– Executive Summary

The rising volume of irregular migrants poses a significant challenge for the U.S. government. Although irregular migrants were once composed predominantly of Mexican and Central American nationals, the makeup of contemporary migrant flows has become significantly more diverse.[1] Increasingly, migrants, particularly families and unaccompanied minors, are challenging the capacities of the U.S. immigration system.[2] To tackle ongoing irregular migration challenges, the United States must intensify its diplomatic engagement with South and Central American nations, encouraging them to proactively manage and redirect migratory flows instead of merely passing them onward. Concurrently, the United States must overhaul its current immigration framework, shifting from antiquated policies and legislation to a U.S. immigration system attuned to present-day migration challenges.

The poor diplomatic relationships that Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua have with the United States further complicate the irregular migrant situation. Except for inconsequential returns to Haiti, the United States’ inability to repatriate migrants from these countries creates a pull factor drawing thousands of non-citizens to the U.S. border. Immigration facilities are over capacity, and increased encounters with familial groups introduce additional strains on the U.S. immigration infrastructure, which result in a significant number of migrants being released from U.S. custody or not detained whatsoever. Thus, more irregular migrants are drawn to the United States in pursuit of the American dream, whether for economic motivations or family reunification.

South and Central America’s lackadaisical approach to irregular migration facilitates the current migratory situation at the U.S. border.[3] This inadequate approach results in thousands of migrants traveling through Colombia into Panama daily and subsequently through Mexico to reach the U.S. border.[4] Human-smuggling networks in the region have exploited regional governments’ laissez-faire requirements to fly into the countries, insufficient enforcement strategies, and agreements facilitating easy travel across the region, such as the Central American–4 border control agreement.[5] Traditional smuggling methods have evolved, and the current trend entails migrants’ surrendering to U.S. authorities upon reaching the border to exploit the U.S. asylum claim process.[6] This strategy aims to apply pressure on the already strained U.S. immigration infrastructure to release immigrants rather than detain them.

Irregular migration has remained a significant political issue in the United States, often intensifying during presidential terms and creating considerable divides in the political arena.[7] The Trump administration focused heavily on curbing illegal migration and enhancing border security, culminating in several controversial immigration policies, including the migrant protection protocols and the zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in reduced encounters with Central Americans.[8] Conversely, the Biden administration, with its more liberal policies, is grappling with historic migrant flows and criticism for releasing thousands of migrants into U.S. communities.[9] The decrease in irregular flows during the Trump administration and the increase during the Biden administration underscore the impact that a change in migration policy has, suggesting its importance as a consideration for prospective immigrants.

Since 2014, Mexico has emerged as a pivotal partner in managing irregular migration, devoting substantial resources to bolstering border control along its southern border. Mexico’s efforts have resulted in the detention and repatriation of large numbers of migrants bound for the United States, a commitment that continues to this day. Moreover, Mexico has shifted its role from simply a transit country to a partner that supports the United States. This transformation has required Mexico to allocate extensive resources, underscoring its determination in assisting the United States with the issue of irregular migration.

Immigration policies designed to remedy problematic areas can have unintended consequences. In late 2020, Mexico instituted new legislation concerning migrant minors, which prohibited their detention and limited the capacity of Mexican migration authorities to detain them and any accompanying adults.[10] This legislation stipulates that adults accompanying minors cannot be deported or repatriated and must receive a humanitarian visa. Although intended to protect the rights of children, this legislation inadvertently created a loophole for adult migrants to exploit and intensified the volume of migrant familial groups encountered.

The significant flow of migrants from Colombia into Central America raises questions about the effectiveness of U.S. financial aid aimed to improve conditions in these countries and curtail irregular migration.[11] Despite the substantial aid that the United States has extended to these countries, the number of migrants attempting to reach the U.S. border remains high. A change in strategy is needed—one that attaches obligations to recipient countries to address the problem of irregular migration, requires routine analysis to assess the return on investment, and imposes consequences for these countries if they do not address irregular migration despite accepting financial support. Irregular migration is complex, and the existing immigration system is ill-equipped to handle these current challenges. A substantial shift in discourse, policy, and infrastructure is required to address the changing realities of irregular migration. Revising the foreign labor program, regularizing the illegal population already in the United States, holding countries accountable for addressing irregular migration, and reforming legal migration would remove inefficiencies. The solution to this challenging issue is an immigration system that addresses contemporary immigration realities.


[1] Robbie Gramer, “Venezuela’s Forgotten Refugee Crisis Rivals Ukraine’s,” Foreign Policy, September 1, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/09/01/venezuela-refugee-crisis-rivals-ukraine-humanitarian-response/.

[2] Diana Villiers Negroponte, “The Surge in Unaccompanied Children from Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis at Our Border,” Brookings Institution, July 2, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/‌articles/‌the-surge-in-unaccompanied-children-from-central-america-a-humanitarian-crisis-at-our-border/.

[3] Piotr Plewa, “Migration Trends through Panama’s Darien Gap and What They Mean for Regional Cooperation,” Duke Center for International and Global Studies, March 4, 2021, https://igs.duke.edu/‌news/‌migration-trends-through-panamas-darien-gap-and-what-they-mean-regional-cooperation.

[4] Carolina Baigts Franco and Lillian Zenteno Valdivieso, Addressing the Darien Gap Migration Crisis and Its Impact on Neighboring Countries (New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2023), https://www.cap.edu.mx/pasmun.org/back/DESA.pdf.

[5] Franco and Valdivieso, Addressing the Darien Gap Migration Crisis; Nick Miroff, “U.S. Arrests along Mexico Border Top 2 Million a Year for First Time,” Washington Post, September 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/09/19/us-border-patrol-arrests/.

[6] Jasper Gilardi, “Ally or Exploiter? The Smuggler–Migrant Relationship Is a Complex One,” Migration Policy Institute, February 4, 2020, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/ally-or-exploiter-smuggler-migrant-relationship-complex-one; Peter Meyer, Central America’s Northern Triangle: Challenges for U.S. Policymakers in 2021, CRS Report No. IN11603 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2021), https://crsreports.congress.‌gov/‌product/pdf/IN/IN11603.

[7] Katya Palacios, “Presidential Rhetoric about Immigration from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump” (undergraduate thesis, Dominican University, 2021), https://doi.org/10.33015/dominican.edu/2021.‌POL.‌ST.02.

[8] Ediberto Román and Ernesto Sagas, “A Domestic Reign of Terror: Donald Trump’s Family Separation Policy,” Harvard Latinx Law Review 24 (2021), https://ecollections.law.fiu.edu/faculty_‌publications/459; Mark Hoekstra and Sandra Orozco-Aleman, “Illegal Immigration: The Trump Effect” (working paper, National Bureau of Economic Research, June 2021), https://doi.org/10.3386/w28909.

[9] Dan Runde et al., An Alliance for Prosperity 2.0 (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2021), https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep28764.

[10] Andrea Tanco, Maria Jesus Mora, and Daniela Hall, “Strengthening Mexico’s Protection Landscape for Migrant Children: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead,” Georgetown Collaborative on Global Children’s Issues, April 19, 2022, https://globalchildren.georgetown.edu/responses/strengthening-mexico-s-protection-landscape-for-migrant-children-challenges-and-opportunities-ahead.

[11] Meyer, Central America’s Northern Triangle.

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