Sofia looked at me across the table. Her eyes were heavy with disappointment. “They are paying me what they paid me seven years ago, and when I leave, they will hire a high school student to do my work and pay him the same amount. I am a university graduate who can barely pay for my own food. I live with my suegros (in-laws) and don’t have the money to pay for my own car or house, let alone provide my mother with a decent roof and a floor. What option do I have?”
I sat in silence. My pleas to Sofia to think about her safety, her daughter, her future in Honduras seemed small in comparison to her despair. I did not want her to go. But how could I respond to her desperation?
A recent PEW study revealed that, numerically, the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. declined by 1 million from 2007 to 2014. The number of migrants crossing the Southwest border has returned to 1970s levels.
Mexico’s economy has improved relative to the U.S. economy, and young people are able to find more options to work now that the population boom of the 1990s has leveled out. The rate of immigration from Mexico has been outpaced by migration from Central America (in particular, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador), which grew more than 56% from 2000 to 2013.
The most common reasons for immigration from Central America
1. Violence. Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are known as the Northern Triangle-geographically ideal for drug trade, with governments rated as the most corrupt in Latin America and with military influence from northern neighbors and the Cold War era providing an environment ripe for violence. Many people are fleeing from deadly situations of extortion, gangs and domestic abuse, making return to the country not an option.
2. Work. Migrants are often not the poorest of the poor. It is expensive and dangerous to travel to the U.S. undocumented (even with the relatively safer option of a coyote, Sofia’s journey cost $8,000), so most migrants are those who, like Sofia, see no other way to move ahead in life. In Honduras, 50 percent of the population is under 19 years of age, and the majority of those young adults cannot find work in a formal sector. In neighboring countries, the job prospects are similar.
3. Family. In 2014, a crisis began to show itself: child migration from the Northern Triangle. Seventy-four percent of the unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many children have family members in the U.S. and were seeking to be reunited with loved ones. Some were escaping violence at home.
Effects of immigration on economy and proposal for managing immigration
While the presence of undocumented immigrants has decreased the pay of native-born workers without a high school diploma anywhere from 0.4 to 7.4 percent, the impact of the presence of undocumented workers has mostly been proved to complement native-born work. In states with more undocumented workers, legal workers’ pay increased up to 10 percent. Undocumented workers have contributed $300 billion (10 percent) to the Social Security trust fund while receiving only $1 billion, since most of them are not able to receive benefits. Undocumented migrants already pay around $11.84 billion in state and local taxes (2012).
One of the other major problems with undocumented immigration is that, while the migrants bring net benefits to the U.S. economy, the costs for managing them in local governments is disproportionate. Migrants cost local and state governments in medical care, education and use of public assistance. The migrants are not evenly distributed throughout the population, so the burden in cities and towns where there are migrant communities is higher.
One proposal for dealing with this problem is to provide amnesty to undocumented workers, thereby increasing tax payments by $2.2 billion a year. These tax payments could be applied to local governments that have higher migrant populations.
But will immigrants who are provided amnesty agree to this increase in taxes? Sofia’s experience shows a positive response in being provided amnesty. She was apprehended at the border in Texas and given a three-month amnesty allowance. She must return every three months to check in with the migration officials, even at the risk of them suddenly deporting her. What does she decide?
“The benefits of being able to work legally here far outweigh the risks of being sent home,” she told me. “I know that every day here is a blessing, and when God decides that my time is over, I will accept it. Until then, I want to keep working.” Sofia has paid for her mother’s new roof and floor since her arrival in the U.S. “I know where my home is,” she says. “I know that I am here for a purpose.”