U.S. Assistance is Improving Lives, Addressing Root Causes of Migration in Central America

New Mercy Corps research underscores value of continued U.S. aid and development assistance to the Northern Triangle

WASHINGTON — New research by the global organization Mercy Corps finds that U.S. aid to Central America is helping to build safer and more prosperous communities. The new report released today, Subsist or Persist, examines factors causing people to flee Central America and the links between U.S. development programs in the region and migration.

  • At the end of an agricultural development program in Guatemala, there was a 30% reduction in youth thinking frequently about migrating among those surveyed.
  • In recent interviews, participants in an urban violence prevention program in Guatemala said they were more hopeful in their economic and education prospects.

“Evidence from our programs and from evaluations of other United States Government-funded programs shows that U.S.-funded initiatives in Central America are improving lives by increasing opportunities and improving people’s sense of security,” says Beza Tesfaye, Senior Researcher at Mercy Corps and co-author of the report. “When people feel safer and have more opportunities at home, they are less likely to take a dangerous journey to find a better life elsewhere.”

The report draws on existing research as well as new surveys and in-depth interviews conducted in Guatemala in 2018-2019. The surveys closely examine two Mercy Corps programs focused on rural agricultural development and urban violence prevention.

During a recent two-year USAID-funded program in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, Mercy Corps provided agricultural training and worked with 1,000 youth to create savings and loans groups to finance agricultural investments. Savings topped $110,000 and after participating in the program, 76% of youth interviewed said they were confident that their lives in Guatemala would improve.

Based on a 2019 sample survey, participants in Mercy Corps’ USAID-funded urban violence prevention program in Guatemala City said they have a greater desire to remain in Guatemala, compared to non-participants.

“Although limited data makes it difficult to establish a direct link between U.S. foreign assistance and migration, the research that exists makes a strong case for continued investment in the Northern Triangle, rather than reducing or cutting funding for these programs,” says Tesfaye. “Measures to deter migration — by making it more costly and difficult to access the U.S. asylum process — without improving underlying conditions in Central America are unlikely to dissuade people from migrating. Many aspiring and actual migrants we spoke with indicated that they would still take the risk, no matter the harrowing journey or barriers upon arrival.”