Charting a New Regional Course of Action: The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration

Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, Rossella Bottone, Jaret Waters, Sarah Williams, Ashley Louie, and Yuehan Wang
Date of Publication: 
November, 2021
Source Organization: 
Migration Policy Institute

Human smugglers in Central America make upwards of $1.7 billion per year—the bulk of the estimated $2.2 billion spent on migration costs in the region. Regular migration is significantly cheaper, so why do so many opt for a riskier and more expensive route? In the report “Charting a New Regional Course of Action: The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration,” published by a collaborative group of organizations, the authors explain the multiple factors that lead people to migrate, as well as the thinking behind the choice of migration methods. The report’s findings are drawn from a unique, face-to-face survey of nearly 5,000 households in 12 departments across three countries, complemented by a nationally representative online survey with more than 6,000 individual responses. Those appearing at the U.S. border are increasingly citizens of Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. People in these countries are strongly motivated to migrate to the U.S by food insecurity, ties with family who migrated earlier, and perceptions of local violence. Remittances sent to the Northern Triangle countries are usually used for subsistence, highlighting the pressure for many to seek employment abroad to support their families. Options for both regular and temporary immigration to the U.S. are limited and force many to choose irregular paths. The report recommends efforts to create legal migration pathways to reduce reliance on irregular migration and associated smuggling networks. Positive steps might include awarding more temporary employment visas, creating incentives and opportunities for Central American diasporas to invest in the development of local communities in their home countries, and tailoring economic development initiatives to local-level projects with robust monitoring mechanisms. Stronger communities that receive more investment not only from their expatriates in the U.S. but also from regional cooperation could better provide for residents and protect them from shocks that lead to a mass exodus. (Katelin Reger for The Immigrant Learning Center’s Public Education Institute) 


Bottone, R., Louie, A., Ruiz Soto, A.G., Wang, Y., Waters, J., & Williams, S. (2021, November). Charting a New Regional Course of Action: The Complex Motivations and Costs of Central American Migration. Migration Policy Institute.