While Customs and Border Patrol reported a 14% decrease in encounters at the Southern Border from December 2021 to January 2022, the United States still remains on pace for about 1.9 million encounters for FY2022. And yet, we fail to adequately adapt to predictable economic migration from the Northern Triangle Countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This makes it harder to humanely manage and absorb sudden changes, such as greater numbers of women migrants and record numbers of unaccompanied minors. Policy should reflect what we expect to see from the overall economic environment. We can do this by increasing legal immigration from the Northern Triangle.
Border patrol encounters from FY2021 were the highest on record, but the 40% of migrants coming from the Northern Triangle follows the approximately 42% trend from FY2019-FY2022. Record highs make headlines, but the real story remains our inadequate response to these patterns and overall economic circumstances. One can sympathize with a family caught unprepared for a once-in-a-generation blizzard, but less so for one shocked by winter each year. The failure to prepare for expected cold weather makes the unforeseen blizzard more daunting.
And make no mistake, there’s economic opportunity to be had — even for unauthorized immigrants. By studying a subset of low-skill workers, researchers found migrants can multiply their incomes several times over by simply moving and working the same job in the United States. A Guatemalan worker could see their income multiply by 2.6, or an increase of $9,347 adjusted for cost of living. And work is available with or without a visa. In 2016, unauthorized immigrants comprised 4.8% of the United States workforce, making up 24% and 15% of the agriculture and construction workforces respectively.
Even in the absence of natural disasters, violence, corruption, economic shocks or poor governance, migrants have a major reason to move to the United States by any means.
So migrants from the Northern Triangle come! But their options to pursue legal work are slim. The United States issued 9,897 H-2A and H-2B temporary work visas in FY2021 for migrants from the Northern Triangle compared to 310,781 from Mexico. The low level of legal options makes the unauthorized path the most viable route.
Increasing legal opportunity through our H-2A or H-2B visas could alter those incentives. We saw this pattern occur as illegal immigration from Mexico dropped from 2000-2018, which correlated with an increase in work visas for Mexican migrants. For immigrants, legal work reduces the threat of deportation. It can also provide a “wage premium” of 6%-25% to legal workers compared to the unauthorized. Offering more secure options for work, and at a higher wage, makes illegal options far less attractive.
Featuring specific countries through both guest workers programs would require legal changes or new incentives since employers select where their workers come from, but the potential to divert some illegal migrants to legal work may prove worthwhile.
Increasing legal immigration from Northern Triangle countries recognizes the demand in the United States. Congress allows for 66,000 H-2B visas, divided up for each half of the fiscal year and subject to increases. There are already 136,555 employer applications for the 33,000 visas allocated for the second half of FY2022. DHS allowed for an additional 20,000 H-2B Visas for the first half of FY2022, with 6,500 reserved for the Northern Triangle and Haiti. This is a good step, but not adequate. The idea of increasing legal options does not blindly respond to happenstance but adjusts to known patterns by taking into account existing capacity and demand — legal and unauthorized — in the United States market.
Finally, this type of policy allows us to better maintain the rule of law. Making it easier for migrants and employers to abide by the law can free up the border patrol to address drug trafficking, to process legitimate asylum claims, and to respond to unusual flows. We would also have a better grasp of who resides in the country if migrants chose to come through legal channels. Increasing legal immigration from the Northern Triangle does not eliminate the potential wisdom of strong workplace enforcement or similar measures, but can serve as a complement. This does not abandon the rule of law nor acquiesce to circumstances, but grapples with known patterns to help wrestle with the unknown and unquestionably harmful.
In an uncertain world we do not know when and what kind of natural disasters, wars, economic shocks or political turmoil will bring people to our doorstep, which is why we need to make the best out of what we do know.
At the border, the U.S. is the family surprised by winter every year. Yet, if we better understand our environment, we can not only better handle a blizzard, but thrive and enjoy the season.