Central American Migration Crisis

Credit: IOM / Rafael Rodríguez


Since the 1960s, Central America has experienced continuous waves of emigration as a result of multiple civil wars, extreme violence at the hands of organized crime groups, and environmental disasters, as well as an atmosphere of general civil, political, and economic instability created by both the governments of the region and foreign intervention. Because of increasingly hostile attitudes toward Central Americans in Mexico and the United States, migrants and asylum seekers are often forced to live in inhumane conditions only to be deported back to their home countries. Many cannot travel elsewhere, as the journey southward to countries like Brazil, Chile, and Argentina is often long and expensive. In addition, these countries, as well as closer ones like Colombia and Peru, are already struggling to accommodate refugees from Venezuela.

Current Situation

Recent bilateral agreements between the US, Mexico, and Northern Triangle governments have added intense walls of bureaucracy to already-convoluted immigration systems. The Trump administration has entered appeals over the striking down of its unprecedented “Safe Third Country” asylum agreements by a federal judge, leaving the fates of asylum seekers coming from Central America effectively in limbo. As both Mexican and American border patrol agents continue to detain and imprison migrants (including unaccompanied minors and family separation), many criticize President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for making Mexico into the border wall Donald Trump vowed to build.

Classification: Mass Forced Migration Event





Key Actors

Where: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, the United States

Population: 6.4 million (El Salvador), 16.6 million (Guatemala), 9.7 million (Honduras), 6.5 million (Nicaragua) (2019)

Total Yearly Emigrants: 257,000 (2019)

Net Migration Rate (per 1,000 people): -4.8 (El Salvador), -1.7 (Guatemala), -1.4 (Honduras), -2.4 (Nicaragua) (2020)

Poverty Rate: 29.2% (El Salvador – 2017), 59.3% (Guatemala – 2014), 48.3% (Honduras – 2018), 24.9% (Nicaragua – 2016)

Homicide Rate (per 100,000 people): 52 (El Salvador – 2018), 22.5 (Guatemala – 2018), 38.9 (Honduras – 2018), 7.2 (Nicaragua – 2016)

Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, immigration policy in the US has gone through a period of rapid securitization, especially toward migrants coming from Latin America. Border detainments have steadily increased throughout the years, and the Trump administration in particular has made Central American migration a particular target of vitriol.

The buffer state between Central America and the United States. For the most part, its immigration policy toward Central Americans tends to follow American policy even when relations between the two countries are not in a good place. Since the election of American President Donald Trump, Mexico has greatly increased the militarization of its southern border and increased institutional hostility toward migrants and asylum seekers.

Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador collectively, grouped together because they have a long shared history and experience similar problems. All are governed by unstable semi-democratic rightist governments who have been eager to increase bilateral relations with the United States. In addition to this, all suffer under extreme levels of violence related to both organized crime and powerful state security forces.

A country that borders the Northern Triangle that experiences similar levels of emigration. Unlike Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, much of the migration is fueled not by violence, but by extreme poverty. By comprehensive estimates, it is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and the poorest in the Spanish-speaking world. Governed by socialist President Daniel Ortega, a relic of the Sandinista Revolution and old adversary of the US.

The violence and impunity left by 20th century civil wars combined with thriving informal economies and relative underdevelopment has created an ideal environment for organized crime to thrive. Close proximity to hotspots in Colombia, Mexico, and the Caribbean have left the region extremely vulnerable to trafficking-related violence. This is exacerbated by increasingly more powerful military and police forces, and is perhaps the most significant driver of emigration from the Northern Triangle in recent years.

The UN Refugee Agency has been a major player in Central American migration, not only in advocacy and aid work, but also in documenting much of the cross-border information that governments often disagree on through its Refugee Population Statistics Database, in addition to consultation data from governments, independent NGOs, and the World Bank Group.


A period of extreme turmoil and civil war, setting the events in motion that would make Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras modern emigration hubs. In Nicaragua, the 1979 Sandinista Revolution would prompt a US-backed counterrevolutionary civil war that would last until 1990. The Salvadoran Civil War would last from 1979 to 1992, resulting in almost 10,000 forced disappearances and nearly 100,000 dead. Next door, the Guatemalan Civil War was fought from 1962 to 1996 and is characterized by the genocide of hundreds of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans. In Honduras, fears of civil war spreading from surrounding countries would lead the government to kill and disappear leftists throughout the country. This violence, as well as the region’s relative economic underdevelopment, would create the opportunity for the growth of organized crime, further worsening the conditions forcing people to migrate elsewhere.

Hurricane Mitch makes landfall in Honduras, killing approximately 7,000 people and causing over $3.5 billion in property damage, representing a 70% loss in Honduran GDP. Though it never hits Nicaragua directly, it causes massive landslides and flooding, killing almost 4,000 people and causing approximately $1 billion in property damage. The hurricane prompts the US government to grant Hondurans and Nicaraguans Temporary Protected Status.

The Clinton administration grants Hondurans and Nicaraguans TPS based in the devastation of Hurricane Mitch. To be eligible, they must have been living in the US since December of 1998.

Nearly a thousand people are killed in a 7.6 earthquake, with several hundred thousand houses damaged and destroyed. Huge aftershock quakes continue throughout the rest of January and February, furthering the initial damage.

Prompted by the destruction caused by a series of earthquakes, the administration of George W. Bush grants Salvadorans TPS.

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) first introduce the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would grant temporary residency and work permits to undocumented migrants who were brought to the US as children, facilitating a path to permanent residency. The bill does not pass, but has since been reintroduced several times.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is deposed and sent into exile in a joint effort by the military and Supreme Court. The interim government installs a climate of extreme violence and impunity, detaining members of the Zelaya government, journalists, and foreign diplomats. It drastically increases the amount of people fleeing Honduras.

