The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders recently published a report documenting the threats that drive 500,000 Central Americans away from their homes every year. The three countries of the so-called Northern Triangle— Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—are among the most violent places on earth, with levels of violence that match the world’s deadliest war zones.
Many of those fleeing extreme violence in their homelands seek asylum in Mexico and the United States. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees and asylum seekers from Northern Triangle countries has increased ten-fold since 2011. Notably, recent research by Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development finds that the massive inflow of unaccompanied minors across the southern border of the U.S. since the summer of 2014 has been due, in large measure, to violence in their communities of origin.
Within a public discourse that often portrays refugees as a threat rather than victims who deserve help and compassion, one part of this story has largely been ignored: U.S. border control policy—notably the deportation of criminal offenders back to their countries of origin—has played a critical role in the spread of violence in Latin America.
Although immigration rhetoric and policies have become increasingly hostile under the Trump presidency, it is fair to say that use of deportation is nothing new.
One pillar of immigration policy since the mid-1990s has been a tough stance on immigrants who have committed criminal offenses while in the U.S. Between 1996 and 2015, the U.S. deported 5.4 million individuals back to their homelands. Forty percent of these—2.2 million – had committed a felony while in the U.S. By deporting convicted felons, the U.S. returns home persons likely to have developed connections with transnational organized crime upon incarceration in the U.S., and who are likely to have refined their set of criminal skills.
The case of El Salvador is particularly illustrative.
This small Central American country has a Salvadoran-born diaspora of 1.2 million people in the US, corresponding to a fifth of its total population of 6.3 million. Two rival gangs, the MS13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and the 18th Street gang, have turned El Salvador into one of the most violent places on earth. Both gangs originated on the streets of Los Angeles, home to a large Salvadoran community in California.
El Salvador is also the country that received one of the highest per capita inflows of deported offenders from the U.S. By 2015, the U.S. had deported 95,000 criminal offenders—an amount equal to 1.5 percent of that country’s total population.
Journalistic investigations have linked the deportations of convicted gang members to the spread of gangs in Central America. But can we be sure that the gang expansion was caused by deportations? Or did gangs simply adopt the style and habits seen in the U.S. and the media while inhabiting a longer tradition of violence in a country torn by social conflict and civil war?
Digging into Salvadoran data provides evidence that gang-related violence has indeed been exported from the U.S.
Gangs did not pop up everywhere in El Salvador. Instead, the rise of homicides after the 1990s is strongly linked to patterns of emigration and deportations. The areas of El Salvador that are suffering the most from gang violence are those whose expatriates settled in U.S. cities with high criminal activities, such as Los Angeles and the Washington, D.C. area.
Why is that? When the U.S. started to deport convicted gang-members in the mid-1990s, those deported were mainly children of Salvadoran migrants who had settled in poor urban neighborhoods where they had been socialized into existing gang cultures. Deportees then returned to the communities where they had been born. As a result, homicide rates skyrocketed precisely in these places. This did not happen when migrants settled in U.S. cities where they had no contact with gangs.
Many might argue that El Salvador is a specific case that does not permit general claims about the export of violence via deportations. In our recent research, we therefore looked for systematic evidence across a large sample of more than 120 countries since the early 2000s. We asked whether the number of persons deported from the U.S. to a particular country had a statistically discernable impact on the rate of homicides in that country.
Our findings are striking. Even after utilizing a very conservative statistical approach, we find that, on average, an additional inflow of 10 offenders per 100,000 persons translates into more than two additional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the receiving country. Importantly, we only found this effect for the deportation of criminal offenders; no similar impact was observed if we focused instead on non-criminal deportations.
To illustrate the magnitude of the effect, consider the case of Honduras.
Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world with a homicide rate in 2012 of 92 per 100,000 residents. Honduras also received one of the highest influxes of deported offenders that same year: 162 per 100,000 residents. Hence, our model assigns roughly a third of all homicides that year to the inflow of deported offenders.
Our results hold most robustly for the countries of Latin America. This occurs largely for two reasons. First, the deportation of convicted offenders is most relevant for Latin America in quantitative terms: almost 90 percent of all deported offenders over the period 1996 to 2015 were sent to Latin America. Second, the deportation of convicted offenders seems to fall on fertile grounds in many countries of Latin America: deportees are sent back to an environment where economic, political and social opportunities are likely limited.
It is also a region that has been characterized by historically high levels of social conflict and violence, and where criminal enforcement capacities of states are often weak.
The ‘Third Wave’ of Central American Immigration
Central America has seen three migration cycles over the last decades. In the 1980s, migrants fled civil wars between military governments and guerilla movements. In the 1990s and 2000s, the migration flow was dominated by Central Americans escaping poverty and the lack of employment opportunities at home.
Today, we are witnessing a third wave of immigration from Central America driven by violence. There is strong evidence that this violence has been fueled by the deportation of convicted offenders. This has several important policy implications. Not only does their deportation carry huge follow-up costs at migrants’ countries of origin, largely to be borne by innocent people. These policies are also ineffective in discouraging migration.
To the contrary: America’s export of offenders feeds a vicious migration cycle by further destabilizing countries that are already suffering from high levels of conflict and social exclusion.
Finally, these policies bear the risk of trans-nationalizing crime that may feed back into neighboring countries and back to the U.S. The most troubling example: the Central American gangs that have turned into a region-wide concern.
A sensible migration policy would not imprison and traumatize a new generation of innocent children as happened in the summer of 2018, but instead search for ways to help countries break the vicious migration cycle that haunts Central America.
Christian Ambrosius is a lecturer at the Institute for Latin American Studies and the School of Business and Economics at Freie Universität Berlin and currently visiting professor at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in Mexico City. David Leblang is Ambassador Henry J. Taylor Professor of Politics and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. This essay is an expansion of an article by the same authors that previously appeared in the Washington Post. They welcome comments from readers.