Migration in Latin America

Explaining Latin America’s history of welcoming migrants, the push and pull factor at work in migration to the US, and the internal South American migration caused by the crisis in Venezuela.

Explainer Published 6 October 2021 Updated 19 December 2022 7 minute READ

Migration in Latin America

Latin America is a region of immigrants. South American, Central American, and Caribbean nations, as well as Mexico have been receivers of European and other migrants throughout their histories.

And Latin America continues to welcome refugees and migrants from all over the world. Mexico accepted refugees from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in 2021 and Brazil has taken in considerable numbers of Syrians escaping the crisis there.

Generally, the region has been supportive of international protocols on migration and, in many ways, its countries are considerably more advanced in their integration of migrants than Europe or the United States.

This article explains the region’s history of migration, the current crisis caused by failing states such as Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and the long history of travel to the US.

Latin America is considered to be all the countries in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as Mexico.

History of migration in Latin America

Latin America is as defined by immigration as the US. Many South American nations were colonized by Europeans and these immigrants decimated the indigenous populations, bringing slaves and creating a white middle and upper class. All these factors have left enduring scars similar to those in the US.

However, Latin America is different to the US in its perception of its neighbours, and of migrants and migration.

Throughout Latin America’s history various nations have experienced political turmoil, leading to regular displacements of economic and political migrants and refugees to bordering countries. Additionally, most countries in South America share land borders with multiple neighbours. As a result, the region became accustomed to welcoming and integrating immigrants.  

Latin America is different to the US in its perception of its neighbours, and of migrants and migration.

Immigrants have also been far more integrated into Latin America’s political system than in the US.

Argentina’s former president Carlos Menem was from a Syrian family, Brazil had a president of Polish heritage in Juscelino Kubitschek, and Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was of Japanese descent.

Even independence leaders were often immigrants – Bernardo O’Higgins, one of Peru’s founding fathers, was of Irish/ Spanish descent.

Unfortunately, much of the positive welcome that people of European descent historically received in South America was often not extended to those of indigenous or African backgrounds.

Since the Spanish and Portuguese conquests, which imported slaves from Africa to harvest rubber and sugar, a racial class structure has persisted. This is largely based on degrees of European descent with the more predominant descendants of slaves and indigenous people often overrepresented in the lower rungs of the economic and social classes.  

However, in recent years working class and indigenous figures have arisen in Latin American politics.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro identifies as being of mixed indigenous race, and former Bolivian president Evo Morales was of indigenous descent and, before becoming president, was leader of the coca growers’ union. New Peruvian president Pedro Castillo comes from an impoverished background.

What is the Latin American migration crisis?

The current crisis consists of several dramatic migrations currently underway from nations in South and Central America in particular.

There are two primary trajectories – from the central American ‘northern triangle’ countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala across Mexico to the US, and from Venezuela to neighbouring South American nations and locations such as Spain and the Caribbean.

These migrations are mainly the results of failing states, limited – or in the case of Venezuela, loss of – economic opportunity, crime, and violence.  

Migration from Latin America to USA

The largest number of migrants from Latin America to the US come from Mexico and from Central America. The majority of immigrants in the US from Central America are arriving from ‘northern triangle’ countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Also, many migrants are traversing Mexico to get to the US and so increasingly large numbers are staying in Mexico due to the difficulty of crossing the 2000-mile border with the US.

Push and pull

It’s important to understand the ‘push and pull’ factor at work in migration to the US: The ‘push’ works when people leave their countries, fleeing violence, political repression, and economic hardship and travel to the US.

Once in the US these people naturally form communities, which then creates a ‘pull’ factor on networks back home, drawing in relatives seeking a new life of peace and prosperity. Entire towns from Central America have effectively been recreated in the US in this way – just as towns from Ireland, Italy and other countries had previously.

Much of the recent wave of anti-migrant feeling stems from changes in the locations where migrants are settling.

US anti-immigrant sentiment has waxed and waned over the past century but much of the recent wave of anti-migrant feeling stems from changes in the locations where migrants are settling.

Whereas previously cities such as New York and Boston integrated vast numbers of Italian, German, and Jewish migrants, the receiving areas for migrants have now changed.

The vast majority are now attracted by jobs in more rural areas with almost no historic experience of accommodating large migrant arrivals, such as the meat-packing industry in the mid-west, and chicken processing plants and furniture factories in the south. These areas have seen immigration increase by as much as 200 per cent, with migrants filling jobs most Americans do not want.

US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama tried to expand legal immigration to serve this labour need but failed due to domestic politics, leaving the US with a legal migration system which does not provide the required labour.

Part of the promise of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was to create more jobs in Mexico and reduce migration to the US. For various reasons that did not happen and the outright hostility to migrants displayed by former president Donald Trump gained popularity.

Trump’s legacy is harsher immigration practices. Migration checks are now held on the Mexican side of the border so those seeking asylum in the US are often having their cases processed in Mexico, while a harder line policy of returning undocumented immigrants has seen more rounded up and deposited in their home countries.

