Immigrants face insurmountable challenges as they attempt to reach the “land of the free.” (Hudson Fox)
Immigrants face insurmountable challenges as they attempt to reach the “land of the free.”

Hudson Fox

The changing dynamic of Central American migration to the US

January 20, 2021

There has been a significant population of Latinos in the U.S. since the 1848 annexation of Northern Mexico, which occurred as part of an agreement made after the Mexican-American War. In recent decades, the Latino population has grown rapidly as a result of immigration from Mexico and Central America caused by migrants fleeing from rampant violence, a flourishing drug trade, and years of drought and crop failure that have caused extreme food insecurity. Due to this significant inflow of migrants, Latinos surpassed African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group, and in states such as California and New Mexico, Latinos have become the single largest ethnic group, even larger than non-Hispanic whites. The immigration of Latin Americans has bolstered the American workforce and established Latinos as a fundamental pillar of America’s diverse population, accounting for an estimated 18.5% of the U.S. population

The increase in the population of U.S. immigrants originating from the Northern Triangle — the region consisting of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — has heavily contributed to the boom in the Latino population. During America’s recovery from the Great Recession, burgeoning numbers of documented and undocumented immigrants from the Northern Triangle made their way to the U.S. The number of immigrants in the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased by 25% from 2007 to 2015, in contrast to a decline from neighboring Mexico. More significantly, the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries has increased ten-fold between 2011 and 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Of the 3 million Northern Triangle immigrants living in the U.S. as of 2015, 55% were unauthorized; by comparison, 24% of all U.S. immigrants were unauthorized, according to Pew Research Center estimates. This stark difference between Northern Triangle immigrants and other immigrants will likely grow if the conditions in these countries continue to deteriorate due to violence and economic and political instability.

The impact of the Trump administration

In the past four years, dangerous and inflammatory rhetoric towards immigrants has become a defining characteristic of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

At a conference on Northern Triangle issues in 2017, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke of “vicious gangs and vast criminal organizations that drive illegal immigration and carry illegal drugs northward on their journey to the United States.” Pence demonized illegal immigrants by associating them with the cartels and gangs that control the Northern Triangle. This description of Latino immigrants has been propagated by Trump since his campaign for president began.

Professor Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law and the director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco, said, “It’s very clear that Trump is anti-Latino. In his first speech in 2015, he accused Mexico of sending ‘criminal rapists’ into the United States. From the very beginning, [Trump] espoused a very anti-Mexican tone, and then a few years ago, when caravans of migrants fleeing Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were arriving at the border, [Trump] labeled them as national security risks, as terrorists, before even considering why people are leaving.”

The Trump administration’s anti-Latino ideology has caused major changes in immigration policy, which have hindered the ability of the Northern Triangle immigrants to enter the U.S. Lisa Weissman-Ward, a lecturer in law and a supervising attorney with the Stanford Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, explained these changes and the challenges that the new policies present. 

“[Policy changes] range from seemingly innocuous things, like the government have policy changes about not being able to leave any blank spaces on immigration forms and rejecting immigration forms [as a result of blank spaces], to much more obvious and problematic positions like setting up a metering system at the Mexico-U.S. border by which asylum seekers were not permitted to enter the United States and claim asylum in the United States. Rather, they were forced to remain in Mexico and travel to the United States for hours at a time to appear before a court,” Weissman-Ward said. 

By not providing immigrants with a clear path to citizenship or asylum, U.S. immigration agencies have disadvantaged immigrants. Furthermore, policy changes during the Trump administration have fundamentally altered the basis of the U.S. asylum system, revising policies that have been the accepted standard for decades. 

“The [Trump] administration, mostly through agency decisions, has really worked to undermine what are the foundations and the basis of asylum law, which is rooted in international norms,” Weissman-Ward said. 

The combination of policy changes and anti-Latino rhetoric espoused by Trump built a foreboding barrier against immigrants from Northern Triangle countries, but these immigrants and asylum seekers continue traveling to the U.S. border, undaunted.

Human trafficking

Throughout Mexico, immigrant children face the threat of being captured by human traffickers who prey on vulnerable targets, such as unaccompanied minors.

"Human Trafficking is a Global Problem" / Steven Depolo / Hungry Kids / CC BY 3.0

Throughout Mexico, immigrant children face the threat of being captured by human traffickers who prey on vulnerable targets, such as unaccompanied minors.

