Border Patrol apprehensions of Central Americans from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rose again this month to 444,509, so far this fiscal year (FY). According to United Nations population estimates, U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 1.32 percent of all residents of the Northern Triangle countries to date this fiscal year. Northern Triangle citizens account for 75 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions this FY.
So far in FY 2019, 1.8 percent of the population of Honduras, 1.2 percent of the population of Guatemala, and 0.9 percent of the population of El Salvador have been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol. The percent of the Northern Triangle populations apprehended by Border Patrol are still far lower than the annual emigration rates from many European countries during the Age of Migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Dudley Baines, the emigration rate from Italy was about 2 percent per year from 1901-1913 while it was almost 4 percent per year from Calabria during the same time. Regardless, Border Patrol apprehensions in FY 2019 as a percentage of the sending country’s population is very high.
The rate of Northern Triangle emigration has accelerated rapidly over the last several years as reflected by the percent of the population in those countries apprehended by Border Patrol (Figure 1). However, the collapse of Border Patrol apprehensions of Mexicans is equally dramatic as it fell from about 0.6 percent of Mexico’s population in 2007 to 0.1 percent in 2019. A major difference between the apprehension of Mexicans in the past and those from the Northern Triangle today is that the latter are turning themselves into Border Patrol to ask for asylum while the former were trying to evade.
Figure 1 does not include the number of immigrants from those countries who received green cards, work visas, entered unlawfully and escaped detection, or returned to their home countries from the United States. It is just a gross apprehension rate by Border Patrol. It both undercounts and overcounts the net emigration rate from the Northern Triangle. It overcounts because only some of those apprehended are let in and many are removed, it doesn’t include other deportations from the interior of the United States, and it doesn’t count voluntary returns. It undercounts because it doesn’t include the number of green cards issued to those abroad in the Northern Triangle nor does it include the number of other visas issued to them. The net effect on the net emigration rate of the Northern Triangle is ambiguous.
The total number of foreign-born persons in the United States from the Northern Triangle as a percentage of their home countries’ populations grew steadily from 2007 through 2017 and it will probably grow more quickly when the 2018 and 2019 data are released (Figure 2).
The U.S. government issued many more H-2A and H-2B guest worker visas to Mexican workers, which is the main reason why the rate and number of Mexicans apprehended by Border Patrol fell so much since the mid-2000s. The U.S. government increased the number of H-2 visas for Mexicans from about 80,871 in 2007 to 242,582 in 2018, or from about 45 percent of all H-2s issued annually to 87 percent. H-2 data for 2019 are not available yet. Instead of coming illegally, Mexicans were able to enter lawfully on a work visa and then go home with the ability to return if they follow the rules.
Figure 3 shows the share of all Mexicans who entered the United States illegally, on H-2 visas, and green cards. I used the annual federal government calculations of the apprehension rate for illegal immigrants to estimate how many successfully entered. Illegal entries fell from 56 percent of all Mexicans coming to the United States in 2007 to 7 percent in 2018 as the proportion of H-2 visas increased dramatically.
Boosting the number of H-2 visas for Mexicans worked to channel illegal Mexican immigrants into the legal market to such an extent that the number of guest workers entering legally is higher than the number of Mexican apprehended for the last couple of years. One legal Mexican worker replaced more than one illegal Mexican worker.
Remarkably, H-2 visas were successful during those years even though the relative real wage difference between Mexico and the United States increased by a factor of 3.50 to a factor of 3.95. In other words, Mexican illegal immigration to the United States collapsed when the economic benefits of doing so increased, which is evidence that another factor (H-2 visas, most likely) explains it. The negative relationship between Mexican apprehensions and H-2 visas for Mexicans in Figure 4 makes that clear.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has issued very few H-2 visas to citizens of the Northern Triangle countries. In 2018, only 9,122 were issued to residents of the Northern Triangle. Whereas one out of every 545 Mexicans received an H-2 in 2018, only one out of every 3,626 people in the Northern Triangle received H-2s. A seven-fold increase in the number of H-2 visas for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will help get the border under control and restore order to the asylum system.
The U.S. government is currently releasing many Northern Triangle asylum-seekers with a court date but without a credible fear interview because there are too many asylum seekers. The federal government’s goal should not be to restrict asylum, but to channel enough marginal or non-credible asylum seekers into other migration channels so that the system can return to normality. Pressuring the Mexican government may achieve that goal, but the United States should pursue it by creating many more H-2 visa opportunities for residents from the Northern Triangle without reducing them for Mexicans.