Wall Street Journal
By Ben Leubsdorf
July 26, 2017
A wave of Central American children arriving at the U.S. border in recent years was driven by violent conditions at home as much or more than economic variables, according to a new study.
Economist Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development think tank in Washington, compared data on unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala taken into custody by the U.S. government with homicide figures for those countries. His analysis found one additional homicide per year over a six-year period resulted in 3.7 additional children caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
“The explanatory power of short-term increases in violence is roughly equal to the explanatory power of long-term economic characteristics like average income and poverty, and much greater than the explanatory power of short-term economic shocks like rises in overall unemployment,” Mr. Clemens wrote in a working paper expected to be released Thursday.
Mr. Clemens said many migrants are increasingly motivated to cross borders for a combination of economic and safety reasons. “What the Central American kids exemplify is a worldwide trend,” he said in an interview — people who are “clearly fleeing absolutely desperate circumstances” but fall into a “legal gray area” when it comes to immigration laws.
To enter the U.S. as refugees, for instance, people must face or fear persecution at home due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a specific social group. That would exclude people fleeing generalized violence, poverty or natural disasters, such as tens of thousands of Haitians who came to the U.S. following a devastating 2010 earthquake and could soon lose their protected status.
“This is more and more of international movement,” Mr. Clemens said.
The estimated number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. stopped rising and has been steady around 11 million since the end of the 2007-09 recession, a possible reflection of sluggish U.S. economic growth. High birth rates in Latin America may have created pressure from the 1980s onward for low-skilled workers to migrate to the U.S., a tailwind that has now faded.
Violent crime in Central America has been blamed for the surge in unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border this decade. Mr. Clemens in his paper analyzed data on nearly 179,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in 2011 through 2016, compared with homicide rates for their cities of birth, to conclude that rising violence corresponds with more migration.
The effects appear long-lived, implying “homicides can produce waves of migration that snowball over time, continuing to rise even when violence levels do not,” he wrote in the paper. Looking forward, he suggested that “sustained reduction in the pressure for child migration will require sustained reductions in homicide rates.”
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