Not only do immigrants face threats from immigration officials and the military, but human trafficking in Mexico poses an existential threat to migrants originating from the Northern Triangle. The vast majority of migrants and foreign victims of forced labor and sex trafficking in Mexico are from Central and South America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela, according to the U.S. Department of State. In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico — located across the U.S.-Mexico border from Laredo, Texas — almost 80% of migrants treated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (also known as Doctors Without Borders) in the first nine months of 2019 said they had been victims of violence, including human trafficking, according to Reuters.


Crime rates and poverty

In a ruthless, never-ending cycle of violence and extortion, cartels’ actions have destabilized the whole of Central America, especially the countries in the Northern Triangle that face a frightening reality. 

For example, they consistently rank among the top 10 countries with the highest murder rates.

In 2011, Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate – 83.8 homicides per 100,000 residents that year. That same year, El Salvador had a slightly lower homicide rate of 70.4, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, while Guatemala’s murder rate stood at 38. By 2016, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate (83 per 100,000 people), Honduras’ was 55.6, and Guatemala’s was 27.3. In comparison, the U.S. had a homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000 people in 2011 and a rate of 5.4 per 100,000 in 2016.

The astonishing rate of murder does not go unnoticed in the local communities. Residents are painfully aware of the violence and the challenges presented by the increased cartel and gang activity. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey in El Salvador found that a bulk of people living there – 90% or more – said crime, illegal drugs, and gang violence were major problems in their country. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they were afraid to walk alone at night within a kilometer of their home.

Not only do Northern Triangle residents have to contend with increased rates of violence, but the pervasive economic instability and high rates of poverty present in their countries contribute to their indigent state. Northern Triangle nations are among the poorest in Latin America. According to the latest data available from the World Bank, 24.4% of Guatemalans (2014), 30.6% of Hondurans (2018), and 7.9% of Salvadorans (2018) lived with an income of less than $3.20 per day.

In October 2018, the International Organization for Migration conducted a survey of a “caravan” of Salvadoran migrants who had banded together to make the journey north. It found that nearly 52% identified economic opportunity as their rationale for leaving the region, 18% cited violence and insecurity, 2% cited family reunification, and 28% cited a combination of those factors. Although reasons for immigration differ by individual, challenging socio-economic and security conditions — intensified by natural disasters and inadequate governance — seem to be the most significant drivers of the current migration flow.


The flow of immigrants from the Northern Triangle countries has contributed significantly to the number of asylum filings in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2019, Northern Triangle immigrants made up 21.9% of all affirmative asylum cases, in which immigrants seek asylum before they are involved in deportation proceedings, but only made up 8.9% of immigrants granted affirmative asylum. In 2015, during the Obama administration, Northern Triangle immigrants made up 24.8% of affirmative asylum applications and 26.1% of immigrants granted affirmative asylum.

Weissman-Ward explained the trend, “One of the things that we have seen over the last four years is a change in agency decisions that relate to the types of asylum cases that were granted fairly routinely, and those cases are now being denied.”

For many experts, the rate of denial of asylum for Northern Triangle immigrants raises the concern of systemic bias. Weissman-Ward notes that dramatic changes in agency decision-making have occurred in the past four years during Trump’s presidency. 

In applying for asylum, immigrants are forced to endure a lengthy process, in which they must validate their need for asylum or face potential deportation. Hing highlighted the challenges faced by immigrants who are tasked with demonstrating their need for asylum and substantiating their personal stories. 

Hing said, “Their credibility is critical. A major challenge is proving their story in front of immigration judges who are very biased against granting asylum. The Trump administration has appointed immigration judges who have over 90% denial rates for asylum seekers. The cards are stacked against [asylum seekers].” 

Not only are immigrants from the Northern Triangle faced with the daunting task of reaching the U.S., but once they reach it, the current asylum system approves their asylee status at a 23% lower rate than the asylum system under the prior administration, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Complicating the problems that pervade the asylum and immigration systems are the massive numbers of unaccompanied children, mainly originating from the Northern Triangle, which accounted for an astounding 92% of all unaccompanied child asylum applications in 2019 and made up the majority (52%) of affirmative asylum applications from these three countries, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Annual Flow Report September 2020 – Refugees and Asylees: 2019. High denial rates for asylum seekers have disproportionately affected unaccompanied Northern Triangle child immigrants.

