July 1, 2014

DHS: Violence, poverty, is driving children to flee Central America to U.S.

DHS map of where unaccompanied children are coming from in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador

Of the thousands of unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S. border in recent months, many can be attributed to poverty and regional violence in three Central American countries, a new U.S. Department of Homeland Security document finds. The document says the reasons driving the migration are different for each country, attributing it to local conditions.

“For example, many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the U.S. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.”

The Homeland Security document, obtained by the Pew Research Center, details the specific hometowns and cities of unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S. border. According to the agency, the number of children caught at the border has nearly doubled in less than a year, a situation that President Obama has called “an urgent humanitarian situation.”

The three top municipalities sending children to the U.S. are all in Honduras. San Pedro Sula leads the list, with more than 2,200 unaccompanied minors apprehended between January and May of this year, making up at least 5% of all apprehended children since October 1st. Following San Pedro Sula are Tegucigalpa and Juticalpa, both with more than 800 apprehended children during the same period.

Honduras has highest homicide rate in worldThe Honduran and Salvadoran child migrants are from some of the most violent regions in those countries. San Pedro Sula in Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with a homicide rate of 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 driven by a surge in gang and drug trafficking violence. For the entire country Honduras’s murder rate was 90 per 100,000 in 2012, the highest in the world. In 2011, El Salvador was not far behind, at 70, ranking second in terms of homicides in Latin America then. Even with a significant drop in the murder rate from 70 in 2011 to 41 in 2012, El Salvador is only surpassed by Honduras, Venezuela and Belize in the entire world.

Homeland Security also points to poor economies as another factor pushing children north to the U.S. Overall, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the poorest nations in Latin America with 30%, 26%, and 17% of their people living on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

Unaccompanied minor children are not just from Central America. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 11,000 children from Mexico were apprehended between October 1, 2013 and May 31 of this year. However, the recent surge in apprehensions of children has been driven by increases in the number coming from Central America.

Yesterday, President Obama announced that he would be taking more executive action on immigration as Congress has failed to pass an immigration bill. During his announcement, the president said the current crisis at the border underscores the need to drop politics and pass immigration reform. As DHS put it, the “violence, combined with poor economies and other secondary factors will make stemming the flow of [unaccompanied children] to the US a very complex issue to address.”

  1. Photo of Ana Gonzalez-Barrera

    is a senior researcher focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Jens Manuel Krogstad

    is a writer/editor focusing on Hispanics, immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.

  3. Photo of Mark Hugo Lopez

    is director of Hispanic research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mariana Medina3 years ago

    Didn’t help

  2. Julie3 years ago

    I would be curious to see land holdings involved with US corporations and agricultural production in contrast to the above data.

  3. Art Scott3 years ago

    Americas dirty war in Central America … reap the whirlwind.
    +1 what Mark Kittell comments.
    Wake up America … the secret war was only secret to you.

  4. Joe Zingher3 years ago

    Since these children come without identity papers, how can we be sure they don’t come from Mexico?

  5. DC Tharpe3 years ago

    While Congress holds hollow debates and virtually ignores the suffering of refugees already in the United States, what can we do? I have contacted my congressman and senator to let them know that I can provide haven and safe refuge for two refugees who are now in the U.S.–preferably a mother and child (I have don’t have room for more).

    These elected officials had no response to my offer, but said they “would investigate” the possibility of my providing at least temporary shelter and care for these poor and unfortunate people.

    Let’s all offer our homes as safe places and havens for these refugees and see what happens!

    If there are other organizations that could help me with this issue, please let me know.

    Muchas gracias!

    1. Gina3 years ago

      @DC Tharpe – very kind and actually one solution if more people would help. I read somewhere that there are 18 million seized homes or empty homes in the USA and 3 million homeless. So it isn’t like we don’t have the space. And if corporations actually pay the taxes they owe and also stop getting bailouts we probably could afford it too. I am not in the USA, and basically live paycheck to paycheck, so there is little I can do at the moment. But I want to help and will somehow. These are children, not dogs, this is an opportunity to show the world that the USA citizens are not war mongers like we are reputed to be, but loving human beings. I am overseas and we are pretty much hated by a lot of people when it is our politicians, elitists, and large corporations who are more responsible for wars then north american citizens but we are getting the bad rap. We are not perfect but we should strive to be better.

  6. Ibette3 years ago

    Do you have this article in spanish? If yes , please would you send me the link.

