Yuvan Sharma
2 June 2021: Tackling Immigration from Central America to the United States
02.06.202111 Min Read — In Politics

Executive Summary

Immigration is one of the many pressing foreign policy concerns that the United States has to deal with, but it is also drastically different from other problems in the same domain. It is not solely a foreign policy matter; rather, it consists of both domestic and foreign aspects which are intertwined to create an extremely complicated, intricate issue which the U.S. has been struggling to end for decades.

Current U.S. policy is lacking in several areas, including legal pathways to immigration, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and addressing the short-term and long-term push factors in Central America that force immigrants to look to the United States for opportunities. The American approach to immigration is ambiguous, confusing, and has no immediate or long-term fix for immigration.

U.S. policy must be modified to make skills-based immigration the major category for legal immigration, and it must also coordinate with Mexico and Latin America to stop illegal immigrants and solve the root causes of the immigration issue, as immigration can become a great strength for the United States if it is handled properly. These changes are essential as they would provide the U.S. with economic benefits while solving the immigration conundrum at both the immediate and long-term levels, and addressing the long-term problems is critical to ending the crisis in the future.


An appropriate place to begin an analysis of the immigration issue is Central America and consider the reasons why people migrate from there to the United States in the first place. The three countries in Central America from which most immigrants originate are Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, together known as the Northern Triangle. There are several long-term as well as short-term push factors which compel these immigrants to make the difficult journey across Mexico. Socioeconomic conditions are bad and have shown no signs of improvement in the last few decades, as land ownership and economic influence “remain concentrated in the hands of a small group of elites” (Congressional Research Service, 2021). As the working population of these countries continues to increase in size, immigration numbers are creeping up. The newer generations look for opportunities in the United States because job creation in their own countries continues to lag. Besides economic woes, violence is another long-term push factor in the Northern Triangle. Homicide rates have risen sharply since the start of the 21st century because the region has become the main pathway for drug smugglers into the United States. Consequently, the region is plagued with violence as gangs battle for control of local drug distribution and supremacy (Congressional Research Service, 2021). The violent altercations have displaced a large number of people, who eventually decide to leave their country when they have no way back to their homes.

A major short-term factor is natural disasters. The region has been struggling with annual droughts which have consequently impacted crops and farmer income. Honduras was hit by two destructive hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in quick succession in November 2020. The government’s ineffective and insufficient response to these hurricanes and the other long-term issues afflicting their countries also convinced many people to migrate and has played a major role in the recent immigration waves. (Congressional Research Service, 2021)

The U.S. policy on immigration also plays an important role. Before 1965, immigration to the U.S. was based on national quotas, to limit the number of people that could enter from each country. In 1965, this policy was changed to one based on uniting immigrant families in the U.S. and attracting skilled workers. This led to a shift in the major source of immigration, from Northwestern Europe to Asia and Latin America. Since then, immigration numbers have risen from around 320,000 immigrants per year in the 1960s to more than 1 million per year by 2000 (Center for Immigration Studies).

Current U.S. Policy

The majority of immigrants who legally enter the United States currently do so through family-based immigration, wherein the prospective migrant has a family member already living in the United States with citizenship, and in some cases, a green card. This family member sponsors the migrant, who is allowed into the U.S. after his application is reviewed and approved. A small number of immigrants also enter the countries through other pathways. One is refugee admissions, a process through which the U.S. allows refugees who are escaping persecution in their home countries. The United States places an upper limit on the number of refugees that can be admitted. For fiscal 2021, Former President Trump had placed this limit at 15,000, and President Biden has proposed raising this number to 62,500 (Pew Research Center, 2021). Another method for entry into the U.S. is employment-based green cards, which are awarded to foreign workers. Diversity visas, intended to diversify the population and awarded on a lottery basis, and H-1B visas for highly skilled workers, are the other primary legal pathways into the United States (Pew Research Center, 2021). For immigrants from Central America who might not be skilled workers and cannot apply for family-based immigration but still want to legally enter the US, the system is extremely ambiguous and confusing, to the point of being incoherent. This is because U.S. policies on immigration are not based on a single legislation; rather, they are the result of an iterative process of immigration legislation over many years, and as a result, they have become complicated and confusing over time. The legal pathways are very tightly constrained and in some cases, being skilled, knowing English, and having studied at a U.S. university might be considered less important than marrying a U.S. citizen. The arbitrariness of the immigration system has thus led a lot of immigrants to seek illegal entry into the United States (Hoover Institution et al., 2021).

