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Gallup Podcast
'Exporting People' From Central America to the U.S.
Gallup Podcast

'Exporting People' From Central America to the U.S.

What drives migrants to come to the U.S. border? What kinds of factors lead people to flee their countries -- and what happens for those who arrive in the U.S.? Carlos Denton, a regional expert on Central America, joins the podcast to discuss the migration crisis, possible solutions to it and the role that remittances play in the global economy.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a closer look at undocumented migration through Central America to the United States. What's really driving it? Who's coming? And who are the greatest losers in the current dysfunction at the Southern border of the United States? Carlos Denson is Gallup's senior subject matter expert on Central America and one of the region's most seasoned public opinion scholars. Carlos, welcome to the podcast, sir.

Carlos Denton 00:34
Thank you very much, Mohamed. Good to be here.

Mohamed Younis 00:37
Let me just start by asking, Why are citizens leaving Central America? What's driving this, these recent really waves of migration through the nations of Central America these days, Carlos?

Carlos Denton 00:49
Well, I think Jim Clifton said in an interview somewhere that there's now 144 million people worldwide that want to come to the States, based on the Gallup World Poll. And Central America is simply, I think, a pathway to get up to the Southern border, which is viewed as open at this time by operators of, and, and by people interested in moving. And what you have then is a significant group from the, what are called the Northern Triangle countries -- Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which we can talk about. But we also have a lot of extra continentals that are coming up through there. In fact, I've been noticing, following the news a little bit, that where, there's many Haitians and people from Asia, from Africa and other areas as well that are using this route.

Carlos Denton 01:47
So the, the demand is basically these, many of these people are living in failed countries, and that includes Honduras, El Salvador and, and Guatemala. The, there just simply aren't opportunities for young people. And we we've asked over and over again. We, we ask constantly, "If you had the resources to do this, would you be interested in living in another country?" And the percentages are high -- 30%, 40%, 45%, depending on the country -- that want to get out, because they see no future for themselves in their own country. That's basically it.

Carlos Denton 02:28
Now, the thing that is most interesting is, many of the C3 countries -- the Northern Triangle countries -- the people are coming in and claiming that their move, they are asking for asylum because they feel their lives are endangered. And that's a whole other issue which is, which we could discuss. But what's happened is that people have economic problems and become indebted. And they might have credit cards or might not, but they -- just to simply get by -- have gradually worked themselves into a situation where they owe a lot of money. And finally, when they have no other source of borrowing, they go to what are called the maras -- M-A-R-A -- which are these gangs that are operating in those countries, and they borrow money from them. And the one thing, when they make the loans with the maras, is they say, Well, you know, we actually collect on our debts, not like maybe others. And what, and the kind of thing that they do to collect, I really, we don't have to go into it, but it involves violence for sure.

Carlos Denton 03:39
And so, after a family finds itself indebted to them and not able to pay them, they flee. And so we think there is a considerable group of people that are, are fleeing. Now the other factor that's worked into this, and this is not just in Central America, is that there are a lot of people that are being trafficked. And by "trafficked," I mean they're going to -- they pay money to be taken to the United States. Now, the interesting thing about this, which is, I think a lot of Americans are not interested in hearing, is that the trafficked people aren't there under the bridge in Del Rio or stuck on the border in a tent in dire circumstances. If they've paid, they probably are in the United States. They don't have to wait for the Border Patrol to pick them up. The trafficked people go through.

Carlos Denton 04:42
And the rates to be trafficked, for trafficking, in the Central American countries ranges from $8,500 per person to about $12,500. For $8,500, they'll place you on the other side of the river. And for $12,500 they'll get, they'll have an employment opportunity for you in Washington, D.C., or Chicago or Toronto -- whatever you need. And if you're even willing to pay more, they'll fly you in, which says something because it's not that the border is porous. Clearly there are authorities that are collaborating with the people that are doing the trafficking. And the rates for, say, a person from Syria or from Libya or one of those countries, Somalia, run about $21,500 to $22,500.

