Research News

Family reunification drives child migration from Latin America

Last year America’s attention was riveted on the migrant children arriving at our border with Mexico.

New research by Katharine Donato, professor and chair of sociology, and postdoctoral fellow Blake Sisk can help us understand what drives children like these to undertake such a daunting, dangerous journey.

immigration refprm experts
Katharine Donato, professor and chair of sociology (Vanderbilt)

They examined demographic data collected on people who migrated as minors from Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador between 1977-2013. The data sets they analyzed also contained migration histories and immigration status of the children’s parents. The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Migration and Human Security.

Donato and Sisk looked at how likely children were to enter without authorization, if they were more likely to migrate now than in the past and to what extent family migration influenced whether a child migrated. They also looked at what the data say about U.S. immigration policy.

“In theory, if immigration and refugee protections worked well for children and offered them legal visas to reunify with their families, then we would expect low levels of unauthorized entry and no dramatic shifts over time,” the researchers say.

Blake Sisk (Vanderbilt University)

They have found the opposite. Most of the children entered without authorization, and their likelihood of doing so shifted significantly over the 35 years studied, in step with changes in U.S. immigration policy. Additionally, they found that virtually all of the children who migrate are either following a parent who now lives in the United States or have a parent who had lived in the United States at some point in the past.

The reasons children migrate vary, but violence and limited economic and educational opportunities at home, family connection to the United States, and U.S. immigration policies that restrict the ability of parents to visit home are all significant drivers.

Troubled homelands

“Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the top five nations with the highest murder rates, and they are also known for having smugglers that prey on young children to migrate,” the researchers write, citing a United Nations report that suggests that the threats to children in these countries and Mexico may indeed be severe enough to warrant international protection. Meanwhile, educational and economic opportunities at home are thin.

Family ties

It is not just desperation to leave driving the migration of these children—it’s the fact that they almost all have someone waiting for them in the United States. “All of the work that I’ve done using data on kids shows that…kids are coming almost solely because they have parents and close relatives here,” Donato says. “Nothing else seems anywhere near as important” a factor in child migration as family reunification.

Immigration laws influence migration decisions

Using country-specific data, Donato and Sisk were able to see the effect of U.S. immigration policy changes on children’s migration rates from Mexico. Unauthorized child migration rose significantly when the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted amnesty to 3 million unauthorized immigrants, came into effect. This rise in unauthorized migration during the IRCA years, Donato says, shows that U.S. immigration policy failed to provide a legal mechanism by which these children could reunite with their legally residing parents in the United States. After passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigration Responsibility Act, which criminalized many types of unauthorized immigrants, the migration rates of their children dropped to levels lower than they had been before IRCA.

Immigration policy affects Central American families’ decisions to send their children north in a different way. While unauthorized migrants from border nations are deported immediately, U.S. anti-trafficking laws allow child migrants from non-bordering countries, including the four Central American countries studied by Donato and Sisk, to be granted removal hearings and, critically, to reunite with their families here while they wait. For this reason, most of these child migrants do not try to sneak across the border but rather surrender to the Border Patrol upon arrival in order to begin the process of authorizing their status.

Because court backlogs have made those waits up to two years long, the researchers say this policy, along with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, may have created a misperception among Central American migrants that the U.S. is automatically normalizing the immigration statuses of minors, or is at least looking the other way. This, however, is not true—most children are eventually deported anyway, even if their parents are legally residing here with Temporary Protected Status.

Immigration policy fails children

The fact that a substantial percentage of children migrate without authorization indicates that U.S. immigration policy lacks sufficient legal means for children to reunite with their U.S.-resident families, the researchers say.

“If most unaccompanied child migrants have parents or other relatives in the United States, then they should be eligible for protections under a comprehensive immigration system that safeguards the rights and outcomes of the children,” the researchers write. “It is time to recognize that these children need protections in the form of permanent legal status to reunify with their families.”

Read the full study here: