Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador: Conditions Improving, But More People Fleeing

Despite relative improvements, refugees continue to flee Central America for the U.S. Faced with widespread poverty and violence, migrants see no real choice but to make the long and dangerous journey north.

Central Americans are taking their families and fleeing their homes, leaving behind everything they know. They understand how dangerous the journey will be. They know how hard it will be to get into the United States. Therefore, it might seem reasonable to conclude then that the situation there has suddenly gotten much worse. It hasn’t. In fact, according to the most recent data, it is possible to see some good news from Central America. The number of murders has come down; poverty rates have dropped; economic inequality is lessening, at least in parts of the region; and economic growth is solid. So why are people still leaving in record numbers?

Progress in the Northern Triangle

The good news first. The best available data shows some undeniable progress in the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

Recent economic growth rates have been relatively solid. In Honduras the GDP (gross domestic product) has grown since at a strong annual rate of 3.7 percent since 1990. El Salvador’s GDP has increased by at least 2 percent a year for the past five years, not spectacular, but decent enough. Guatemala’s economy has done even better, earning the praise of the World Bank, which named Guatemala the “top performer” in all of Latin America.

Inequality, while still a problem in the region, is clearly coming down in El Salvador, for example. The Gini Coefficient (a measure of inequality with 0.0 being perfect equality and 1.0 being where one person has all the income) stood at 0.54 in 2000 (a very high level of inequality), but had fallen by 2017 to 0.34 (a rate significantly lower than that of the U.S.).

The best news is that the homicide rate in all three Northern Triangle countries has come down markedly. In El Salvador the murder rate has fallen from 103 in per 100,000 in population per year in 2015 (outside of active war zones, by far the highest rate in the world), to 51 in 2018. By mid-2019 El Salvador suffered the lowest monthly total of homicides in nearly three decades. In Honduras homicides fell from 87 per 100,000 in 2011, to 40 in 2018. In Guatemala the rate dropped from 29 in 2014, to 22 in 2018.

The problem is that these relative gains have not been enough to keep people from leaving. Indeed, many Northern Triangle families see no real choice but to embark on a costly and dangerous journey across foreign lands, all for a quite uncertain outcome.

Nation of Immigrants

In the United States today there are some forty-five million immigrants, people both with and without formal authorization to live here. The United States has the largest immigrant population of any nation in the world.

Immigrants in the United States today account for 14 percent of the total population; only in the 1890s did immigrants comprise a larger percentage of the total U.S. population. Still, many other countries today have larger share of immigrants. In Canada a fifth of the population are immigrants; in Australia a third are.

In the last decade America has seen a significant change in its pattern of immigration, especially with regard to unauthorized entries. Until recently Mexico sent nearly all of the unauthorized immigrants, but they have now all but stopped coming, sharply reducing the total number of apprehensions at the U.S. southwestern border. Whereas previously most U.S. border apprehensions were of single young Mexican males, today most of those detained come in family groups from Guatemala and Honduras, and to a lesser degree, from El Salvador. 

For fiscal year (FY) 2019 apprehensions at the southwestern United States border (U.S. border apprehension statistics are provided for fiscal, not calendar, years) reached over 100,000 a month, the highest level in 12 years. But until this recent spike, the number of apprehensions was actually trending downward. In FY 2017 total U.S. border apprehensions hit a 45 year low.

For Mexico, economic and demographic factors have come together to reduce out-migration. The U.S. economic recession of 2008, coupled with a fairly steadily growing Mexican economy, has kept more Mexican workers from emigrating. At the same time, slowing population growth has gradually reduced pressure on the Mexican labor market. These days return migration to Mexico exceeds immigration to the United States. 