Carlos Denton 05:40
Very often, half is paid up front, and the other half is paid off in labor when they get to the United States. They become indentured servants -- it's what they used to be called in the colonial times in the U.S. So you have this situation, and I'd like to say we've actually done mystery shopping, since we need to talk about research. We've done mystery shopping with coyotes. Now this is what your friendly neighborhood trafficker is called; they call them "coyote," like Willie the Coyote in the cartoons.

Mohamed Younis 06:14
Yeah. I grew up in southern California, and the word "coyote" actually was more reminiscent of traffickers than it was like the animal, which was also all over the place.

Carlos Denton 06:24
Well, so the coyotes are a part of every society -- of every community. And so everyone knows who they are. And so the reason I have as much information about how they do this and how it works, and so on, is that we've actually done this mystery shopping where we have someone posing as a mother who wants to send a son or a, a young man who wants to go, and so on. And we've had them go and meet and talk about the conditions and what is involved, and so on. And most of these coyotes are tied into one of the cartels in Mexico.

Carlos Denton 07:05
And what happened there is that the head of the Zeta cartel, which handles the Gulf Coast for the drug traffickers, the head of the Zeta cartel sent his son to Harvard, studied, got an MBA, and came back and looked at things and said, "Gee, dad, here's a big business opportunity. We're just like, we're preying on these people, and what we really need to do is to transport them up there." And so just for that one cartel, the estimate that we have is $300 to $400 million a year in revenue.

Carlos Denton 07:46
And to tell you one story also involving research, we did focus groups with people that came back -- that went up, didn't like the States and came back -- there are those as well. And one, one young man who talked about being outside of Reynosa, Mexico, in a microbus, because you don't walk if you're being trafficked; you get travel. And they were, and the bus was stopped at a certain point on the highway, and a guy from the Zeta cartel got on and said, "Hey, how's everybody doing? You know, you're happy, are you being taken care of, are you're getting good service?" And "Because, boy, if we don't get good service" -- and he points like his finger, like if it was a revolver at the driver, and said, "If you're not getting good service, tell me we have ways of before ensuring that you do get good service." So there, it's something highly organized. Getting back -- well, I'm just talking on the one question, maybe you --

Mohamed Younis 08:47
No, this is fascinating. Keep going!

Carlos Denton 08:49
OK, well the other thing is, and the other factor are the extracontinentals -- that, this would be Haitians, Cubans, people from these other countries -- which, by the way, right now there's about 500 of those a day going through. And if you want to know how I know this, is that the thing has worked out by sort of a domino effect. The people come up from Ecuador or from Brazil, and they get to the Panama border. And the Panamanians are willing to give only 300-500 permits to cross their territory a day. They get it by coordinating with the Costa Ricans that are next and they allow. So every day, 300-500 people go through these countries, going north into the Northern Triangle and then continue on up. And they go to Ecuador or Brazil. And that's the route chosen, because those two countries do not require visas. If you have a valid passport from any country in the world, you can get, fly into Quito, Ecuador, get off the plane; they'll stamp, and you're in. There's no questions asked; the same thing with the Brazilians.

Carlos Denton 10:02
And so, this has been the chosen route and why they're coming up through Central America. They've got to then go through. But once again, the trafficked ones are riding in buses or minibuses or even in cars. I read a story about a woman who was driving. She had a car and her kid in it and then a couple in the back. But there was also another car further ahead that warned them if there was a, some sort of a police hold point or something, so they would take the side roads. It's, it's pretty well organized, the traffic, the trafficking.

Mohamed Younis 10:43
It's fascinating. And it's really interesting and, I think, counterintuitive to a lot of our listeners, at least U.S. listeners, that those who find themselves in the trafficked route north are actually a very different group than the group we often see on television, which are, lately, these folks who are camped out or at some point just very, their proximity to the border and they're kind of stuck on one side or the other and dealing with Border Control, basically. The reason also, Carlos, you know, love to talk to you always.