For immigrants who have already entered the United States, the asylum system is also ambiguous. A migrant seeking asylum goes through formal processes, but the system’s machinery often gets overwhelmed by demand and as a result, several immigrants do not get the chance to hear the verdict on their asylum appeal. Illegal immigrants have no clear path to amnesty; the U.S. government occasionally provides amnesties to very specific groups of people, but there is still a huge number of illegal immigrants who have no clear legal status (Hoover Institution et al., 2021).


Immigration is a complex issue, and the view that it is a burden for the U.S. to deal with is uninformed. It is critical to realize that immigration is actually a great strength for the U.S. on the global stage, and, if used in the best manner, can give the U.S. an advantage over its competitors. The immigrant demographic does not just consist of industrial workers, farmers, or laborers. There are all kinds of people among the immigrants, including skilled workers and professionals. This is mainly because the immigrants leave their country due to universal issues like drug violence, corruption, and ill-governance, rather than an issue that affects only one particular section of the Central American population. Therefore, immigrants also include skilled workers which the U.S. workforce can greatly benefit from. An important point to note here is that immigrants can easily become a natural part of the US, as it inherently has people from a large number of backgrounds and cultures. As a result, immigrants will not feel like foreigners, and within one to two generations, their families will integrate into American society. In this regard, the United States has an advantage over regions like Europe or Japan, which have faced issues in immigration and increasing the presence of foreign professionals as these regions have a single, dominant, cultural background (George W. Bush Institute & Rice, 2021). By attracting skilled workers from the countries in Central America, the U.S. can benefit economically while also giving immigrants an opportunity for a better life. An important example to note is Fiji, a country which non-native South Asians became eager to leave after a major coup. The instability led to these South Asians searching for alternative places to reside in, and as a result, they began to strategically improve their education and skills to climb the ladder on the skill-based immigration policies of countries like Australia and New Zealand. Until then, natives and non-native South Asians had had the same education levels; however, after the coup, the South Asians began to gain skills to successfully immigrate. Therefore, skills-based immigration benefits both the country receiving immigrants and the immigrants themselves (Hoover Institution et al., 2021).

Current U.S. policy does not address different groups of immigrants in an efficient manner, which results in confusion, ambiguity, and a lack of control over the system. The United States should address the immigrant issue by dividing the immigrants into three distinct groups: the illegal immigrants already present in the US, the immigrants waiting at the border and those about to cross into the US, and those who have not yet started the journey to the U.S. but may become potential immigrants in the future. Solving the issue for the first two groups requires a short-term solution while solving the issue for the third group is more of a long-term solution focusing on the root causes and push factors persisting in Central America. The short-term solution needs to include amnesty for the illegal immigrants present in the U.S. and also involve cooperation with Mexico to use it as a buffer region to contain and stop most of the illegal immigrants. The long-term solution involves cooperation with the Central American countries to help them solve the issues there. This is exactly what is lacking in current and previous U.S. policy; it does not cooperate with Mexico to a sufficient degree, and also does not focus on helping the Northern Triangle countries. As a result, both the short-term and long-term problems continue to trouble the United States.

