ImmigrationReport: Economics Drives Migration from Central America to the U.S.

By Peter Dizikes

Published 26 November 2021

A new survey underscores how material needs lead to movement within the Americas — at a high cost to those trying to relocate.

A new report about migration, co-authored by MIT scholars, shows that economic distress is the main factor pushing migrants from Central America to the U.S.— and highlights the personal costs borne by people as they seek to move abroad.

“The core issue is economics, at the end of the day, and this is where policymakers need to be focusing their energy,” says Sarah Williams, an MIT professor who helped produce the report. “At the heart of what’s causing migration is that people don’t have enough money to provide for their basic needs.”

The study, based on a unique survey of over 5,000 people in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, finds a sharp increase in the number of people considering migrating after nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. About 43 percent of people surveyed in 2021 were considering migrating, compared to 8 percent in 2019. That change comes as food insecurity in the region soars: The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 6.4 million people in the three countries were suffering from food insecurity in 2021, up from 2.2 million in 2019.

Survey respondents cited low wages, unemployment, and minimal income levels as factors increasing their desire to emigrate — ahead of reasons such as violence or natural disasters. In contrast to the 43 percent of people who were considering migrating, only 3 percent of people in the survey said they had made concrete plans to migrate. But 23 percent of those experiencing food insecurity had made concrete plans to leave.

One likely reason more people do not migrate is cost: An estimated 1.8 million Central Americans have attempted to migrate in the past five years, costing them collectively about $2.2 billion per year, which is equal to about one-tenth of Honduras’ annual GDP.

“That is an extreme amount of money,” says Williams, an associate professor of technology and urban planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and director of MIT’s Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. “That $2.2 billion is all paid for by the migrants themselves, so the risks, both in terms of debt and personal risk, is borne by the migrant.”

MIT’s Civic Data Design Lab, which Williams also directs, helped analyze study data, produce the report, and create data visualizations to illustrate the economics of regional migration from central America.