Mohamed Younis 11:16
But the reason I really wanted to check in with you now is because it's amazing, up here, the media focus tends to be very partisan. When Trump was in office, there was a lot of focus on the border; a lot of focus on this problem; a lot of criticism on -- I mean rightfully so -- a very, what has been now for generations a broken Southern border and U.S. immigration system. But that focus has really shifted from the mainstream, but it doesn't change the reality on the ground. Like these realities continue to unfold, whether or not they're being featured on CNN. Is it your sense -- and you're one of those people that has watched this now for generations and continues -- is it your sense that the problem has gotten worse since COVID or has pretty much remained the same?

Carlos Denton 12:04
Well, we're defining the problem as the situation in the home countries of the people.

Mohamed Younis 12:10
So yeah, the kind of causes of why people are leaving those countries.

Carlos Denton 12:16
I, pretty much, since most countries use the same system to combat the, the pandemic, which was closing everything down. GNPs dropped anywhere from 15% to 20%, 25%, depending on the country. And these are countries that might have had GNP per capita of $3,000, $5,000 to start with. And you then end up with, with this mass of people that simply are driven out.

Carlos Denton 12:49
Now, there is another thing -- and I mentioned this in the, in my message to you, and that is, when we when we talked before by mail -- and this is the whole question of the mindset of leaders in remittance countries. What is a remittance country? Where 50% or more of the GDP of the country is being produced by remittances. And for the viewers that might not know what that means, most of these people when they get to the States and they get the job -- and they probably take two jobs if they can -- they send money home. And the money going back home per person is only maybe $250, $300 is what we've measured right now. The typical Salvadoran migrant arriving in the States is trying to send back $250 to $300, lives in an apartment with four or five other people just like them, live sleeping on mattresses on the floor, taking two jobs at the rate, the minimum-wage rate. And they're trying to get by on that and send $250.

Carlos Denton 13:57
And, you know, I've been, I've been with leaders in any of those, the C3 countries, and you hear -- I've had a president say to me, "Hallelujah! The remittances are up this year." And I said, Well, president, I can remember that that with Jim Clifton, your CEO, we, we were at a meeting with the vice president of El Salvador and a couple of other people, and we were saying to them, "You know, you're exporting your talent to the United States, and you're, and you're getting back crumbs." And well, they didn't, they refused to accept it. The Hondurans also, with Jim, were more likely to, they were more open when we were telling them this.

Mohamed Younis 14:40
When you say a couple of hundred dollars -- that's per month?

Carlos Denton 14:43
Yeah, they're sending back $200 -- I mean if you're working at minimum wage, that's a lot of money.

Mohamed Younis 14:50
That's a lot of money. That's a huge part -- that's a lot of money for somebody who's working and living on minimum wage. But it's fascinating that this plays such a central role in the economies of these countries.

Carlos Denton 15:03
Well, Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- all three of them -- their main source for the, their main revenue in the GDP is remittances. This, this creates another issue, which we'd have to, we'd have to discuss at another time, because I know we have a restriction on time here. But what happens is, that $250, they've got to go to some bank or Western Union or somebody else, who then charges them 10% on it. And then there's another 10% that the local bank charges. So, out of the $250, the people that are receiving at the back end are getting maybe $210 or $205, which is a huge, huge blow to them. And of course this has led Salvador -- I don't know if you know this -- to declare Bitcoin as their official currency.

Mohamed Younis 15:52
Yes, of course. This is very recent.

Carlos Denton 15:54
And this is specifically because the idea is if the worker gets to the States and has a wallet with Bitcoin, and his family also has one, they can move it, move it down without using the banks and taking the hit on the exchange or the cost of shipping the money down. So getting back to the remittances, if you have a government that does this and thinks that this is wonderful, what you end up with, with lovely malls. They tell me even the Gaza Strip, which is a place that lives on remittances, has, has a lovely mall.

Carlos Denton 16:33
You get lovely malls, lots of shopping and so on. The money comes in, and it's spent, but there isn't anything being done to invest in local opportunities, factories, hotels, this kind of thing. I'm always, I always comment, when you fly to the San Salvador airport, you see miles and miles of beautiful beaches within 10 minutes of the airport. And you wonder, Where are the hotels? The Mexicans would have had, you know, 2500-room hotels right there along the beach. There's nothing there because it's all, we're just waiting for the cash -- "we export people" is basically what they're saying.

