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Each year tens of thousands of children make the difficult journey from Central America to the U.S. border—some with family members and some alone. Amidst a heated and emotional debate about the “right way” to handle these migrants, we need to make sure we’re paying attention to the hard facts about why so many children are coming.

For some of those children, the ones who arrive without parents or other elder family members, we have solid information about why they choose to come. Below we have outlined the facts about child migration to the U.S.—and we hope that these observations can not only inform decisions on current unauthorized immigrant populations, but can also provide broader insight into why children and other migrants come to the U.S. While this data focuses on unaccompanied child migrants, we believe that this evidence is useful for understanding child migration as a whole.

Who has been among those crossing the U.S. border?

Between 2011 and 2016, the U.S. apprehended 178,825 children 17 and under from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, traveling unaccompanied without an adult relative or visa. This number does not include those children who made it into the U.S. undetected, nor those who left home and made it only so far as Mexico.

Of those unaccompanied child migrants (UACs), roughly one-third were girls.

53,287 of those apprehended minors were 17-year-olds—equal to eight percent of all 17-year-olds in the Northern Triangle region. (That’s roughly the same number of 17-year-olds who are in the New York City public school system.)

Why did these hundreds of thousands of children leave their homes?

Using unprecedented data provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a recent CGD study produced the first quantified relationship between violence, economic conditions, and migration.

We found that violence was a major decision factor driving migration. In an average municipality in the Northern Triangle, for every 10 homicides, six additional UACs were apprehended in the U.S.

Economic conditions also influence migration decisions—explaining roughly as much migration as violence explained. In short, child migrants are fleeing violence and its ripple economic and social impacts.

While one popular talking point has been that these children are only fleeing poor economic situations it is much more complex than that. Some have said that if violence was actually the problem, the monthly apprehension rates reported by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wouldn’t experience dips after big policy environment changes—like the decrease seen after the 2016 presidential election.

Those temporary drops in apprehensions, however, aren’t necessarily an indicator of motive—rather, they likely show how the timing of decision to migrate may shift, even if the reason to migrate hasn’t changed. These shifts resulting from policy changes could also potentially be shifts into even more harmful migration channels.

Broadly, in some cases, it’s true that economic factors are driving the migration decision—consistently high unemployment is one of the drivers of child migration from the Northern Triangle. But that’s only some of the cases. And even in those cases, the drivers are many times far more complex than just unemployment.

What now?

Evidence shows enforcement alone is highly unlikely to completely and permanently stop unauthorized migration.

Viable legal pathways for migration, in tandem with enforcement, can deter some unauthorized migration. But a zero-tolerance policy with no viable authorized migration alternatives will most likely fail to deter completely.

Rather, such a zero-tolerance enforcement approach will likely have a mix of three effects:

  • Induce some migrants to stay home, temporarily delaying their migration decision

  • Induce other migrants to pay more for smuggling efforts, pursuing more harmful and potentially dangerous routes, and/or

  • Induce still other migrants to move elsewhere (i.e., remain in Mexico), with long-term consequences (including for the United States).

Policies at the border may have an initial deterrent effect, but without changing the drivers at home, the migration pressures won’t cease. The reality is that the root causes of migration must be addressed—and that means violence prevention in the Northern Triangle.

To be effective, U.S. migration policy must extend far beyond U.S. borders to tackle the drivers of migration, rather than waiting until a journey is already in motion.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.