  7. Louise3 years ago

    One word, amnesty or maybe another in my fractured Spanish, Permissio.

  8. L abbat3 years ago


  9. Concerned3 years ago

    Unfortunately the government, as well as Americans, are failing to see that “protecting our borders” by spending billions of dollars to “secure” our borders is never going to be the only key to preventing illegal immigration. Drugs are the main culprit. Americans are the buyers. If Americans stopped buying these illegal drugs, drug lords and gangs would not be so powerful. Unfortunately, governments south of the border are not strong enough. Their armies are not strong enough. Yes, maybe some of them are burdened with corruption, but we dont have the resources to send our troops in nor give them funds to fight the violence that is rampant in those countries. We do not have the funds to help their economy either. We are heavily in debt. No, we cannot close our border. So…if Americans want illegal immigration to stop, we need to start with being more responsible and doing the only thing we have the power and resources to do and that is to educate our own young, our celebrities, and other uneducated to stop buying these illegal drugs OR simply to just make them legal, regulate the making of these drugs, and tax it. I am sure Americans are tired of tax money going to protecting our borders and other things that come along with illegal immigration. I am also sure that humans south of our border are tired of living in those violent conditions as well. I am sure that they don’t want to leave their home country and their families. At the end of the day, we need to be humane when they do come across our borders because they are human. We do need, however, to talk to these countries and work out some solutions otherwise, we do need to make those countries responsible some how for allowing such large migrations. Truly this is all too sensitive of a subject and there are plenty of opinions. This is only my opinion and nothing more.

    1. Jay Paul3 years ago

      So glad you pointed to the U.S. insatiable desire for narcotics as the driving force behind this new wave of migration.

    2. Gina3 years ago

      our government profits from drugs….just saying.

  10. Mark Kittell3 years ago

    Not the U.S.’ problem? For a hundred years at least, the U.S. has backed right-wing murder regimes that oppressed and disenfranchised in those countries, while actively opposing “left-wing” regimes, and even aiding in the assassinating of its leaders. It continues even to this day. The U.S. has plenty of the blood of these people on its hands, not to mention a continuing insatiable lust for drugs.

    1. Art Scott3 years ago

      Nailed it.
      Thanks for educating the willfully ignorant.

  11. javier3 years ago

    why isn’t other central American countries allowing babies to live their country? this isn’t the u.s.’s problem, I would love to see the list of reason or excuse for these 5, 6, 7 countries to say the u.s. is where we are going. Life is not meant to be what they are doing in their journey. Yes, we can do a lot, but; are we doing what many or millions of others should be doing?

  12. Maria3 years ago

    Thank you for clarifying this topic and discuss potential interventions.
    Social workers that work with migrant families are cognizant that this is not a new event and it is not restricted to a single geographical region—It just keeps compounding.
    Hopefully these collective conversations can assist thousands of readers in reflecting that economic and social issues are inter-dependent as a problem and as a solution—a global reality.

  13. Aaron Wilson3 years ago

    There is another perspective that one can take on this flow of minors that are fleeing to our land:

    While the number of undocumented minors arriving no doubt causes a great deal of difficulty in many ways, we can also see them as human capital. These are the youngest, most malleable, and most energetic members of these counties, even if they are the most uneducated…presently. Nevertheless, this is human capital. These countries in Central America are losing their human wealth and it is pouring onto our soil. These youths are valuable. What will we do with them?

    Is it best to send them directly back to their countries? To give the message that this kind of immigration is not tolerated? To return the resources to their own countries in hopes that the nations can make use of what was lost? Would this be best for us and them? Maybe.

    Or is it best to just receive them and appropriate them? Can we manage these resources? Could this arrival be seen as a large and unexpected grant? What will the US gain by returning the youths to their nations? Will this gain be greater than what could have been gained if the youths were retained, assimilated, educated. We are the United States. Do we really have no way to receive this kind of immigration of youths? We may need to be quite creative and bend or own immigration rules, even our own child labor rules, perhaps, in light of this crisis.

    Or, again, could retaining the youths cause a kind of vacuum in the Central American countries that would only make their plight even more severe, and cause us to distance ourselves from them even more, in self-protection?

    I am not an economist, and have little understanding of how these issues may affect our own stability in the long run. But I live in a leading city in the Rio Grande Valley, to which hundreds of these kids are fleeing daily. It seems to me that we have two options here: to open (with caution and restrictions, of course) and receive, or to deny access and close off. The former seems me to be more promising and aligned with our national character, although I really cannot imagine how we could pull it off. I believe that some can imagine it.

