The pandemic is compounding poverty and gang violence among other issues in Central and South America — factors that have lead to increased migration to the U.S., according to a new study from Hope Border Institute.
In a report released this week titled, "An Exploration of Root Causes to the Southern Border," the organization found that most migrants did not undertake the journey for healthcare or vaccine access.
Rather, most migrants are dealing with trickle-down economic and social effects from the pandemic, including increased gang extortion, strict enforcement of quarantine and coronavirus restrictions, and economic stressors that have not been addressed by the local government.
Hannah Hollandbyrd, a key author and researcher for the study, interviewed 51 migrants, a majority of whom cited the pandemic as a reason for leaving their countries. Most of the migrants were from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. Sixty percent of them were traveling with a family.
The report found that many of the migrants from Mexico came from one area in particular called Michoacán.
"They described fleeing from a war-like conflict between cartels characterized by extreme violence and widespread forced conscription of men and boys," the study reads.
In addition, nearly everyone surveyed for the report, despite country of origin, said that their income in their country was insufficient to support the cost of living.
The migrants primarily reported economic struggles from COVID-19, including job loss, as well as a strict enforcement of quarantine rules, such as not being able to leave their home. One man shared a story with Hollandbyrd about a lack of government assistance during the pandemic.
In Central America, the study found that participants reported poverty as "insufficient income, scarcity of work, food insecurity, lack of access to healthcare and distance from sources of water."
The pandemic deepened women's vulnerability to abuse and a lack of safety net. Many women interviewed in the study said that their reason for migrating was due to gender-based violence from their partner or spouse along with a lack of consistent work and resources. In addition, natural disasters such as hurricanes stripped away "social cushioning," in Central America, according to the report.
"We are certainly seeing people who are just trying to survive, and the pandemic is making it harder for people to achieve basic survival," she said. "So they seek safety and protection."
Hollandbyrd said the pandemic has led to more migration because it's impacted lower-income residents in Central and South America as well as middle-class citizens.
"Even people who are pretty stable were really undercut by the pandemic," she said. "And people on the edge were even more."
Migration at the U.S.-Mexico border reached its highest level in recorded history this year, with 1.6 million people encountered at the border. Most migrants that are apprehended are being expelled from the U.S. under a Trump administration public health policy that has survived into the Biden administration.
Honduras has fully vaccinated 25 percent of its population against the coronavirus, while Mexico has reached 40 percent and El Salvador 55 percent, according to data in the study. But with the spread of the deadly new coronavirus variant, omicron, it's unclear how long the pandemic's affects will last and further drive migration to the U.S.
The study was conducted this summer as part of Hope's root causes initiative, a program through the organization seeking to implement policies to address migrant needs.