Now more people are coming from the Northern Triangle. By FY 2018 Northern Triangle immigrants made up more than half of all U.S. border apprehensions, with Guatemalans and Hondurans accounting for most. Today there are at least three million people born in the Northern Triangle nations who live in the United States; in 2000 it was 1.5 million. More than half of these individuals are here in the United States without authorization


Of the three Northern Triangle nations Guatemala is the largest, both in size (42,000 square miles), and population (17 million), and is sending the biggest flow of migrants to the United States. Many factors have contributed to the exodus. One is the failure of Guatemala’s governmental institutions. Guatemala adopted a new constitution in 1985, but has made very limited progress in building democracy, with the leadership in each of the recent administrations implicated in serious corruption scandals.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015) resigned after being linked to a $65 million customs and tax fraud ring. He is in jail awaiting resolution of his case. Former president Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) is free on bail awaiting trial on his $35 million fraud case. Indictments for corruption have been secured against former president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) and former president Álvaro Arzú (1996-2000). Hoping for a change, in 2015 Guatemalans  elected President Jimmy Morales, running on an anti-corruption platform. A political newcomer, Morales was a former TV comedian, often appearing in blackface. President Morales is presently under investigation for accepting unlawful campaign contributions and taking illegal “bonus” payments from the military. In response, Morales shuttered the nation’s sole independent anti-corruption investigatory body, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala).

The Guatemalan congress is no better, preoccupied with passing laws to shield its members from accountability for their own acts of corruption and influence peddling (half the members of congress are under investigation). The congress is also devoting much energy to trying to protect the military from prosecution for human rights violations. Understandably, most Guatemalans seem to have lost interest in politics. 

El Salvador, a nation of 6.6 million people covering 8,100 square miles, is historically a land of profound economic inequalities and political exclusion. During the late nineteenth century coffee boom, rural people lost their farms, the arable cropland seized by a clique of wealthy families. Known in El Salvador as the catorce, the fourteen, this group owned much of everything and, with the military, long ran the nation.

Corruption has plagued recent Salvadoran politics. Accused former president Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) has fled the nation. Former president Tony Saca (2004-2009) pled guilty to embezzlement and is presently in prison. Former president Francisco Flores (1999-2004) was charged with stealing earthquake relief funds, but died in 2016 before his court case could be heard.

Honduras (9 million in population and covering 43,000 square miles) is a small nation long controlled by a powerful military that consistently did the bidding of the élite. Politics in Honduras has seldom been much more than empty contests over which traditional political party could win control of the government, tapping into the opportunities for corruption and influence peddling.

Hope for meaningful change emerged in the 2005 campaign, resulting in the election of reformer José Manuel Zelaya Rosales (2005-2009). However, the military, pressed by the two defeated traditional Honduran political parties, ousted President Zelaya in 2009, claiming that he was considering exploring a bid for reelection, something that was not at the time lawful in Honduras. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressured other nations not to coöperate with Zelaya’s efforts to be restored to his elected office.

Conservative Juan Orlando Hernández has served as Honduras’ president since 2014, modifying the constitution so that he could run for reelection in 2017. The Organization of American States rejected the fraud-marred results, calling for new elections. Nevertheless, in December 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Hernández as the victor. President Hernández stands accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions and of stealing the 2017 election. He has continued to try to shield family members and himself from additional charges of money laundering and weapons and drug smuggling.

A core issue in the Northern Triangle nations is the lack of functioning government services: staffing for bureaucratic offices, provisioning potable water and sanitation, or providing public health facilities. In the rural zones government has very little presence. The problem is revenue. The Northern Triangle nations have some of the lowest tax revenue to GDP ratios in the world. The developed nations of the world (the OECD–Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) average 34 percent tax revenue to GDP, but Honduras stands at 22.8 percent, El Salvador at 20.4 percent, and Guatemala is at the bottom for all Latin American nations, at 12.4 percent.


The Northern Triangle is a land of economic privation. Inequality remains a core issue. The Gini Coefficient numbers for Honduras (50) and Guatemala (49) rank among the worst in the world. Of all Latin America nations, Honduras has the most unequal income distribution.

