Regional Security Means Border Security: New Data on Why Central American Children Flee to the United States


It is an exodus of children, fleeing alone, on a scale new to the modern world. They have been leaving Central America’s violent, impoverished “Northern Triangle” so massively that in just a few years, a full 10 percent of some age cohorts have left. They travel without their families, risking everything to reach the United States. “You’re stalked by gangs … there are no jobs for young people,” says one boy. “In El Salvador, there is a wrong: It’s being young.”

Understanding these children is a regional and national security issue. It is a regional security issue because the places these children flee — Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — are plagued by transnational drug networks and violent street gangs. It is a national security issue because many of the children rely on adult smugglers who are themselves linked to transnational organized crime. Military and civilian officials responsible for border and regional security understand these complex threats well.

To make these children and the whole region safer, we need to understand in detail what has been driving them to move. Washington has witnessed a noisy debate about the root causes of this child migration. Some attribute the migration primarily to the high poverty rates and low economic opportunity endemic to the Northern Triangle. Others attribute it primarily to violence in the region. Many U.S. administration officials find the drivers to be a complex mix of low employment and lack of viable economic opportunities on the one hand, and security issues such as gang violence and cartel activity on the other.

Most research on the root causes of this migration has used the direct approach: Researchers ask groups of these children why they are migrating. You learn a lot from talking directly with people about their stories, but the approach also has disadvantages. Interview subjects might craft their story strategically or omit certain contextual details. A child who says they are moving for job opportunities, for instance, might not mention that the reason employers aren’t opening businesses in their town is gang violence. Capturing all the ripple effects of violence, to better guide security policy, needs a complementary approach. A statistical approach can provide this.

My quantitative research shows that surges in the homicide rate there cause surges in child migration here. The case of child migrants shows how data-driven analysis, shared effectively between agencies equipped to process it, can create a fruitful connection between America’s foreign policy toward the Northern Triangle and its efforts to secure the southern border.

A New Study With Unprecedented Data

In a new study (summary here), I measured for the first time the statistical relationship between these children’s journeys and the violence and economic indicators in the local areas they came from. The study uses anonymized data not publicly available on all 178,825 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) from the Northern Triangle apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection between 2011 and 2016. UACs are defined as children under 18 who entered the United States unlawfully and without a parent or legal guardian. This research uses data on violence and economic indicators from 893 of the municipalities these children left over the same time period.

The numbers tell a story that is at once shocking and predictable.

First, the pure scale of this migration is something for the history books. If you count just the 17-year-olds apprehended in this six-year wave, it’s 53,287 children. That’s over eight percent of all the 17-year-olds in the entire Northern Triangle. And that only counts those who made it into the United States, not the estimated 40 percent of the children who leave the Northern Triangle but never reach our border, and the many children who make it into the country without being apprehended. No other region on earth has been witnessing a larger, faster exodus of its children traveling alone.

Second, violence is a major driver of this movement. The numbers show that every 10 additional homicides in the Northern Triangle — to say nothing of all the extortion and other crimes that go along with spikes in homicides — caused 6.2 additional UAC apprehensions in the United States. This is not just a correlation. My research uses advanced statistical methods to control for a wide array of factors that could cause both violence and migration in a given municipality. This includes controlling for differences between municipalities that don’t change over time (like geographic location or ethnic makeup), changes over time that affect the whole region (like U.S. immigration enforcement effort), and region-wide changes over time that systematically affect some municipalities more than others (like fluctuations in illicit narcotics prices).

Third, economic drivers matter too. One additional percentage point of average unemployment in the region of a Northern Triangle town was associated with eight more UAC apprehensions per 100,000 people in that town each year. Collectively, economic conditions like poverty back home explain roughly as much of the child migration flows as violence does. And there’s a complex interplay between violence and economic factors: It’s not that some children are exclusively fleeing violence and the rest are exclusively seeking economic opportunity. A gang massacre near their home could be what finally pushed a family to have their child make this perilous journey, even if they had always wanted better opportunity for that child. Sudden spikes in violence in a municipality explained more of the UAC migration from that area than did persistent violence. The opposite was true for the economic drivers: Municipalities with protractedly high unemployment saw greater UAC migration than those experiencing sudden rises in unemployment.

