The U.S. Border Patrol could arrest as many immigrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras this year than any year in its history. Several causes have combined to create this historic migration, but one that has received little attention so far is the state of the U.S. economy. Contrary to the perception that the labor market is doing poorly, U.S. employers actually had more unfilled positions in February of 2021 (seasonally adjusted) than in February of 2020 before the pandemic.
U.S. employers need workers, and Central Americans are helping fill those positions. It is important to state upfront that this says nothing about the motivation of the migrants. A job can be a motivator to relocate but it can also just be a means to enable relocation. Of course, the truth will often be a mixture and depend on the individual. Regardless, Central Americans are paying between $6,000 and $10,000 to smugglers to obtain passage to the United States. Whether fleeing persecution or gang violence, natural disasters or domestic abuse, poverty or famine, a job is a prerequisite to afford the costly journey.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on immigration enforcement summarized the state of the academic literature on Central American illegal immigration in 2012 as follows:
Among migrants from Central America, the data show that enforcement also interacts with the state of the U.S. economy. When employment demand and wages are low, rising enforcement has a deterrent effect on the likelihood of making a first illegal trip to the United States. But when employment and wages are high, the effect is mitigated and works as it does for potential Mexican migrants, with rising enforcement correlated with more trips.
Figure 1 shows the time series graph of U.S. job openings and the number Central Americans arrested by either U.S. Border Patrol or Mexican authorities (because nearly all Central Americans migrating illegally in Mexico are attempting to reach the United States). It uses April job opening figures because migration historically peaks in the spring and that’s when people are making their migration decisions for the year (though February figures were the only available for 2021 so far). Total apprehensions in 2021 were estimated based on the first three months of the year. These two series generally move together with some lags. Central American migration began to decline prior to the 2009 recession, for example, possibly because the housing market and growth in construction jobs peaked in 2006. Figure 2 shows the same data as a scatter plot with a trend line.
Obviously, many other factors affect migrants’ decisions, including perceptions of U.S. policy. But policymakers should not ignore the strong relationship between migration and jobs. One partial solution to control this migration already has a precedent. Congress should duplicate the success that guest worker programs have had at controlling illegal migration from Mexico. These visas are mainly for workers performing seasonal farm and nonfarm jobs under the H-2A and H-2B visa programs. With the option to enter and work legally more widely available, fewer Mexicans are choosing to cross illegally (Figure 3). Figure 4 shows the same data as a scatter plot with a trend line.
It’s not surprising that the potential effect of work visas appears to be larger than the number issued since workers will be willing to defer illegal trips to the border if they know that they have a realistic chance of obtaining a visa. As I wrote in my policy analysis in 2019:
Work visas need not be issued to everyone who would otherwise come illegally, but their widely known availability creates an expectation that a person could receive a visa in the future if they wait. “Most of my friends go with visas or they don’t go at all,” one Mexican worker said in 2019. Although he had not yet received a visa, his prior experience working in the United States under the H-2A program gave him a reason to wait. He told the Washington Post that he wants to be “working in the United States — but only with a visa.”
The importance of increasing work visas for Central Americans has grown with each passing year, but even as their share of U.S. border arrests have exploded (in large part because so many more are evading capture in Mexico), their share of work visas has remained flat. The Biden administration has the authority to raise the H-2B visa cap for seasonal nonagricultural jobs and allot some for Central America in order to help channel them into the legal system, but it chose to use just 22,000 of the 64,000 that Congress authorized and allot just 6,000 for Central Americans.
This 6,000 is certainly an improvement. If used, it would double the number of H-2 visas for Central Americans. But eventually these numbers would need to grow dramatically to see a permanent significant drop in illegal immigration. Another idea would be for the State Department to design a new J-1 visa program for the Northern Triangle. The State Department could do this without direct involvement of other agencies, and it can do so under current law. The J-1 programs also have the benefit of not having any congressional visa caps. Increasing work visas both would help grow the economy by making sure jobs get filled and help reduce illegal immigration.