A majority of the people in the Northern Triangle live in poverty. Guatemala is worst off, with six of ten residents living below the poverty line. One third of Guatemalan homes lack access to potable water. Half of Guatemalan infants under five years old are stunted in their growth due to chronic malnutrition. Most impacted are indigenous rural Guatemalans, where poverty rates soar to over 80 percent. The highlands produce the majority of the nation’s emigrants.

Moving to urban areas in Guatemala is not an attractive option. Most workers in the cities labor in the informal sector, paid in cash, without benefits, without job security. About one of every three families in Guatemala depend on remittances from relatives in the United States. Conditions are not getting better. Guatemala is the only nation in Latin America where the percentage of the population living in poverty has actually increased since 2000. 

Honduras, like its Northern Triangle neighbors, has traditionally served as an exporter of agricultural goods–coffee, sugar, and bananas–receiving in return industrial imports. However, over the last several decades some industry has come to the region, maquilas, textile and electronic assembly plants. Yet this has done little to improve overall economic conditions for ordinary people. In Honduras, two of every three people live in poverty.

The families of El Salvador do not do much better. One of six Salvadorans live in dirt floor homes. Fully one-third of Salvadorans are not educated past the third grade. Less than one of ten Salvadorans ever attends a class in college. Amongst the poorest fifth of the Salvadoran population, not even two in one hundred have any form of health insurance. 

An added regional concern is the growing impact of climate change. Rainfall is becoming increasingly irregular in the Northern Triangle’s “Dry Corridor,” the farming region which cuts through the heart of the region, comprising a fifth of Honduras, over a third of Guatemala, and more than half of El Salvador. Drought conditions began to reach crisis levels in 2014, sharply reducing corn and bean harvests. Around the same time waves of migrants began to leave the region.

Maras and Pandillas

People leaving Honduras and El Salvador usually point to gang-related violence as their leading motive for departing. Guatemalans, though chiefly motivated by economic privation, also increasingly mention the threat of violence as a cause for departing.

Gangs, or maras, number some 50,000 to 85,000 active members in the Northern Triangle region. Two maras dominate, the infamous Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13, (the name’s origins coming either from the words for guerillas and a fierce type of ant, or perhaps slang for a “vigilant” Salvadoran), and Barrio 18 (M-18, named for 18th Street in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, where they were first located). Both of these gangs formed in the 1960s in Los Angeles, California. Initially comprised of the children of immigrants from El Salvador, these gangs were created as defensive organizations to fend off predators from other nearby street gangs. By the mid-1990s U.S. authorities began to deport non-citizen gang members when they violated U.S. laws. Once in Central America, MS-13 and Barrio 18 members deepened their gang ties. A crime wave soon followed.

Most mara members are young urban males born into poverty. Maras recruit from among the unemployed. There are many: one in four Salvadorans aged 15 to 24 do not work and do not go to school.

Beyond the maras are the countless smaller groups of young violent criminals, pandillas. Both commonly gain their income through petty crime, especially extortion. The typical monthly quota imposed on small businesses is around $20, sums that place a serious burden on already hard-pressed families. Ordinary people in Hondurans hand over some $200 million to the maras every year. Salvadorans pay out double that. Seven of ten small businesses in El Salvador report that they must make monthly extortion payments to the maras and pandillas

In the decade from 2007 to 2017 the Northern Triangle nations suffered a total of over 150,000 murders. El Salvador still has one of the highest homicide rates on earth, the highest in Latin America, and ten times higher than the United States. The city of San Salvador remains especially dangerous, with a murder rate four times above the national average. Honduras is home to two of the most violent cities in the world, San Pedro Sula (homicide rate of 51) and Tegucigalpa (40). Guatemala City is even more violent, with a homicide rate of 53. By way of comparison, the most murder-prone city in Canada, Winnipeg, has an annual homicide rate of 3 per 100,000 residents.