Finally, the numbers show that child migration “snowballs.” That is, once it gets going from a particular municipality, it creates momentum, and the migration continues and sometimes grows even after the fundamental causes shift. For the average municipality of the Northern Triangle, every two children who made the journey last year caused one more child to do it this year. This is part of the reason the region saw a quickly mounting wave of child migration in response to violence from 2011 to 2016, even though such violence long preceded the migration spike. The trip is so dangerous — if you have a child, imagine sending her or him to travel across Mexico with outlaw strangers — that many families would never consider it until they knew a close friend or relative who had made it.

Where Regional and National Security Policy Meet

These findings have a clear message for U.S. strategy in the Northern Triangle. Regional policies like the Central America Regional Security Initiative seek to reduce and prevent violence in the region by supporting a range of programs such as community policing and workforce programs for youth at risk from gang recruitment. To the extent that these efforts affect violent crime in the region — and there is some evidence of that — they measurably shape the amount and nature of unlawful migration and smuggling at the U.S. border. At that fence, a regional security issue becomes a homeland security issue. Government agencies charged with keeping Central America safe and those charged with keeping America safe have a shared interest in preventing violence in areas like the Northern Triangle.

In other words, investments in foreign policy to reduce violence in Central America are a direct complement to the enforcement efforts of the Department of Homeland Security at the border. The best possible back-of-the-envelope estimates imply that since fiscal year 2014, the federal government has spent roughly ten times as much on managing UAC arrivals in the United States as on violence prevention assistance in the Northern Triangle. Each UAC apprehension required a U.S. federal expenditure of at least $50,000 (separate from state and local expenditures). Avoiding one homicide per year in the Northern Triangle between 2011 and 2016 would have prevented approximately four UAC apprehensions during that same period; those four apprehensions cost roughly $200,000 of federal money. This suggests that supplementing border enforcement resources with complementary regional security resources is a bargain for U.S. taxpayers.

The findings also reveal how data-driven analysis can inform targeted interventions. The intensity of child migration, and its relationship to violence, has been vastly greater in some hot-spots of the region than in others. Security professionals in the U.S. government have not been given the resources to learn as much as they could about this relationship with the data they already have, and systems for sharing data between agencies remain informal and limited. Data-driven analysis can help guide more precise and efficient interventions by the various federal actors operating in the Northern Triangle, including the departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security, USAID and the intelligence community. Examination of data on Northern Triangle migration and its drivers can provide insight into what the most pressing (and destabilizing) elements may be in specific parts of the region.

The statistics also reveal the critical importance of getting out in front of this issue. When violence in the region drives a few desperate children to risk this journey, the “snowball” effect means they pave the way for more migration of this kind. As a result, investments in keeping some children safe today will keep a lot more children safe tomorrow. But remarkably little quantitative forecasting is happening inside the government. Agencies do not currently have the resources or structure to build policy around forward-looking estimates like, If gang violence spikes by X, the number of children fleeing to the U.S. could rise by Y. They could get this by building up the quantitative heft of internal research sections, linking them to each other with secure data-sharing, and building collaborations with academic researchers.

Better analysis rises above politics. Reducing future apprehensions of child migrants is a rare case in which advocates of a border wall and advocates of migrants’ rights agree. There is more room for different security agencies to work together on this, in their shared interest, and the right time is now.


Michael Clemens is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, where he studies the economic effects and causes of migration around the world. He also serves as a Research Fellow of IZA Institute of Labor Economics in Bonn, Germany. He is the author of the book The Walls of Nations, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection