The current surge of increased migration from Central America is just one of the stress factors testing the U.S. immigration system. While the government continues to struggle to manage the current flow of migration, it is also helpful to think ahead. Where will the next migrant flow to the United States likely come from? Both Venezuela and Nicaragua have generated significant emigration to other countries in the region due to challenging political and humanitarian circumstances. Might this mean the United States should also expect an increase in immigration from these countries?
Venezuela’s crisis is rooted in the consolidation of power by the United Socialist Party and in the presidency, which began under Hugo Chávez following a 1999 revolution. Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, has only accelerated the authoritarian trend and accompanied it with economic mismanagement. Expropriations, price controls, and overreliance on oil profit—while simultaneously pushing out the foreign companies buying it—have contributed to hyperinflation and collapse of the currency. The country’s oil production and GDP continue to decline, leaving people without food and medicine, and there is no indication that Maduro plans to change course. The government is also alleged to have committed crimes against humanity, including torture, extrajudicial executions, and detention of government protesters. As the country moves rapidly toward becoming a failed state, its residents are responding with exodus. According to the United Nations, almost 2 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 and as many as 1 million more Venezuelans may relocate by the end of 2018.
In Nicaragua, migration is a result of increasing political turmoil and violence. In April 2018, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, declared initiatives cutting funds to pensions and social security benefits, sparking mass protests in the capital of Managua. The government’s response included violence and human rights abuses including the alleged use of torture, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention tactics to deter dissidence. Since then, reports have compiled a death toll of 317 individuals as well as 2,000 injured as a result of the violence. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reports 23,000 Nicaraguans emigrated to the neighboring state of Costa Rica between April and July 2018.
For now, other countries in Latin America are feeling the greatest effects of these crises. Approximately 1 million Venezuelans have relocated to Colombia, which is struggling to adequately respond to the Venezuelan refugee crisis, resulting in shortages in housing, food, and medical care and leaving women, children, and the elderly vulnerable to crime. The influx has also attracted several criminal organizations looking to profit off desperate migrants, including in narcotrafficking, human trafficking, and prostitution.
Given Colombia’s troubled response, migrants from Venezuela are now flowing into other neighboring countries. Venezuelan asylum cases in Mexico went from 361 in fiscal year (FY) 2016 to 4,039 in FY2017. Following the large increase in asylum applications from nationals of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that Mexico has received in the same period, the Mexican asylum system is already beyond capacity.
Most Nicaraguans are seeking asylum currently in the neighboring country of Costa Rica, which has 15,000 pending asylum registrations from Nicaraguan nationals. The increased influx of Nicaraguans has generated opposition and xenophobic reaction in the country. A mass anti-Nicaraguan protest in the Costa Rican capital of San José was fueled by social media rhetoric inciting hate and violence. The incident resulted in the arrest of 44 people and the seizure of machetes, knives, bats, and bottled gasoline cocktails. While Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado condemns the xenophobic actions, they may alter Nicaraguan migration patterns.
Safety concerns and economic instability in the neighboring countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala deter Nicaraguans from resettling in these countries and serve as push factors from the entire region, leaving these states as transit countries. There is also a sizable Nicaraguan population in the United States, with over 275,000 Nicaraguans here, second only in diaspora population to Costa Rica.
The United States also continues to have several pull factors that draw Venezuelan immigrants, including an immigrant population in the United States that grew by about 135,000 between 2014 and 2017. The United States provides economic opportunity, security, and higher living standards that attract people fleeing dire conditions. Although the Trump administration supports the opposition protests in Venezuela, provides economic assistance to the humanitarian response, and has placed economic sanctions on the Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments, the administration has not made any efforts to proactively share the burden of taking in people fleeing these countries. Experts believe the majority of Venezuelans that have made asylum claims in the United States have been denied, and migrants to the United States are failing their credible fear interviews at a higher rate than previously.
Increased migration flows from Central America and Venezuela place the United States in a precarious situation due to its already backlogged asylum process. The Trump administration’s efforts to limit asylum-seeking in the United States will be tested. Some comments by President Trump have implied the possibility of military intervention in Venezuela, and the administration has increased humanitarian aid. However, the administration recently terminated Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for Nicaraguans in the United States, and so far, has not responded to calls from members of Congress to grant TPS for Venezuela. Given the existing stresses of the asylum system, the United States should act now to develop a strategy to manage this expected influx of new arrivals, or risk further crises at the border.