A recent survey conducted by Doctors Without Borders of migrants-in-transit through Mexico, found that a third Guatemalans, over half of Hondurans, and nearly seven of ten Salvadorans never felt safe in their homes. Nearly half said that in the last two years they had at least one relative who was murdered; even more than half of Salvadorans reported that this was the case.

Violence against women is a particular danger. Husbands, boyfriends, fathers, too often treat spouses, partners, and daughters as subject to all male commands. Any deviance from obedience can be met with violence. 

It is wrong to assume, as some do, that fears over family safety will drop automatically when the homicide rate falls. However, a lower homicide rate might just mean that a mara war produced a winner, sorting out which one will be in charge of terrorizing and extorting money out of the neighborhood. Victorious gangs do not need to drop as many bodies; their threats are already credible enough. 

The Latin American Public Opinion Project found that nearly half of the people of the Northern Triangle continue to modify their daily behavior because of mara threats, for example, by not letting their children go outside to play. In El Salvador two-thirds of people expressed fear over riding public transportation. In the more violent urban neighborhoods of San Salvador, it is still seen as foolhardy to go out after dark. 

Worse, there is no reason for anyone to have any confidence in the police. Crime pays, as 95 percent of crimes in the region go unpunished. In Honduras, only one of ten homicides is ever even investigated. Many people report that they are more fearful of law enforcement officers than of gang members. In the neighborhoods where crime is the most extreme, the police seem to behave the worst, with law enforcement officials competing with gang members in extorting money out of the families that live in these communities.

The Hondurans and Salvadorans who come to the United States are usually parents traveling with their children. What commonly happens is that one or more of the family’s children has been a crime victim or has received a direct threat from a gang. This typically involves forced gang recruitment, either as a foot soldier for boys or as a sex slave for girls. In this context the family is compelled to decide which parent should take the child and leave, going at once. The goal is safety, trying to gain entry into the United States and meet up with a relative already there. 

All three Northern Triangle nations adopted mano dura (“hard-handed”) anti-crime policies beginning in the early 2000s, unleashing the police and military, encouraging them to pursue the gangs using any means at their disposal. Predictably, police and military forces launched indiscriminate attacks, with countless innocents killed in the assaults, followed soon after by the inevitable counter-attacks by the gangs.

But while the press often focuses on the latest mano dura raids, more prosaic factors best explain the long-term trend toward fewer homicides in the Northern Triangle. The cause is not get-tough policies, like locking up anyone with a tattoo. The cause of the change is primarily demographic. The gender and age cohort of people who commit the most violent crimes, the world over and across history, are young men. No other age/gender cohort comes close. When this demographic is over-represented in any nation’s population profile, there will be more murders. When this demographic cohort is under-represented, homicides fall. It happens everywhere, almost always. Take U.S. crime statistics for example. The portion of the U.S. population aged 20 to 44 fell from a peak of 40 percent in 1990 to 27 percent today. The U.S. violent crime rate peaked in 1990s and has been dropping ever since, falling to about one-quarter of its prior levels. 

Guatemala and Honduras have younger populations than does El Salvador and both still have higher comparative population growth rates than does El Salvador. El Salvador is in the midst of their demographic transition, with the birth rate falling every year, dropping from very high rates in the 1960s to very low rates now. The Salvadoran cohort of young men, 18-25 years old, is becoming a smaller portion of the population with each passing year. 

Honduras is moving in the same direction as El Salvador, but is not yet as far along in its demographic transition. In Honduras in 1990, 16.5 percent of the population was under ten years old. By 2017 the percentage of those under ten years old in Honduras had dropped to 10.1 percent. Meanwhile, the relative population proportion of elderly folks, people who nearly always lack the energy or enthusiasm to commit crimes, least of all violent ones, is increasing fast in El Salvador and nearly as fast in Honduras.

Demography has another role as well, impacting employment opportunities in the Northern Triangle. Those who leave Guatemala, like the majority of Northern Triangle emigres, are young men looking for work. The core issue is continuing demographic pressure. As of 2017, half of the Guatemalan population was aged 19 or younger. The Guatemalan economy is not creating nearly enough jobs, and too many young people join the workforce every year. As one departing Guatemalan put it, “here there is no work, but every day there are more young people.”

As population growth continues to slow and the population ages, there will be less crime, and less competition for jobs. Demography means that before long, migration from the Northern Triangle will slow down significantly. The current Northern Triangle refugee crisis that the United States is dealing with is therefore temporary.

Pull Factors

When people make the difficult decision to leave their homes, they are nearly always acting upon a mix of motives. For the recent Northern Triangle migrants, push factors (why people feel the need to leave where they are) are much more important than pull (being induced to go). Were it not for the push, they likely would not leave. 

A recent survey of migrants, conducted by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University, concluded that “the push factors of crime, violence, and flawed governments are far more powerful than any shifts in U.S. policy with respect to what happens to an individual upon arriving at the border.” Migrants are, moreover, “acutely aware” of the tougher U.S. immigration policies and enforcement practices. These findings, as researcher Wayne Cornelius has summed up, have been repeatedly confirmed in “thousands of face-to-face interviews” carried out “in long-term field research programs … using divergent research methodologies.” 

Pull factors only really come into force in determining where in the United States the migrant families will settle. People are, understandably, drawn toward the communities where family members and friends are already living. Eight of ten Guatemalans report that they have family living in the United States, nine of ten Hondurans, and 99 percent of Salvadorans. Pushed to leave, they are pulled toward relatives.

El norte

For those leaving the Northern Triangle, passing through Guatemala is always part of the journey. But just getting to the United States border is an extraordinary challenge. The greatest threats come in Mexico, where criminals and corrupt law enforcement officers prey upon migrants. Cruelty, crime, and death haunt this vast human migration. 

Some migrants hire human smugglers, coyotes, in the hope that they can route them around danger. Guatemalans especially, six of every ten migrants, employ coyotes. In the past several years, families traveling together from the Northern Triangle have come to the United States and then just turned themselves in to immigration authorities, requesting asylum. Hiring a coyote for this sort of journey is cheaper, costing anywhere from $6,000 to as low as $2,000. But even at this price, it may not be a good deal. Too many coyotes take the money but then betray their clients, abandoning them, holding them for ransom, sexually assaulting them, or selling them off to sex traffickers. 

Banding together into a caravan can make for a safer and more affordable journey. But while U.S. television images typically show caravan members walking, like most migrants they generally cross Mexico in buses, ride in small vans (informal colectivos), or else jump aboard cargo trains. President Trump has spoken much of what he perceives as invasions of immigrants coming in caravans, but traveling together in this manner is a decades-old phenomenon. Still, few migrants actually travel in caravans. Organizing group departures like this can take some doing, and caravan departures are infrequent. 

Mexico’s government has followed a longstanding policy of detention and deportation of unauthorized immigrants. Mexico has deported more unauthorized immigrants from the Northern Triangle than has the United States: from FY 2002 to FY 2017 Mexico deported 1.9 million unauthorized Northern Triangle immigrants, while the United States deported 1.1 million.

The Northern Triangle migrants do not plan on resettling permanently in Mexico. In 2016, for example, Mexico considered only 9,000 asylum applications from Northern Triangle immigrants, granting it to fewer than half. However, in FY 2019 Mexico saw a surge in requests, considering some 80,000 asylum applications. This rise is mostly explained by requests coming from migrants who have been bottled up along the U.S. border, hoping to press an asylum claim there. While they wait in Mexico, many are now seeking asylum there as a stopgap to deportation back to their home nation.

The Mexican asylum bureaucracy is tiny, hopelessly overwhelmed by the unprecedented crush of asylum requests to process and deny. In all events, Mexico is not an immigrant destination country. Immigrants make up less than one percent of the Mexican population, three-quarters of whom are American retirees. Mexico cannot be a destination for Northern Triangle migrants. It is far too dangerous for them.

Trouble in Mexico

About half of a million people from the Northern Triangle cross through Mexico on the way to the United States every year, up from 200,000 a year in 2013. Since as far back as 2002 both the United Nations and the Organization of American States have raising alarms regarding human rights abuses of migrants-in-transit across Mexico. An estimated one thousand people die each year en route to the United States while passing through Mexico.

Organized crime in Mexico, including Los Zetas, the Cártel del Golfo, and the Cártel de Sinaloa, claim ownership of the territory along the principal migrant routes, demanding payments from those who pass through. The cartels have brought every manner of cruel predations upon those who have fallen into their grasp.

Since 2012, Doctors Without Borders in Mexico has operated many shelters and health clinics for these migrants, and recently conducted a survey to better understand the challenges these people face. The information provided by the interviews is chilling. Seven of ten migrants who enter Mexico are victims of some form of violent attack, by gangs members or by Mexican law enforcement. Rape is common. Of the Northern Triangle migrants in Mexico interviewed, more than one in ten females reported having been raped while in Mexico, some attacked several times. More than four percent of the males migrants from the Northern Triangle nations reported that they had been raped in Mexico. Other surveys echo these concerns. Among Guatemalans who cross Mexico, six of every ten females reported that they had been subjected to some form of sexual assault. Many migrants see no choice but to exchange sex for food or shelter as they attempt to cross Mexico.

Some points in the journey have become so notorious for sexual assaults that migrants have posted hand-drawn maps on the internet to alert travelers to stay away. One such spot is the old granary, “La Arrocera,” just outside of Huixtla, not far from the border with Guatemala. Human rights workers there reported that eight of every ten women who sought refuge for the night at La Arrocera were subsequently sexually assaulted there. Nearly no one is ever punished for these crimes. Indeed, because the migrants-in-transit lack legal standing, they seldom even report the attacks.

Guatemala and Mexico seek to warn migrants of the dangers that lie ahead. The United States likewise spends millions each year to post signs and run ads on TV, radio, and on the internet, throughout the Northern Triangle, trying to warn people away from migrating. They keep coming anyway.


Most immigrants from the Northern Triangle apply for U.S. asylum, but the Trump administration has sought to make this much more difficult. The administration recently added the requirement that all U.S. asylum-seekers must have applied for and been rejected for asylum by all of the nations they passed through on the way to the United States. But of the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans who have left their country, less than 2,000 total have, over the years, resettled in Mexico as legally recognized refugees.

In the summer of 2019 Trump announced an accord with Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales, officially designating the nation a “third safe nation” where migrants must first seek asylum. This action triggered immediate lawsuits in the United States. Guatemalan legal analysts point out that this policy would need to be taken up and approved by the Guatemalan congress. The winning candidate in the Guatemalan 2019 presidential election, Alejandro Giammattei, denounced the accord with the Trump administration and promised to quash it.

Guatemala hosts nearly no permanent alien residents: immigrants make up 0.5 percent of the Guatemalan population, one of the lowest levels in the world. Guatemala’s underfunded, barely functioning bureaucracy is not equipped to handle asylum applications. In 2018 the tiny Guatemalan asylum office, sandwiched in a hard-to-find block adjacent to three strip clubs, had a total staff of eight. In 2018 these government employees successfully processed a total of 20 applications for asylum.

In September 2019 the Trump administration announced an accord with El Salvador, designating the nation as another “safe third country” for migrants. El Salvador has no government officials who work full-time on processing the paperwork for those seeking asylum because such applications for resettlement in this violence-plagued nation are rare. In October 2019, the Trump administration added a similar accord for Honduras.

