Central American Immigrants in the United States

Given the close cultural, geographic, and trade ties between the United States and countries in Central America, migration to the United States and within the region has been a longstanding phenomenon. Persistent economic and political challenges in Central America have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic and political upheaval, and increasingly extreme weather, causing more Central Americans to migrate to the United States.

Much of the recent migration has been irregular. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered nationals of the four largest Central American sending countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) at the U.S.-Mexico border 109,100 times in fiscal year (FY) 2020, a number that increased to about 705,500 in FY 2022. In the first six months of FY 2023, there were about 287,300 border encounters of these nationals. Between October 2019 and March 2023, nationals of these four countries accounted for nearly one-third of all 5.8 million migrant encounters at the southern border.

The Biden administration has responded to this migration with a mix of stringent and humanitarian approaches. On the one hand, a new rule prohibits many irregularly arriving non-Mexican migrants from seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border unless they had first applied for and been denied asylum in at least one other country along their route. On the other, the administration has also steered billions of dollars in private investments as well as government aid and assistance to Central American countries; extended the Central American Minors (CAM) Program to offer refugee status and parole to some Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans under age 21 with parents in the United States; expanded refugee resettlement; and created new family reunification parole processes for individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, as well as Colombia. And the government will open Regional Processing Centers, initially in Guatemala and Colombia, to screen individuals in the region for possible eligibility for humanitarian protection or other legal pathways, in a bid to forestall chaotic border arrivals and reduce the turn to smuggling operations.

New arrivals join the approximately 3.8 million Central American immigrants already resident in the United States as of 2021, who accounted for 8 percent of all 45.3 million immigrants (see Figure 1). The Central American-born population in the United States has grown more than tenfold since 1980 and by 25 percent since 2010.