Migration of Central American Minors to the United States

By and ·June 6, 2023
University of California, Davis

The Issue:

Recent news articles have called attention to a surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2021 and 2022 and to the employment in the United States of foreign-born minors in violation of child labor laws. Looking at monthly census data provides a very different picture of this population than one would draw from data on encounters at the southern border. We find that while the population of immigrant children and adolescents from Central America has been increasing since 2014, the share living in the United States with no parent present is small and has not changed much. A much larger part of the story seems to be one of families immigrating together or minors reuniting with parents through migration to the United States.

A large share of the growth in immigrant youth from Central America reflects the migration of families and families reuniting in the United States.

The Facts:

  • Central American adults have been migrating in large numbers to the United States for more than 20 years. The population of adult immigrants from Central American countries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama) who reside in the United States has been increasing since 2000 at a fairly steady pace. The number of Central American adults (18 years and older) increased from about 1.7 million in 2000 to almost 3.9 million in 2023, as measured in the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) and confirmed in the March CPS -ASEC data. This represents a net increase by about 2.2 million Central Americans in the United States over the period — with the largest share coming from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. This trend is a continuation of a tendency towards increasing emigration from Central America that began in the 1980’s when regional civil wars erupted and continued and additional factors pushed people away. Important push factors from Central America in the last 23 years have been several natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998, two massive earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, prolonged droughts in El Salvador and Guatemala in 2013-14. Additionally a very high level of violence and crime and continued political instability — especially in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have contributed to the large emigration from the region. 
  • Unlike the population of adults, the population of Central American children and adolescents in the United States was relatively stable until about 2014 when it began growing rapidly. To better understand the nature of these immigrant inflows and put them in recent historical context, we use Monthly Current Population Survey Data from January 2000 to February 2023, sampling documented and undocumented Central American adults and Central American minors (younger than 18) residing in the United States. The data provide measures of the evolution of these populations and information about the shares of immigrant minors living without parents and engaged in paid work. The populations of immigrant children (ages 0-11) and adolescents (12-17) from Central America were relatively stable between 2000 and 2013 at around 80,000 and 95,000 respectively (see chart). Since 2014, both groups have been growing steadily and the growth has possibly accelerated since 2020. As of 2023, the resident population of children from Central America reached about 240,000 and the resident population of Central American adolescents in the United States reached 200,000. This implies a net increase of about 270,000 Central American minors in the last 9 years.
  • However, the share of Central American children living in the United States with no parent present is small and has not changed much from the period 2000-2013 to the more recent years 2014-2023, as  measured by CPS data. Around 3% of Central American children (ages 0-11) resident in the United States lived in households without a parent present between 2000 and 2013. The share increased slightly to about 5% between 2014 and 2023, with fluctuations around that value. For 12 to 17-year-olds, the value shows bigger fluctuations but it was on average about 9% before 2013 and 11% in the period 2014-2023 (see chart below). The data imply about 33,000 Central American minors (0-17 years old) living without parents in 2022-23; 13,000 of them younger than 12. The data record individuals residing in the United States, not border encounters. We include single-family units, extended-family units, housing arrangements, group homes, and foster homes. The data do not include detention facilities as the CPS does not cover those. For comparison, the rate of U.S.-born 0 to 11-year-olds living without parents (mostly in foster homes) in the period 2000-2023, was about 3%. For U.S.-born children in the age range 12-17 it was 4.3%. Both rates for U.S. born children were rather stable over the last 23 years. 

(Click here for a larger version of the chart.)

  • An important share of Central American Children were reunited with their parents through immigration to the United States. The Current Population Survey includes information on the 2-year interval of arrival of each immigrant. For each Central American minor living with at least one parent, we can identify whether the child arrived in the United States at least one year after the first parent. Of all Central American minors living with parents in the United States in 2022-23, 42% arrived at least one year after the first parent. Hence, a total of about 180,000 central American children living with their parents, reunited with them once parents had already migrated to the United States. This can constitute a large part of the 270,000 net increase in Central American minors in the last 9 years. While there are 33,000 Central American children living in the United States in a household without their parents, according to CPS data, the data suggest that the larger phenomenon is that Central American families came to the United States with their children or that children were joining their parents in the United States. 
  • The number of 33,000 unaccompanied minor immigrants from Central America living in the U.S. in 2022-2023 is much smaller than one would infer from data recording apprehensions of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border. In 2021 there were about 94,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador (constituting about two thirds of all apprehensions of unaccompanied minors) at the border. Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors from these countries averaged 42,000 per year in the period 2014-2019, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. If apprehensions of unaccompanied minors corresponded to children eventually entering the United States and living here without parents the cumulative number would be one order of magnitude larger than the 33,000 measured in the CPS. There are several possible reasons for the discrepancy. Many of them (as many as 180,000) could have been re-joining their parents in the U.S., as mentioned above. Moreover, some apprehensions result in immediate expulsions, as was the case under title 42, which allowed for immediate expulsions on public health grounds. Apprehension data may count the same person more than once if entry is attempted many times. Other minors are processed for removal or leave voluntarily, and a portion of them age out of unaccompanied minor status. One limitation of the CPS data is that they do not include people in detention or other facilities where children may be held temporarily after entry.
  • Have the recent inflows corresponded to more Central American minors trying to work in the United States? The employment rate of Central American minors between 15 and 17 years old, as measured by CPS data has been stable in the last 20 years: This value was 14% on average in 2000-2013 and slightly declined, with fluctuations, to 12% in 2014-2023. For comparison, the employment rate for U.S.-born minors in the same age range was slightly larger both in the period 2000-2013 with an average of 19% and in 2014-2023, with an average of 16%. These figures do not show evidence of an increased propensity of central American minors to work. The important caveat is that we are not able to measure work among those under 15 as reported by the New York Times, because the Census does not ask such a question of children under 15. The CPS data include, however, children who are residing in the United States, independently of their legal status and therefore includes the undocumented ones and hence the employment rate for 15-17 includes documented and undocumented minors.

What this Means:

The number of minors from Central America residing in the United States has been increasing since about 2014 and the increase seems to have accelerated in the most recent years. However, we do not find a similar increase in the number of minors from these countries living unaccompanied in the United States. Our evidence suggests that the increase in the population of immigrant minors from Central America largely corresponds to an increase in the migration of families, following a period of increased migration by Central American adults. The phenomenon of children arriving and residing without their parents seems to be much less common (8% of total) than those arriving with their parents and/or to rejoin them. While the concern for the working status and conditions of the Central American minors living in the U.S. is valid, an important part of the story is that the vast majority of children moved to the United States with their parents or reunited with them in the U.S., during the last 9 years. This is a less explored but quantitatively much larger part of the story of increasing immigrant minors from Central America. It also likely implies better outcomes for them in terms of their emotional and physical health, as well as education and economic perspectives, relative to remaining behind in Central America or migrating alone.


Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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