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.
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.
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.