The Trump presidency also distorted the immigration debate, framing the narrative around criminal elements making illegal border crossings from Mexico and Latin America as the exclusive nature and source of illegal migration.

It is true there is a large undocumented immigrant population in the US, of around 11 million, and it is also true the majority are Mexicans. But the next largest groups are Filipinos and Chinese. And most undocumented migrants have outstayed their visas, not crossed the border illegally.

There is no evidence Latin American migrants are more dangerous than US citizens or are unfairly ‘playing’ the system. Many pay taxes under a false social security number for benefits they will never receive – so many are net contributors.

The future of migration to Latin America contd.

Migration within Latin America

There is a long tradition within Latin and South America of intra-regional migration with Peruvians in Chile, Bolivian immigrants in Argentina, and Haitians in Brazil and Chile. The region also has a long tradition of welcoming those fleeing political repression.

After the coup of 1973, Chileans fled to countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, while Cubans sought exile in countries such as Mexico and Venezuela after the 1959 revolution.

Many Colombians fled to Venezuela during the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s, and Costa Rica took in many migrants during the Colombian and central American civil wars, as well as those currently fleeing repression in Nicaragua.

Migration from Venezuela

Close to six million people have fled Venezuela due to the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, the likes of which has not been seen by a country not at war. Since 2013, the economy has contracted by 75 per cent and inflation in 2021 is expected to reach 1,800 per cent. Close to 80 per cent of the population is in poverty and around two-thirds are malnourished.

Around 2-3 million Venezuelan refugees are now in Colombia. Many are educated and many have brought their families, and the kind of people fleeing cuts right across class and racial boundaries. Despite putting tremendous strain on Colombia’s social safety net, labour markets, education system and politics, Colombia has done a good job of accommodating this enormous influx and planning their integration.

Venezuelans have also travelled in large numbers to other parts of South America such as Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile as well as to Spain and the Caribbean.

Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador

Guatemala and El Salvador have some of the most unequal distribution of land in the world. Opportunities are limited in a stratified class system, and both nations were wracked by civil wars during the 1980s with 200,000 people killed in Guatemala’s wars alone.

Most of those fleeing are running from a lack of economic opportunities, endemic crime, and violence. Many who settle and prosper in the US or elsewhere then send remittances home, making up as much as 20 per cent of El Salvador’s GDP.

A negative aspect to this migration is that some young people joined gangs in the US so many were imprisoned and then deported back to central America, effectively opening branches of the US gangs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Honduras is now the murder capital of the world.

Gangs such as MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) in Central America infiltrated the states and unleashed waves of violent crime.

Honduras is now the murder capital of the world with a worse murder rate than Iraq at the height of its war.

Politics is also affected, with the current president of Honduras accused of taking bribes from famed drug trafficker El Chapo, while his brother had his own ‘brand’ of cocaine.

Much of the crime and violence is driven by US drug consumption. Drug traffic to the US passes from Colombia and Peru through central America, enriching and empowering these gangs and deepening corruption in the states.

Migration to South America

There is a long and complex history of migration to South America from all over the world, from those seeking economic opportunity to those fleeing violence.

The height of Italian immigration to South America happened at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, peaking around the time of Mussolini.

Due to differing growing seasons in South America, large number of Italian immigrants would travel to Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay. and Brazil to work on the harvest and then return home. Argentinians called the Italians ‘Swallows’ as they came and went with the seasons, but many also settled there.

One member of an Italian immigrant family was Carlos Pellegrini, president of Argentina in the 19th century – something unthinkable in the US at that time.

Spanish and British immigration to South America

In the 1960s and 70s, many countries were more developed than Spain which was still under Franco’s dictatorship. Many Spanish travelled to Venezuela during the country’s oil boom and settled after finding work there.

There are two complete English-speaking towns in Argentina dating from the late 1800s. Argentina became one of the major exporters of beef, mutton, and wool to Britain in this period and many English financiers travelled to the country to do business and then settled there.

Immigration to Brazil

Brazil has a large Lebanese immigrant population, creating a huge halal meat industry. There are also many Germans in the country where some towns still celebrate Oktoberfest. Further back, many Confederate families fled to the country after defeat in the US civil war as Brazil still had slavery at the time.

The future of migration to Latin America

Since the turn or the millennium, there is a general trend among western nations to limit immigration so, as a result, there is every chance more migrants will find their way to South America.

This may well bring opportunity and dynamism to South American economies and societies but there is also the threat that new waves of migrants further entrench the disenfranchisement of indigenous and black populations and aggravate existing tensions.

There have been increased – albeit isolated – incidents of hostility to intra-regional migration. Almost 200,000 Haitians migrated to Chile following the 2010 earthquake but many are now attempting to reach the US for other reasons such as racism or a lack of economic opportunity.

Chile has also seen demonstrations against Venezuelan immigration around its northern border where most crossings are made, while Brazil, Ecuador, and Colombia have also experienced backlash against the huge Venezuelan migration.

The next decade will become a test of Latin America’s traditional openness and adaptability to migration.