Central America Is Safer Than Some American Cities. What This Means for Asylum Claims | Opinion

Vice President Harris' reluctant trip to the southern border reflects nothing so much as the highly contentious nature of illegal immigration. On the Left you have pro-immigration activists contending that asylum seekers are fleeing extreme violence and demanding a fully open border. On the Right you have critics nostalgic for President Trump's absolutist and even cruel policies. And of course, both are operating with a deficit of fact.

So here are some facts that question both narratives.

While many Central American immigrants coming into the U.S. through our southern border may have been fleeing substantial violence six or seven years ago, more recent statistics bring this claim into question. In El Salvador, the homicide rate per 100,000 declined from 81 in 2015 to 36 in 2019, to 20 in 2020. In Honduras, the rate declined from 86 in 2012 to 44 in 2019, to 35 in 2020. In Guatemala, it declined from 31 in 2014 to 22 in 2019 to15 in 2020.

Now compare this to their destination, the United States. In contrast to the substantial decline of violence between 2019 and 2020 in Central America, homicides spiked by more than one third across the largest U.S. cities in 2020. The dramatic decline in violence in Central America means that this is no longer as compelling an explanation for migration.

Moreover, in some American cities, the murder rate is now higher than it is in Central America. In Milwaukee, Detroit, Memphis, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Cleveland, the homicide rate was 40 per 100,000 in 2020, higher than in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. Indeed, the 2020 homicide rates in Guatemala and El Salvador were substantially lower than in every one of these eight U.S. cities.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that there are social costs to migrating to the U.S. Data suggests that there are substantial achievement gaps for Latino children, who are twice as likely as white children to be below basic achievement levels and less than half as likely to attain proficiency level or better. And some studies find that it is just as large for second- and third-generation Latino children.

There are a host of factors that influence these achievement gaps. But chief among them is the impact of illegal immigration. We can estimate based on survey data that among Mexican- and Central-American U.S. immigrants, 45 percent of children are either undocumented or living in a household with at least one undocumented family member, and they represented 34 percent of all Latino children in the country.

It is just undeniable that the threat of deportation influences the Latino-white achievement gap. Researchers estimate that Latino school attendance declines by 10 percent when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has partnerships with local police, and these declines are concentrated among elementary school students. By contrast, as a result of President Obama's DACA program, high school graduation rates increased by 15 percent and college attendance by 25 percent among the children of immigrants.

LA JOYA, TEXAS - JUNE 21: Immigrants walk towards border patrol after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. on June 21, 2021 in La Joya, Texas. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Undocumented parents are also in some instances less able to advocate for their children's educational needs. You can see this in the fact that Black parents successfully shift their children to the charter school sector to a much greater degree than Latino parents. Whereas there are 78 percent more Latino than Black students in New York City public schools, there are 40 percent more Black students in its charter schools than Latino students. This and other similar issues may explain why children with undocumented parents score lower on assessment exams that those with naturalized parents, even after controlling for a number of variables; and children gained more than one year of schooling when their parents were able to obtained legal status.

And of this evidence has meaningful lessons when it comes to policy. The comparative levels of violence suggest strongly that asylum claims are less credible, and generous southern border policies cannot be justified. And though there is moral justification for enabling a modest share of poor people to migrate to the United States, a lottery system for Central Americas already residing in the U.S. is much more humane than the haphazard system we have allowed to proliferate.

Second, if we are serious about giving Latino children the best chance to succeed, we must legalize their parents so that fears of their deportation evaporate.

Hopefully, evidence-based proposals like these can move us away from the current politically-driven stances of both advocates and opponents of current immigration policies.

Robert Cherry is a member of 1776 Unites and author of "Why the Jews? How Jewish Values Transformed Twentieth Century American Pop Culture" (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views in this article are the writer's own.