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Latin America Report

New Study Backs Claims Central Americans Flee Violence More Than Poverty

Keith Dannemiller/Photo courtesty of the International Organization for Migration ©2014 IOM
A Central American toddler migrant being lifted onto a freight train in Mexico during his family's trek to the U.S. border in 2014.

Central America is now the largest source of undocumented migration across the U.S. southern border. The U.S. government has ramped up deportations of Central Americans to deter people from coming. In June, Vice President Mike Pence even traveled to Guatemala to warn Central Americans: "Come to the U.S. legally or don't come at all."

And yet they keep coming. A new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University says that’s because the U.S. is in denial about the real reason Central Americans continue leaving home. It's not poverty, they say, but violence.

Jonathan Hiskey is the lead author of the study, which will be published in the next issue of the journal Latin American Research Review. The political science professor spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett by phone from the Vanderbilt campus in Nashville, Tennessee.

Excerpts from their conversation:

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WLRN: Your study’s provocative title is “Leaving the Devil They Know.” What does that mean?

Hiskey: It’s a play on the better known phrase “better the devil you know.” What we’re trying to capture there is the essence of what the research finds: that when faced with a horrific situation in one’s daily life, leaving becomes the default option.

No matter what awaits them on the other side with the devil they don’t know.


The study argues the federal government – both the Obama and Trump Administrations – has failed to deter Central Americans from coming to the U.S. because the deterrence strategy is based on a faulty assumption. The government insists these are economic migrants when in fact – what’s the reality?

We see a starkly different socio-demographic profile. Individuals will tell us they are leaving primarily because of the crime and violence they face on a daily basis. And the economic motives that typically appear in other countries when we carry out similar work simply do not emerge as significant predictors of immigration.

The Trump and Obama Administrations both have failed to recognize and accept that what we're seeing in Central American migrants is a fundamentally different type of individual arriving at the border. –Jonathan Hiskey

What was the source of the data you used to draw those conclusions?

This is based on Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Opinion Project. The surveys ask, Do you have any intentions of emigrating to another country? In Honduras and El Salvador in particular we see one of the most powerful predictors is whether that individual has been victimized by crime over the past 12 months.

For example, those who’ve been victims of violence, or threatened by it, are almost twice as likely to emigrate as those who haven’t been victimized.

Exactly. And for Hondurans, we had close to 80 percent of our respondents saying that they had received the message from the U.S. that chances of deportation are higher, that migrating to the U.S. is extremely difficult.

Yet because of the rampant gang violence they face at home, you say the message the U.S. is sending them about the risks of coming here does not influence their plans to emigrate “in any meaningful way.” Are U.S. officials ignoring that reality?

The current administration and the Obama Administration both have failed to recognize and accept that what we’re seeing is a fundamentally different type of individual arriving at the border. Fewer economic migrants; far more victims of horrific crime.


The Trump Administration insists the threat – or reality – of gang violence does not qualify someone for U.S. asylum. But you suggest Central American migrants today are persecuted refugees in much the same way they were during the region’s civil wars of the 1980s.

Well, interestingly, in the 1980s they did not qualify as refugees, either. Each administration has tried pretty much the same strategy: treat them as economic migrants, turn them away at the border, detain them. And yet every time, we see the refugee crisis continues.

Credit Luis Romero / AP
A member of the violent gang MS-13 in El Salvador.

But is the key point here the governments in Central America are either unable or unwilling to protect these people from the gang violence – and that puts them on more of a refugee plane?

Yes, that’s a great point. When we ask individuals who have been victimized by crime, 83 percent say police are part of the problem - or the police never come.

You received your master’s here at Florida International University. What did your time in South Florida teach you about the Central American immigrant phenomenon?

Credit Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University
Jonathan Hiskey

While attending FIU I worked in a fish market on Key Biscayne. The woman who taught me how to cut fish, Maria, was from Nicaragua. And her family had fled that country’s civil war in the 1980s. And that was one of the experiences that I think has led me to working on the topic I’m working on today.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.