Central American migrants paid $ 2.2 billion to try to reach the United States

The annual cost estimate over the past five years, derived from surveys of thousands of households in these three Central American countries, paints a grim picture of the cost of migration – and who benefits from it.

The report – released this week by the Migration Policy Institute, the World Food Program and the Civic Data Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – details the motivations and costs of migrating from the region.

Migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador traveling outside legal channels with smugglers pay around $ 1.7 billion a year, according to the report. Migrants who travel outside legal channels from these countries in caravans or alone spend around $ 230 million each year. And those who migrate through legal channels spend around $ 240 million.

The large numbers are especially significant when one thinks of other areas where that money could go, such as funding development and public works projects, says Ariel Ruiz, co-lead author of the report and policy analyst at Migration Policy. Institute.

“It’s important not only to talk about the cost, but also the potential and the opportunities that are being diverted,” he says.

Paying smugglers is the most expensive way to migrate

In the past, some researchers arrived at even higher numbers when estimating the size of the contraband industry.

A 2018 UN report estimated that the activity of trying to smuggle people into Mexico and the United States was worth around $ 4 billion a year.

To arrive at the estimates included in this week’s report, Ruiz says the researchers surveyed thousands of households in the region to determine the average amount paid in their attempts to migrate to the United States, then extrapolated based on the number. people who migrated from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Inside a smuggling operation moving migrants across the US-Mexico border

On average, respondents said migrants who paid smugglers spent around $ 7,500, including the cost of food and travel in addition to smugglers’ fees.

Migrants who traveled alone or in caravans spent an average of $ 2,900 and those who used regular immigration channels, such as student visas or refugee resettlement, spent $ 4,500.

Some take on debts that can be difficult to repay, especially if the migrants fail to reach the United States, the report notes.

Why these migrants make the trip

Among the other discoveries:

• The vast majority (92%) of respondents said that economic reasons were behind the decisions to migrate. Climate disasters, violence and food insecurity were other factors noted. The amount spent on migration is “a lot of money,” Ruiz says, “but in perspective, the return on investment is significant when so many of them are in such precarious conditions in their home countries.”

• More and more people are considering migrating. In 2021, survey respondents in 43% of households said they were considering international migration, up from 8% in 2019. But only a fraction of households – 3% – said they were making concrete plans for migrate.

• Almost a third of households (29%) reported receiving money from migrants abroad. They described this money as a lifeline used to cover living expenses and immediate expenses.

Bracelets used by smugglers and bearing the names of immigrants who have crossed illegally from Mexico to the United States to seek asylum are thrown near the Rio Grande.

Report authors urge governments to do more

The report’s release comes weeks after U.S. officials announced they had made more than 1.6 million arrests for illegal crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year, the annual number of highest arrests on record.
The United States recorded more than 1.6 million southern border arrests last year, the highest on record

The organizations behind the report recommend that governments do more to tackle the root causes of migration in Central America. This is something that US officials have said they are working on, as have other leaders in the region.

But those efforts will take time, Ruiz says.

“To really tackle the root causes of migration, it will take years, if not a decade, to really tackle everything we see,” he said.

As a starting point, the report’s authors recommend expanding social protection programs and stimulating investments to increase economic opportunities in the region.

Another key recommendation is that the United States and other countries provide more legal channels for migrants from Central America.

If that happens, the report says, more of the money migrants spend will go to governments rather than human smuggling networks.

CNN’s Matt Rivers, Luis Chaparro, Natalie Gallón and Geneva Sands contributed to this report.