The threat of deportation


"ICE's Removal of Honduran Nationals" / Carl Juste / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early morning, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents search Honduran nationals prior to boarding a flight for Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

In spite of difficult conditions, the U.S. government and affiliated agencies continue to deport Northern Triangle immigrants or deny their pleas for asylum. Knowingly deporting Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans to their home countries, where many of them face the threat of lethal violence, is a violation of the U.S. government’s policy of protecting immigrants from a serious risk of harm. According to Human Rights Watch, there are 138 identifiable cases of Salvadorans killed since 2013 after deportation from the U.S. In many of these cases, Human Rights Watch was able to establish a strong link between the subject’s recent deportation from the U.S. and their ensuing death. Hing summed up the U.S. government’s policy of deporting Northern Triangle immigrants back to their country of origin.

“[The United States] is deporting people to their death on a regular basis,” Hing said.

A 2018 study published in the Latin America Research Review found that Hondurans’ “views of the dangers of migration to the U.S., or the likelihood of deportation, do not seem to influence their emigration plans in any meaningful way.” Those immigrants seeking greater economic prosperity, safer living conditions, and distance from the cartel violence that plagues their communities will often leave behind all of their belongings and community ties in an effort to reach the U.S. Hing, who noted similar motivations for Northern Triangle residents immigrating to the U.S. as those outlined by the International Organization for Migration’s 2018 survey, described how immigrants are not put off by the recent policies implemented by the Trump administration. 

Hing said, “The majority are not discouraged, they still are desperate. That’s why there are tens of thousands of migrants waiting on the Mexico side of the Mexico-U.S. border, waiting to be processed.” 

Positive views of the US

The practice of deporting immigrants back to a country where they face increased threats of violence is harming Northern Triangle immigrants.

Nevertheless, residents of the Northern Triangle generally have a positive view of the U.S. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 79% of Salvadorans interviewed said they had a favorable opinion of the U.S., and 64% said that they knew that life in the U.S. was better for people who moved there. These positive views may come from the stories told by immigrants to the U.S., but due to the adversarial nature of the Trump administration, these opinions may have been affected negatively in recent years.

The theme of opportunity is one that is stressed heavily in the motivations behind immigration to the U.S. In the eyes of many immigrants, economic prosperity in the U.S. is an achievable goal.

Most importantly, the economic success of migrants has translated into valuable remittances sent from the U.S. to Northern Triangle countries. The flow of money from the U.S. to the Northern Triangle is substantial: in 2017, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras were among the top 10 estimated remittance-receiving nations from the U.S., according to a Pew Research Center analysis. U.S. remittances constituted 10.2% of Guatemala’s gross domestic product (GDP), 18.5% of El Salvador’s GDP, and 16.3% of Honduras’ GDP in 2017. In disadvantaged countries where millions live in poverty, receiving monthly or yearly funds from a loved one is not uncommon.  

The reality of a significant flow of money from the  U.S. to the Northern Triangle likely is the primary cause of these favorable opinions. According to the aforementioned 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center,  67% of Salvadorans have family members or friends in the U.S. Those same respondents reported that 84% of their connections in the U.S. have achieved their dreams. 

Sense of fear

By adopting new policies that hinder immigration, the U.S. immigration system and its affiliated law enforcement agencies, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have become vehicles for the aggressive prosecution of immigrants. As a result, a sense of fear permeates many Latino immigrant communities, and the frightened state of these communities has been exacerbated over the past few years.

“We’ve seen the Trump administration attempting to sow seeds of terror and panic in communities, with the goal being to force folks to go underground and to not be active and engaged and have a voice that they deserve,” Weissman-Ward said. 

That goal of frightening immigrants can have other effects. In cases where immigrants are growing more distrustful of the government, processes such as asylum can be complicated by a lack of willingness to seek legal aid or submit an application for asylum for fear that a simple application could have unintended legal consequences.

Hing said, “Everyone [in that community] knows someone who’s applying for asylum. Everyone who’s a part of that community is living and breathing that stress.” 

Local response

In communities across the country, organizations and local governments are working towards creating a more equitable approach to the U.S. immigration system. Efforts are underway at the local level to combat the widespread fear and the effects of Trump’s rhetoric. Jasmine Hartenstein, the immigrant services coordinator at the Office of Community Affairs for the County of San Mateo, described the local government’s response to the agitation felt among immigrants in the community. 

“In response to what’s happening at the federal level, [the County of San Mateo] has partnered with nonprofit organizations that are trusted within the community. We are making sure that our residents know that they have certain rights living here in the U.S., whether or not they have valid or legal status here. We’ve really tried to rely on our community partners to spread accurate information and share resources through community and faith-based organizations, which serve as places of safety for our community,” Hartenstein said.