    1. Evelyn3 years ago

      You’re right. We should have a heart, invest and educate these refugee children as well as our own impoverished children. This is not charity, it’s preparing for the future.

  14. Barbara Griffith3 years ago

    I know one thing, the US population is not going to put up with and that is being forced to use our hard earned dollars to support all of the third world while their presidents take the money the US government sends them and pockets it in their own bank accounts or a offshore bank account. Its not our job to treat the head lice their kids have or the diseases they have. There are doctors and hospitals in all of the South American countries. Why are the US taxpayers forced to send money to Mexico??? They have oil fields and many other ways to earn money, one of them are the US factories that have moved to Mexico that have cost many thousands of good paying US jobs, yet they still have their hand out.
    This is not even counting the foreign companies that have moved their manufacturing to Mexico and South America.

  15. slk3 years ago

    spin it anyway you want, they believe that they make it to the border, and they’ll be taken care of!!! the governments busiing of illegals around the country, is positive proof!!! does anyone really believe an illegal, after being dropped off, will report in 15 days to be deported??? i’ve got a bridge for you!!!

    1. janice3 years ago

      Take care of American’s first. Our government knew about this months ago. And did nothing, as usual. And why didn’t Mexico stop them ? Because Mexico doesn’t want to take them in. Mexico doesn’t police their northern border with the usa.
      Who’s going to pay for these people ? We already have over 11.7 million illegal immigrants in the usa right now.
      It’s not our fault, it’s not our problem.
      We can’t even fix the VA, and all sorts of problems here in the usa.
      Close the border with Mexico. Put the National Guard, or our troops on the border.

      1. Ashamed3 years ago

        First, complaining American: it is USA, 2nd these Children are not from Mexico. 3rd have you traveled to Central America to see how these CHILDREN live. 4th they don’t come here for handouts, they want to work: the jobs your silver spoon daughter or son refuse to do. 5th what ship did your ancestors come from that offered you the privilege to call your self a US citizen. 6th I will pray for you, that you find happiness and kindness in your heart for all CHILDREN god has put on this earth.

  16. Trichia Ramsay3 years ago

    Maybe if U.S. (Hague Convention) opened up the adoptions from Guatemala again, the children would have families and homes to go to instead of trying to “escape.”

  17. kwh3 years ago

    Immigration from central America is due to economics not violence.

    1. Freddy3 years ago

      Immigration is not so one sided, friend.

  18. Southwest Pilgrim3 years ago

    Dig Deeper! This is the latest variant or product in the decades-old human trafficing industry run by”coyotes” in the countries of origen at prices that cover graft all along the “pipeline” and into the US border states. These kids are not transported by OVNIs nor do they travel free! The adult “tariff” out of Mexico is said to be U$7000 per head. What is the kiddie rate and who are benefitting from this callous crime? Dig deeper!

  19. Drew3 years ago

    I’m no fan of Islam, but notice how it gets blamed for all the violence in the middle east, but these Central American countries that have these ridiculously high crime rates never get mentioned that they are like 90+ percent Christian.

    1. Debbie3 years ago

      good point, religion is huge and strong in Central America. A lot of the violence also targets women in most brutal ways, it’s called feminicide. doesn’t even make it into the media here. without legal repercussions or investigations, boyfriends or husbands could add to the murder rate as domestic violence is also high. It is a huge contrast, because people generally are very softspoken, kind, superfriendly (maybe I got lucky).
      The graph shows a steady incline since 2006, wonder what happened at that time….

    2. Harry3 years ago

      Religion my friend religion it has been used for millennium for an excuse to rape, plunder, loot and obtain power and control over others. Oh and don’t forget the 70 virgins!

  20. Jerry3 years ago

    I did not realize this until now, but the murder rate is so high in Honduras that it equals or dwarfs the violence in Iraq for the past 4 years or so.

    1. ragidyman3 years ago

      check the murder rate for 2012 in Chicago, looks like it is higher than two of the three problem country, we could send the children to Chicago, they are used to the violence.

      1. wes3 years ago

        you probably know this but for the benefit of others reading these comments:

        you can’t really compare across scales like that, cities are always going to have higher rates than the countryside, and they get averaged together for national rates. the murder rate for illinois as a whole would be a more appropriate comparison. (and as far as US statewide rates go, louisiana ends up topping the list year after year, still at much lower numbers than guatemala, honduras, el salvador etc)