In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Central American Migration to the United States

  • Introduction
  • Historical Context of Central American Migration to the United States
  • The Criminalization of Central American Migrants
  • New Settlement Patterns, Local Policy Response
  • Unaccompanied Minors
  • Parent/Child Separation and Family Reorganization
  • Understanding the Transit Experience
  • Seeking Asylum
  • Popular Media Representations
  • Migration Data and Policy

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Social Work Central American Migration to the United States
Benjamin Roth, John Doering-White, Karen Andrea Flynn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0289


Central America is the seven-country region between Colombia and Mexico that includes Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Of the 44 million total immigrants in the United States (US), approximately 8 percent (3.5 million) are from this region. However, among them Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are overrepresented. Nearly half (1.4 million) of all Central America migrants in the United States are from El Salvador alone. Therefore, these three countries are the primary focus of this bibliography. Each has a complex history that has contributed to recent migration trends, yet Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras also share much in common and are often referred to as the “Northern Triangle” by policymakers and scholars. Out-migration from the region is attributable to many factors, including a long history of violence and political instability, international gang activity, and the drug trade—all problems that have been exacerbated by US policy. While some are traditional labor migrants, many others are asylees who are fleeing persecution. Regardless of why they leave their countries, Central American migrants have begun settling across the United States, including places that have not traditionally been receiving contexts for newcomers. In response, local and federal policies have been largely exclusionary, making their process of social, cultural, and economic adaptation more difficult. Central American migrants have also been criminalized by contemporary immigration enforcement rhetoric and practices in the United States. This has contributed to growing rates of deportation which, in turn, have contributed to the disruption of immigrant families. Transnational Central American families have been reorganized by migration in other ways as well. Parents have migrated in search of better economic opportunities, leaving their children in the care of extended family members, for example. At other times, migrant parents and their children have been forcibly separated by the immigration system, whether upon apprehension at the border or as a result of interior enforcement practices. As conditions in many Central America communities remain precarious, children, youth and families continue to seek asylum at the US-Mexico border. However, the laws and practices governing the asylum process are not static. As these laws change, it is incumbent upon social workers to stay informed about the needs of Central American migrants so they can more effectively advocate for their rights.

Historical Context of Central American Migration to the United States

During the 1980s, political instability in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala contributed to the out-migration of many Central Americans fleeing war, violence, and persecution. By analyzing the case of Guatemala, Burrell 2013 explains how this period must be understood within the geopolitics of the Cold War and decades-long civil conflicts. War-related atrocities included “disappearing” and torturing civilian dissidents and rebels. Indigenous groups and rural areas were particularly affected, in part due to their historical experience of oppression and the geography of the conflict itself. Massey 2020 shows how US laws and Cold War foreign policy contributed to social exclusion for Central American migrants in the United States as well. The sanctuary movement—a group of churches and other advocates in the United States —emerged during this period to advocate for the rights of Central American migrants. Crittenden 1988 is an analysis of this movement, showing that churches argued that Central American migrants should be classified as asylees whose displacement was due, in part, to US foreign policy. Congress later created Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in an effort to provide eligible Central Americans permission to stay and work legally in the United States. While the renewable protection of TPS allowed many Central Americans to remain legally in the country, it did not provide a path to citizenship. Menjívar 2006 argues that instead TPS created a generation of “liminally legal” Central American migrants who were able to access some of the benefits of citizenship without the opportunity to fully attain it. Abrego 2017 suggests that this period has had a long-term damaging effect on Central American migrants in the United States, both individually and as a group, and Moodie 2010 and Burrell and Moodie 2013 show that the ongoing violence in the region must be understood in light of this historical context.

  • Abrego, L. J. 2017. On silences: Salvadoran refugees then and now. Latino Studies 15.1:73–85.

    DOI: 10.1057/s41276-017-0044-4

    This article compares violence against Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s and the present, and demonstrates its collective consequences.

  • Burrell, J. 2013. Maya after war: Conflict, power, and politics in Guatemala. Austin, TX: Univ. of Texas Press.

    Examines the impact of the thirty-six-year civil war in Guatemala and documents the post-conflict aftermath in an indigenous community. Provides a good over view of the Guatemalan context.

  • Burrell, J. L., and E. Moodie, eds. 2013. Central America in the new millennium: Living transition and reimagining democracy. New York: Berghahn Books.

    Interdisciplinary edited volume that provides additional background on the region and a framework for understanding political processes after the Cold War.

  • Crittenden, A. 1988. Sanctuary: A story of American conscience and the law in collision. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

    This book traces the growth of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, examining the web of churches across the United States and Mexico.

  • Massey, D. S. 2020. Creating the exclusionist society: From the War on Poverty to the war on immigrants. In Special issue: Children of Immigrants in the Age of Deportation. Edited by Alejandro Portes and Patricia Fernandez-Kelly. Ethnic and Racial Studies 43.1:18–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2019.1667504

    This article examines the effects of policies aimed at combating social problems such as crime, drugs, terror, and poverty, and how they have created an exclusionist environment for Latino immigrants. Emphasis is placed on the Reagan administration’s involvement in the Contra war and the long-term effects of US involvement in regional conflict.

  • Menjívar, C. 2006. Liminal legality: Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants’ lives in the United States. American Journal of Sociology 111.4:999–1037.

    DOI: 10.1086/499509

    This article addresses the experiences of Guatemalan and El Salvadorian immigrants in the United States. Explores how ambiguous immigrant status—liminal legality—impacts other areas of life for immigrants: social networks and family, the Church, and artistic expression.

  • Moodie, E. 2010. El Salvador in the aftermath of peace: Crime, uncertainty, and the transition to democracy. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    Analysis of the postwar situation in El Salvador that investigates why crime and violence escalated following the conflict. Good summary of this period of history that challenges simplistic interpretations.

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