Debuking the Myths: A Scrolling Journey Through Central American Migration to the US

Estimated Reading Time: ~10min
No one is illegal
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

Setting the Stage

In the realm of migration, misconceptions often tip the scales, leading to underestimations and overestimations of the challenges that migrant workers face. It's time to strike a balance by busting these myths and uncovering the true intricacies of migrant experiences. The perception of how easy or difficult it is to migrate to the United States varies among Americans and is influenced by personal experience, political affiliation, and geographic location. According to the Cato Institute 2021 Immigration and Identity National Survey of 2,600 U.S. adults, more than two‐​thirds (67%) of Americans believe legally immigrating to the United States is “fairly difficult” while a third (33%) think it’s fairly easy. By recalibrating our understanding, we can foster well-informed policies and garner public support that addresses the diverse needs of migrant workers, ultimately promoting their successful integration and restoring equilibrium in host societies. Just like Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, we use hard facts, statistics, and evidence to reveal the truth beneath the rhetoric. So, buckle up and prepare to have your assumptions challenged as we dismantle misconceptions and uncover the genuine impact of migration on our world. We encourage you to engage with our visualizations, read the additional insights shared in our tooltips You will find extra info when hovering our figures (hover your mouse over me) and interact with our questionnaires to see how your current image of the phenomenon compares with the facts suggested by the data.

Hopefully, at the end of it all, we'll prove to you that, when it comes to migration, the facts are often far more enlightening than fiction.

The Easy Road Less Traveled

Accessing regular pathways to migrate to the United States can be an insurmountable challenge for Central American migrants. Despite a seemingly diverse array of migration options such as family-based immigration, employment-based visas, diversity visas, and humanitarian protection programs, the reality is that these pathways are increasingly difficult to navigate due to limited availability, strict eligibility criteria, long waiting periods, and complex application processes. In light of these obstacles, many Central American migrants find themselves with few viable options, either resorting to dangerous and irregular migration routes or facing the possibility of being indefinitely separated from their loved ones. Test your knowledge on migration routes below by clicking on the option corresponding to your answer.

What do you think is the most commonly used pathway for Central American migrant workers to migrate to the US?

According to Michael A. Clemens' research paper, "Pathways for Labor Migration from Northern Central America: Five Difficult but Necessary Proposals," it is distressing to note that out of every 100 individuals from Northern Central America, only two have access to existing lawful migration channels. This means that the other 98 people have limited options and face significant challenges in seeking a better life elsewhere. They are left with no other choice but to endure the difficult conditions in their home countries or to embark on dangerous and often deadly journeys to find refuge in other nations. The lack of accessible and inclusive migration policies underscores the urgent need for systemic change to ensure that individuals seeking a better life are not forced into perilous situations.

When migrants decide whether they should embark on this journey, they cannot afford to look at the low probability of it and perform an in depth analysis because their family’s life depends on their success. They have to ‘gamble’ with their finances and future in hopes for a better life. Imagine you are in Central America and your only chance of survival is trying to migrate. Spin the wheel below to test your odds of making it to the U.S.

What do you think the odds are for a Central American migrant worker to make it to the U.S.?

Unfortunately, not being able to take a regular migration route and having to spin the wheels of fortune lead Central American migrants towards tragedy. Although often overlooked, the tragedies that befall migrants in their quest for a better life are not forgotten. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) established the Missing Migrants Project to document the incidents where migrants, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have perished at national borders or during the migration process to international destinations. This initiative was a response to the scattered reports of people dying or disappearing along migratory routes globally. We have endeavored to bring this data to life by highlighting how migrants, in pursuit of the American Dream, have lost their lives during their journey. The figure below will offer you an insight into some of these sad stories. Hover over some of the ‘towers’ to explore what happened to these migrants. Below the visualization you will find an in depth description of the visualization.