Current U.S. policy on legal immigration is also unsatisfactory. The primary pathway is through family sponsorship. A major problem with family sponsorship is the sheer volume of applications that the U.S. receives. A large number of applicants often have to wait for years to receive a green card because of a per-country quota which restricts the number of green cards that a particular country’s citizens receive to no more than 7% of the total green cards issued (Pew Research Center, 2021). Another issue is the potential entry of individuals who are unable to financially support themselves, which places a burden on American resources while offering little to the U.S. in return. In addition, restricting the main category of immigration to family-based immigration is a major problem, as the preexisting presence of an individual who will harm rather than contribute to society can lead to the entry of more such individuals. Lastly, the United States’ approach to amnesty is haphazard; some illegal immigrants receive amnesty while others do not, and this process is arbitrary. In addition, a large number of immigrants neither receive amnesty nor get deported, leaving them without any legal rights, a status contradictory to the democratic nature of the U.S. The main argument against amnesty for all immigrants is that it essentially incentivizes illegal immigration, but the best solution for this problem is providing amnesty for current illegal immigrants and using resolute enforcement in the future, by coordinating with the Latin American countries and Mexico as described earlier. The only way to deal with illegal immigration is to improve border enforcement and cooperation with Mexican authorities to ensure that most illegal immigrants are stopped in Mexico before they can reach the border.


Current U.S. policy on immigration is unsatisfactory in several departments, including the legal path into the United States, amnesty for illegal immigrants present in the U.S., and in terms of addressing the short-term and long-term push factors to stop large-scale immigration in the future. The Biden administration has undoubtedly taken some much-needed decisions on immigration in the past few months to reduce the negative impact that the Trump administration had; however, there are still several ways to improve the current U.S. policies while keeping the United States’ benefit in mind.

As far as the legal path into the United States is concerned, family-based immigration should predominantly be replaced by skill-based immigration. This change will give the U.S. assured economic benefit as it admits people by giving skilled professionals higher priority, and it gives these professionals an ideal atmosphere to best utilize their skills as well. It is important to note that an ideal policy would not remove family-based immigration entirely; it would still be important to continue family-based immigration in terms of reuniting families who are separated. However, family-based immigration would be given less priority. In addition, family-based immigration would include prioritization based on immigrants’ skills to allow them to climb up the ladder. This further ensures economic return for the United States and does not place a burden on its resources. Skill-based immigration is especially important and beneficial if the United States continues to place a limit on immigration, as it has been doing. Another major benefit of skill-based immigration and family-based immigration running simultaneously is it would get bipartisan support; Republicans are likely to support skill-based immigration because of its economic benefits while Democrats will want to continue family-based immigration for reunification purposes, making it easier for Congress to pass legislation on immigration.

Amnesty for illegal immigrants already present in the U.S. is also an important part of U.S. policy that should be improved. Such illegal immigrants should be fined and then given amnesty as long as they have not committed any serious crimes, in which case there should be further investigation and deportation if necessary. To avoid amnesty becoming an incentive for illegal immigration, the United States must ensure resolute enforcement in the future, both domestically and in Mexico and Latin America. Enforcement in Mexico and Latin America falls under addressing the short-term and long-term factors of Central American immigration. Enforcement, systemic reform, and amnesty must follow a particular order to ensure the maximum positive impact. Firstly, the system should be reformed around skills-based immigration as described above. Then, the illegal immigrants present in the United States should be given amnesty, which should be followed by resolute border enforcement in collaboration with Mexico.

Addressing the short-term and long-term immigration factors requires efficient coordination with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. The United States must negotiate with Mexico to make sure that it stops and contains most of the illegal immigrants that come. This strategy uses Mexico as a buffer region, which minimizes the migrant flow that the U.S. has to deal with. The U.S. must also help Mexico establish holding facilities in Mexico for individuals who wish to seek asylum lawfully. Creating similar facilities in the United States will ensure the U.S. can comfortably deal with these immigrants. They will be transferred from the Mexican facilities to the American facilities as each immigrant is dealt with and either allowed entry or deported if it is necessary (CBS, 2021). The United States should additionally negotiate with Mexico to ensure that Mexico strictly regulates its southern border and detains any person or groups which intend to cross into the U.S. illegally. Lastly, the United States must hold dialogue with the Northern Triangle countries to decide the best method to solve their longstanding issues, through direct intervention, aid, or some other method. If these countries resist change due to systemic corruption, the U.S. must directly intervene to remove the drug cartels and corruption and once again establish peace in the region, preferably with the United Nations’ support.