In the early summer months of 2014, an increasing number of children and families from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — three of the most dangerous countries in the world — began arriving at the US-Mexico border in search of safety and protection. Responses to this “surge,” and explanations for it, varied widely in policy, media, and government circles. Two competing narratives emerged. One argues that “push” factors in their home countries drove children and families to flee as bona fide asylum seekers; the other asserted that “pull” factors drew these individuals to the United States.
The first section of this paper examines and critiques the Obama administration’s policies during and after the 2014 summer surge, which took the form of expanded family detention, accelerated removal procedures, raids, and interdiction. The second section examines the “push” factors behind the migration surge — namely, societal violence, violence in the home, and poverty and exclusion in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The penultimate section explores the ways in which the United States’ deterrence-based policies echo missteps of the past, particularly through constructive refoulement and the denial of protection to legitimate refugees. The paper concludes by offering recommendations to the US government for a more effective approach to the influx of Central American women and children at its border, one that addresses the reasons driving their flight and that furthers a sustainable solution consistent with US and international legal obligations and moral principles.