Migrants that were reported dead or missing at the US-Mexico border (2022-2023) 2°S 4°N 10°N 16°N 22°N 28°N 34°N
El Salvador
Dominican Republic
Title: Radial Visualization of Distance Traveled by Missing or Deceased Migrant Workers from Different Countries
Data Source: Missing Migrants Project by International Organization for Migration

The radial graph depicts each concentric ‘tower’, which comprises one or more migrants who began their journey towards the U.S. at the inner tower’s latitude and vanished or perished upon reaching the outer tower’s latitude. The graph showcases the immense distances these migrants traveled, and how they came perilously close to their desired destination, the U.S., only to meet a tragic end. This representation was chosen because, like the radial towers, these migrants had a shared objective: to reach the U.S. and forge a new life, both for themselves and for their host country. The longer concentric towers evoke a sense of despair, akin to that of a marathon runner collapsing at the final mile, crushing her dreams and aspirations, despite her valiant efforts to that point.

How many Central American migrants are actually able to stay in the U.S.?

Let's focus on the few migrants who successfully reach the US. The United States greatly benefits from the labor of immigrants, who play a crucial role in various industries, from agriculture to healthcare. However, this benefit is often one-sided, with many migrants facing challenges in accessing basic services and struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, obtaining legal status poses a significant challenge for many, leading to an inability to stay in the US for the long term. According to a survey by the World Food Program, around half of the migrants were not to stay in the US. The discourse around migration often revolves around financial gain, but it's important to recognize the complex factors driving migration, such as economic hardship, political instability, and violence, and approach the issue with empathy and understanding.

Take a look at the river depicted below. Each drop of the stream is a hard working migrant who has risked everything in pursuit of the American Dream. As you may notice, many of these hopeful water drops fall from their desired "stream of hope".

Title: Unfulfilled Dreams - Visualizing Migrant Workers Who Were Unable to Remain in the U.S.
Credit: This data visualization was made with data contributed by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

Tipping the Scales of Fortune

There is a widespread belief among some Americans that migrant workers are able to send back large sums of money to their home countries, creating an impression of them as financial powerhouses supporting their families from afar. This overestimation often overlooks the reality that many migrant workers face low wages, long hours, and job insecurity, which limits their capacity to send substantial amounts back home. By perpetuating this misconception, we risk undermining the genuine struggles and sacrifices that migrant workers make, ultimately hindering a more accurate understanding of their experiences and contributions to both their host and home countries.

We encourage you to take a guess first! After you enter your guess, we will show you how your guess compares to the actual distribution of the monthly remittances sent back to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. After your guess, you will see a visualization of the distribution of remittance amounts using a violin plot.

How much do you think a Central American migrant workers send back home every month in USD?

The overestimation of the amounts migrant workers send back home can lead to several challenges and problems. It can paint an unrealistic picture of migrant workers as affluent and unaffected by economic struggles, potentially fostering resentment and misunderstanding among the general public. Policymakers might develop and implement policies based on inaccurate assumptions about the financial status and contributions of migrant workers, leading to ineffective or even harmful outcomes. Overestimating the financial power of migrant workers can reduce empathy for their struggles and challenges, discouraging public support for initiatives aimed at improving their working and living conditions.

The belief that migrant workers are sending large sums back home may lead to the assumption that their families do not require any additional assistance, potentially resulting in reduced support for social programs in their home countries. Overestimation of remittance amounts may shift attention away from the need to address labor rights and fair wages for migrant workers, perpetuating poor working conditions and exploitation.

Furthermore, we have visualized a typical budget allocation for migrants' family back in Central America. Additionally, it's important to highlight that while most recipient families may not be wealthy, they are not the poorest of the poor either. The high costs of international migration often prevent the poorest households from migrating and sending cross-border remittances. Consequently, remittances should not be seen as a substitute for government assistance, as they don't reach everyone, especially the most vulnerable populations.

How do you think migrant worker families allocate their remittances?

Toggle on and off different categories to see the allocation of remittances from every migrant worker family interviewed in the World Food Program survey. Each node on the arc highlighted on the right hand-side of the circle represent a category. Each node on the rest of the arc represent a migrant worker family in the survey.