 others under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) between April and September (I excluded March as those orders went into effect March 20).

Title 42 did “disrupt the U.S. asylum system” to some degree, but that does not explain why Central American migrants are arriving at the U.S. border now, because Title 42 continues to disrupt the U.S. asylum system, and yet apprehensions have still climbed even as an increasing number of migrants are expelled under Title 42.

For example, in February, Border Patrol apprehended more than 97,500 migrants at the Southwest border, and expelled almost 72,000 under Title 42.

Despite the “disruptions to the U.S. asylum system” from those tens of thousands of expulsions, Border Patrol apprehensions increased almost 72 percent the next month to more than 168,000. Title 42 expulsions increased, too, by 41 percent, to almost 102,000 in March, and yet migrants keep coming.

What all of this means is that if Title 42 and the Southwest border “closure” were factors that affected illegal entries, they were not significant, at least after Biden took office.

The big change that Biden did make was his reversal of Trump border initiatives, which did have a large effect on illegal entries.

The most significant of these was the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, or Remain in Mexico), under which aliens who were apprehended entering illegally or without proper documents and who made asylum claims were sent back across the border to await their hearings.

Note that MPP did not “disrupt the U.S. asylum system”, it simply prevented migrants from living in the United States until a decision was made on their asylum claim.

Those initiatives did “reduce cross-border migrant flows”, though, as Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border fell from almost 133,000 in May 2019 to just over 40,500 three months later.

Apprehensions were just under 30,100 in February 2020 (before the Title 42 restrictions took effect), and while they reached 69,162 in November, they did not really start to boom until Biden took over and reversed the Trump initiatives.

This was especially true in some key demographic groups. Border Patrol apprehended 4,248 migrants in “family units” (FMUs, adults travelling with children) in December, a number that increased threefold (to 19,286) in February before increasing an additional 174 percent in March (52,904).

Similarly, Border Patrol apprehended 4,853 unaccompanied alien children (UACs) in December (UAC apprehensions had remained below 5,000 a month since August 2019 before increasing slightly to 5,689 in January), a number that almost doubled to 9,271 in February, before doubling month-to-month in March (18,663).

Families and unaccompanied children are more difficult to detain, and more difficult to remove, than single adults. They are at the heart of the crisis at the Southwest border, and yet CFR’s expert treats their illegal entry and all others’ as inevitable by focusing solely on push factors (“pressures to migrate”).

I do not want to single him out, because the Biden administration is doing the same thing. On March 16, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas asserted:

Poverty, high levels of violence, and corruption in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries have propelled migration to our southwest border for years. The adverse conditions have continued to deteriorate. Two damaging hurricanes that hit Honduras and swept through the region made the living conditions there even worse, causing more children and families to flee.

That is a cop-out, because it allows the administration to avoid responsibility for the effect that its own actions have had in creating the border crisis.

Eliminating those Trump border policies made it easier for migrants to enter illegally, because they made it more likely that once they got here, they could be released to live here indefinitely. Biden’s own rhetoric on the campaign trail denouncing border enforcement under Trump played a role as well.

For example, the then-candidate stated on his campaign website that he would “End Trump’s detrimental asylum policies”, including MPP. That promise was a huge pull factor in and of itself, and once he started to do it, the pull just got stronger.

That Biden has been hoist on his own petard by these steps (he decried “Trump Administration’s policies”, which he claimed “have created a humanitarian disaster at our border and grossly mismanaged the unprecedented resources Congress has allocated for it”, for example) have been largely overlooked.

That said, I will cut the president a break — for now. Like the “CFR expert”, his administration appears to believe that illegal migration (particularly by unaccompanied children and families) is inevitable, and because both focus on rather intractable institutional “push factors” (poverty, crime, and corruption), they each conclude that the number of migrants is more or less set.

As noted, however, there is empirical evidence that two pull factors — Biden’s campaign rhetoric and reversal of Trump-era policies — are much more significant than those push factors in driving illegal migration.

Simply put, Biden said he would do things as president, and then did them — and the numbers skyrocketed.

In my next post, I will describe the “pull factors” that have driven migrants — and in particular unaccompanied children and families — to enter illegally in the past, and how those pull factors can be addressed.