Mohamed Younis 17:13
That's fascinating just hearing that, Carlos, as somebody who is an immigrant to the United States from the Middle East, which has its own brain-drain issues for totally different reasons and is a different dynamic. But it is phenomenal how countries in a way are really kind of like talent pools. You're either losing, you know, talent; you're leaking talent out of your pool; or you're gaining talent to your pool and, and skills and resources. I want to ask you a question. I have a sense of where you're probably gonna see solutions, but what are the solutions for creating a better dynamic ecosystem in those countries, where people don't need to migrate one way or the other north in the numbers? And particularly not the numbers, but in the levels of desperation that we see them subjected to, I think, really is the human issue.

Carlos Denton 18:07
Right. Well, I can remember Jim Clifton saying that the key to success, when he would give these speeches down in the C3 countries, he'd say, The key to success is retain your local talent and import foreign talent is the fast ticket to turning the economy around. And what, what he and I have been talking about a lot is entrepreneurship, which is a topic that's a favorite of mine and his. There's got to be a program that develop small enterprises, opportunities for young or even middle-aged entrepreneurs to develop their dreams in their home country, rather than having to go to the States and do it up there. And we think that if we can identify people with the entrepreneurial talent and find the financing for them, that that would be a way to keep an awful lot of people back home, developing their businesses and living in their own communities.

Carlos Denton 19:14
And when we -- the biggest problem, we've found money that's available for this kind of thing, but it inevitably has to go to the governments. It's sort of foreign aid, always government to government. There's, it's not, it's never channeled from, let's say the U. S. government to private enterprises. And so what you end up with is the money arriving to the governments, which are not notably reliable, in terms of their honesty and how much of it would actually trickle down to anybody who might want to start a business is the problem.

Mohamed Younis 19:54
I know you love, you mentioned Jim a few times; you and Jim are really old friends. One of the things you both share, I think, is a fascination with how leaders can be tackling really different problems, difficult problems, and have total blind spots on some of those issues. When you look at the U.S. sort of foreign policy or relationship generally with the region -- Central America -- what are, what is a blind spot? What are some of the blind spots that you see that have kind of been persistent throughout your time watching the region in these policies?

Carlos Denton 20:30
Well, that, that's a big subject. But let me just say that the first thing that most countries do, in terms of their foreign, their perception of foreign countries is that they deal with their neighbors. Usually if you work in the diplomatic corps or a foreign ministry or the, the Department of State, in the case of the United States, probably the ambassadorship in Mexico City and the ambassadorship in Ottawa are two key embassies because they're your neighbors. You can't do anything about it; you've got them there, you've got to maintain good relations.

Carlos Denton 21:09
And I can remember a customer, a general in the U.S. army in San Antonio, Texas, saying to me, We in the Pentagon view Central America and the Caribbean as the United States' third border. And we really need to make sure that the third, our third border is also developed up to the levels that -- Mexico is certainly more developed than most of the third, of this other group. The, the big exception, of course, is Panama, which now has a per capita GNP of $31,000, and Costa Rica, which is, runs around $22,000.

Carlos Denton 21:49
But the rest of these places in the West Indies and so on are $5,000, $6,000, which is just simply not attractive enough to keep the people there. So the United States -- Latin America in general thinks that the U.S. has, doesn't pay enough attention to their Southern border. It's sort of like, Haven't you noticed, there's a lot of Spanish-speaking people up there now? You know, have you noticed they now sell Mexican salsa in Minneapolis at the supermarket? And if you notice that there's just more and more people coming. It's either you've got to deal with it or you're just going to get more and more people up there.

Mohamed Younis 22:27
On that point, and always great to speak to you, Carlos Denton is Gallup senior subject matter expert on Central America, amongst many other things, and really one of the leading thought leaders on how public opinion ties to all of these political and economic issues in the region. Carlos, promise me you'll come back soon, and I know you'll be focused on it. We want to keep talking about this issue. Thank you sir.

Carlos Denton 22:52
Thank you.

Mohamed Younis 22:53
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for The Gallup Podcast wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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