Hurricane Ida makes landfall in Nicaragua, causing several million dollars in damages and leaving over 40,000 people homeless. Landslides occur throughout the region, leaving over 10,000 people in need of aid and causing over $200 million in property damage in El Salvador alone.

President Barack Obama announces the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy which allows undocumented migrants who were brought to the United States as children to remain and work for two years without deportation, though it does not provide a path to citizenship.

The Food and Agricultural Organization, a subsidiary of the United Nations, declares the current drought in Central America’s Dry Corridor one of the worst droughts of the past decade, with over 3 million people in need of aid. Repeated droughts have drastically decreased food accessibility in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and have exacerbated the need to migrate.

The Trump administrations announces that it plans to phase out DACA, prompting lawsuits from several states under the Administrative Procedure Act.

In their Fiscal Year 2017 Sector Profile, US Border Patrol provides data showing that the number of Guatemalan migrants at the US-Mexico border has surpassed the number of Salvadorans for the first time.

The 2018 Global Hunger Index names Guatemala and Honduras as the countries with the second and third worsts hunger levels in Central America and the Caribbean.

Partially organized by Honduran Congressman Bartolo Fuentes and inspired by the immigrant rights organization Pueblos Sin Fronteras, approximately 160 migrants from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador begin their journey northward from the city of San Pedro Sula. American Vice President Mike Pence urges these governments to encourage their citizens to return.

Once in Guatemala, the group begins to shrink. Many, including Bartolo Fuentes, are captured and deported back to their respective countries. President Trump threatens to close the US-Mexico border and send in the military, additionally threatening to cut off foreign aid to the Northern Triangle should they allow their citizens to continue migrating. The same day, Mexico sends Federal Police to their border with Guatemala.

In response to the progress of the migrant caravan – now totaling around 5,000 people – into Mexico, President Donald Trump orders the State Department to slash millions of dollars in aid to Central America and one again threatens to close the US-Mexico border.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announces the “Estás en tu casa” (“You Are Home”) program, which would allow migrants granted refugee status temporary work permits, IDs, housing, and education as long as they remain in the southern states of Oaxaca or Chiapas.

Published by Bündnis Entwicklung Hilft and the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict, the 2018 World Risk Report names Guatemala and El Salvador within the top 15 countries most at risk to natural disasters at #7 and #14 respectively.

Three days before President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador is set to take office, American Border Patrol agents temporarily close the border and fire tear gas into Mexico, aimed at crowds of migrants as they march peacefully. This is a violation of international law.

American Border Patrol agents fire into a crowd of people, including teenagers and young children, standing on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border. Dozens, including several of these teenagers, are detained. It reignites debate over American violations of international law.

The Department of Homeland Security announces the Migrant Protection Protocols, known colloquially as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. It allows American border officials to relegate non-Mexican asylum seekers to locations within Mexico while their cases are judged in court. This is in direct conflict with international law, as it is generally understood that crossing a border for the purpose of seeking asylum is not illegal.

American President Donald Trump tells reporters that, should Mexico continue to fail to control the amount of asylum seekers reaching the US-Mexico border, the border will be closed. He announces that he has instructed the State Department to cut off all foreign aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras as a punishment for Central American migrant caravans.

Photos surface of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter Angie Valeria, natives of El Salvador, after they drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. The photos quickly spread through social media, leading many to scrutinize Customs and Border Patrol’s policy of “metering,” wherein asylum seekers are forced onto a waitlist instead of being allowed to apply for asylum once they reach the border. CBP recorded nearly 300 deaths in the fiscal year 2018, nearly 100 of which occurred in the Rio Grande Valley.

DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan tells reporters that the United States has signed an asylum agreement with the Guatemalan Interior Ministry that would require asylum seekers who pass through Guatemala to first apply for asylum there before they reach the US. Should they fail to do so, the agreement dictates that they will be returned to Guatemala regardless of nationality.

The American Supreme Court rules that a Trump-era rule barring migrants who have passed through other countries before coming to the US from applying for asylum can be temporarily enforced by the administration. The rule effectively invalidates asylum seekers from anywhere other than Mexico.

In a similar vein to the agreement with Guatemala, DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan announces an asylum agreement with El Salvador that would require seekers to apply for asylum there before applying in the US.

In a joint declaration, Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli announce the extension of the validity of work permits for Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status until 4 January 2021. After this date, Salvadorans with TPS will have one year to return to El Salvador.

Like Salvadorans, Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants living in the US with TPS will now be allowed to remain until 4 January 2021.

In line with the US-Guatemala “Safe Third Country” Agreement, Customs and Border Patrol begins chartering flights of Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers from the US-Mexico border to Guatemala. Many are allegedly coerced by border agents without knowledge of the plane’s destination.

At the orders of the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Disease Control is directed to issue an order to effectively close US-Mexico and US-Canada borders for 30 days. It is justified as a public health measure, arguing that migrants could be “vectors” for the coronavirus.

The US Department of Health and Human Services extends its initial 30-day border shutdown for another 30 days and rules that the order can be renewed indefinitely.

Similar to those with El Salvador and Guatemala, the Trump administration publishes an agreement originally signed in September of 2019 that would force asylum seekers passing through Honduras to apply there before applying in the US.

US District Judge Timothy J. Kelly rules that the Trump administration failed to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act and demonstrate public interest with its policy barring asylum seekers who have passed through other countries before coming to the US.

The Guatemalan government announces that, since April, out of the total 4,392 deportees, the US has deported 127 who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and have since recovered.