Local immigration services, such as the International Institute of the Bay Area, continue to work with the County of San Mateo to provide the local immigrant community with accessible and free materials. Rosa Uriarte, an administrative assistant and citizenship program coordinator at the International Institute of the Bay Area, explained how local organizations are reaching out to the immigrant community.

Uriarte said, “One of our missions is to keep the community informed about the state of immigrant rights. Before the pandemic, we held conversations to guide immigrants through the legal process and advise them on what to do if ICE comes to your door. Now, we hold consultations over the phone to support the local immigrant community.”

Despite these efforts, the effects of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies will have a lasting impact on both immigrant communities and the public.

Weissman-Ward is concerned with the way that Trump has perpetuated a narrative of a good, hardworking, and legal immigrant versus an illegal immigrant, who Trump depicts as lazy and prone to violence. The potential impact on the immigrant communities and those supporting them could be detrimental to the mission of providing equal rights and aid to immigrants, regardless of their status.

Weissman-Ward said, “It’s a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as good or bad; pitting folks against each other is not helpful in terms of uplifting and organizing and ensuring that everyone is afforded the rights they are legally entitled to.” 

The next four years


"Joe Biden" / Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Many Latino immigrants hope that the new administration, headed by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, will bring about change in the immigration system.

The notion of agencies and organizations seeking to support immigrants is one that local officials have stressed as an important part of the nation’s transition into a new presidential administration. Looking forward to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s term in office, legal advocates and government officials expressed optimism and hope for an age of equitable and humane immigration policies. 

Despite this, officials and advocates acknowledge that change will take time. Hing highlighted the sense of fear in Latino immigrant communities that will be one of Trump’s legacies.

“The damage has been done, people have been deported, people are living in fear. That level of fear will not be eliminated overnight, even with the election of a new president,” Hing said. 

Hing expressed hope that Biden would follow in the footsteps of former U.S. President Barack Obama when it comes to how he deals with undocumented immigrants and deportation proceedings. 

“If you’re living peacefully, you’re not a priority. Hopefully, that message gets across to reduce the fear,” Hing said. 

Biden has clearly stated that Trump’s ideas were harmful to the immigrant community. Through his policies and rhetoric, Biden promises to work with Latino community leaders to underscore the major issues that face Latino immigrants and deal with those challenges directly and effectively. 

Biden said he’d work alongside Mexico and other regional partners in the early months of his administration “to build the regional and border infrastructure and capacity needed to facilitate a new orderly and humane approach to migration that will respect international norms regarding the treatment of asylum claims.”

In a transition statement, Biden said, “[Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and I] noted a shared desire to address the root causes of migration in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and southern Mexico and to build a future of greater opportunity and security for the region.”

Most importantly, Biden has vowed to end Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy that saw tens of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their applications were being processed and their court dates being set.

In terms of specific policy changes, Weissman-Ward emphasized a need for change in the treatment of immigrants who apply for asylum or who are detained at the border.

“I think we are really hoping that there’ll be changes to the detention system, and moving away from private immigration detention and mass incarceration of immigrants,” Weissman-Ward said.

By and large, the overall sentiment conveyed by local immigration advocates is a cautious hope for a better future for Latino immigrants. Given the system has shifted dramatically in the anti-immigrant direction the past four years, the involvement of community members and advocates pushing for policy changes will be paramount to significant policy change during the Biden administration. 

Hartenstein said, “There’s definitely more hope, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re going to continue to push for equitable policies to be implemented in our immigration system.”

While he did remain cautious in his expression of optimism, José*, a Bay Area high school student and recent immigrant from the Northern Triangle, conveyed a newfound hope in the next administration. 

José said, “I hope that all of this changes. I hope that more opportunities are given to Latino immigrants.” 

*In accordance with Carlmont High School’s Anonymous Sourcing Policy, the name of the anonymous subject has been changed to José to preserve their identity.

**The original interview with the anonymous source was conducted in Spanish. The author of this article translated the interview and had multiple outside sources verify the legitimacy and accuracy of the translation.

“The American dream: A journey to the land of opportunity” is the first part of this two-part feature article. To read the first part of this feature, click here.

About the Contributor
Photo of Hudson Fox
Hudson Fox, Scot Scoop Editor-in-Chief
Hudson Fox is a senior at Carlmont High School, and this is his third year in the journalism program. He is passionate about journalism because it provides him with an opportunity to inform the public and discuss momentous happenings and pressing topics. In his free time, he acts as the president of the Language Exchange Club, the vice chair of the San Mateo County Youth Commission, and participates in Carlmont's soccer program.

Twitter: @hudsonfox_

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