President Trump announced in April 2019 that “our country is full.” “Turn around,” Trump advised. But Trump is mistaken. The U.S. economy needs immigrant workers. At the beginning of 2019, there were 7.6 million job openings in the United States, but just 6.5 million people looking for jobs. The biggest areas of U.S. economic need are the jobs that immigrants commonly fill: home health aides, restaurant workers, and hotel staff. Today unauthorized immigrants make up about 5 percent of the U.S. workforce. Undocumented workers account from a quarter of the maids working and half of the farm laborers in the United States. 

Some, in line with Trump’s opinions, hold to the belief that unauthorized immigrants are a drag on the U.S. economy, taking out more in services than they contribute in taxes, especially by crowding taxpayer-funded public schools. The facts will not support these claims. Some claim falsely that the unauthorized immigrants do not pay taxes. However, immigrants or course pay sales taxes in the 45 out of 50 states that have them. Unauthorized immigrants workers also pay $12 billion in state and local taxes every year. They contribute even more in federal income taxes, at least $24 billion each year. 

Undocumented workers who are on a company payroll have taxes and other deductions routinely taken from every paycheck, just like everyone else. Even undocumented workers who are self-employed or paid in cash are required by law to pay their taxes, and it seems that about half of them do this, at least according to the United States Internal Revenue Service. They do this because they reason that if regulations later change and citizenship becomes possible for people like them, then they would need to be able to prove that they have been law-abiding. They understand that not paying their taxes is a crime.

There are other large contributions made by the undocumented immigrants. Nearly all are so poorly compensated that they would be eligible to file for the Earned Income Tax Credit (in effect, a negative income tax, providing added income for workers and their families living in poverty). However, unauthorized immigrants almost never file for this benefit, chiefly out of fear of coming to the attention of authorities and being deported. Another very important contribution made by undocumented workers comes in the payroll deductions taken for Social Security. They pay in with every paycheck, but nearly no unauthorized immigrant has ever filed for this benefit. All told, unauthorized immigrants have paid some $240 billion into the Social Security program over the years. Undocumented workers pay in around $13 billion into Social Security every year, with an additional $3 billion dropped into the Medicare program annually, helping keep both program afloat. 

Toward Solutions

The present system of holding immigrants in detention awaiting an immigration asylum hearing is costly, an outlay of over $300 per day for each detainee. Supervised release is much more cost effective, at $38 a day. Pilot programs for supervised release show that 99 percent of asylum-seekers managed in this way showed up for their immigration hearing. Supervised release for asylum-seekers is a more rational approach. It is not cruel, and it is much more affordable.

Granting Temporary Protected Status to those arriving from the Northern Triangle would offer the swiftest solution for ending the crisis situation on the U.S. southwestern border. As the law is presently written, Temporary Protected Status can be appropriately granted, as the Congressional Research Services has put it, to those fleeing “extraordinary and temporary conditions in a foreign state that prevent its nationals from safely returning.” This would certainly apply to the Northern Triangle refugees.

The present immigration crisis will not last forever. Demographic forces will tell in the long run. Departures from El Salvador are already slowing as the population turns grayer, and Honduras and Guatemala will not be long behind. Even more, the population of these three countries is just not large enough to produce many more waves of immigrants.

A wise and humane policy for guest workers, focused on areas of employment needs and with assurances of fair pay and safe working conditions, would be vastly better than the present system that encourages the exploitation of desperate and highly vulnerable people. The U.S. economy may need immigrant workers, but it does not need unfairly treated immigrant workers.

Despite the many cruelties of the present crisis, there are yet many acts of great kindness, demonstrations of empathy, and at times some reason for hope — people tossing up apples and bottles of water to the migrants riding the trains through Mexico, or those who volunteer their time and expertise to translate for migrants and help explain the complexities of applying for legal authorization to stay in the United States. 

Too much of the political dialogue in the United States today about these matters is poisoned by fear, racism, and fixed views that seize upon negative anecdotal examples as illustrative of the whole. It is time to consider the best available evidence and to construct policies that demonstrate America’s wisdom and compassion.