Lack of access to quality education is a root cause of poverty and economic hardship which in turn drive people to choose migration as a means of seeking job opportunities and improving their lives. How do education levels impact other factors affecting immigration and influence the life-changing decision to leave one’s home?
Among the various reasons people from Mexico and Central America migrate to the U.S., education ranks high, not always as a primary motivation, but inherent in two leading causes for migration from these regions—economic opportunity and, to a lesser degree, violence. Even with the implementation of educational reforms, access to schooling and ongoing attendance in Latin America, particularly in elementary through high school, is thwarted by insufficient family resources and gang violence. A solid education, culminating in a high school diploma, translates into improved job prospects, more livable incomes, and greater economic stability. When students don’t have the chance to complete their education, the consequences profoundly impact their lives and their children’s, in far-reaching and often irreversible ways.
THE NUMBERS: Despite higher school enrollment in Mexico and Central America in recent years—the result of expanded and improved educational systems—access to education is impeded by a number of factors (detailed in the next section), and many students do not finish school. In Mexico, although over 90% of children attend elementary school, the attendance rate drops to 62% by middle school, and only 45% of students finish high school (Mexicanos Primero, a non-governmental organization). In Central America, over half of elementary, middle, and high school students are at risk of leaving school; in addition, by age 6, many students begin to lag behind their grade level, and half of 10-year-olds are behind 1–2 years, contributing to discouragement and higher drop-out rates. (CECC/SICA* and UNICEF**)
Statistics about who migrates to the U.S. are also revealing. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2015, 57% of Mexican immigrants and 49% of Central American immigrants did not complete high school. For comparison, immigrants from other regions, such as South and East Asia, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Europe/Canada, had high-school non-completion rates between 11% and 16%; of U.S.–born individuals, 9% didn’t complete high school. Approaching the data from a higher education direction, 6% of Mexicans and 9% of Central American migrating to the U.S. had bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared to 31–51% of immigrants from other parts of the world and 31% of U.S.–born individuals.
KBI surveys of women who have stayed at the shelter confirm and exceed these figures. (Here, possible gender inequities and the large proportion of people from indigenous or rural areas served by the KBI may skew the data upwards.) Of the women surveyed, 13.3% reported no education; 47.7%, attended or completed elementary school; 31.1%, attended or completed middle school; and 4.2%, attended or completed high school. Only 3.5% had attended university or completed a bachelor’s degree. In addition, since the start of the year, the KBI has received 5,800 people (or 87% of those who arrived at the comedor) who report that their primary reason for migrating is economic opportunity. Lack of access to economic opportunity is often related to low educational attainment.
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS: In Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (where a majority of Latin American immigrants to the U.S. come from), education is technically free. Even so, students are not always able to take advantage of their right to an education or the intended access the state provides. It’s difficult to disentangle the various threads that contribute to low educational attainment (they are frequently inter-related), but the overarching obstacle is poverty. Attending school carries a range of costs not covered by the government, aid organizations, or community drives—uniforms, books and supplies, transportation (for those in rural locales), and informal fees imposed by the school administration. Moreover, there are the opportunity costs of keeping a child in school who might otherwise be able to work and contribute to family income. In Honduras, only 34% of working children complete elementary school (U.S. Department of Labor). Throughout Mexico and Central America, children who are working often stop going to school altogether, halting any advancement to subsequent levels of education.
These issues hit rural areas, where many indigenous peoples live, particularly hard. According to the World Bank, in 2013, 53% of those below the poverty line (based on U.S.$1.90 earnings/day) in Latin America live in rural areas, 68% work in agriculture, and 42% are 14 years old or younger. In addition to extra transportation costs to get to the nearest school, most teachers are concentrated in larger towns and adequate infrastructure is lacking. For indigenous students, there are also the added burdens of dealing with language barriers (in schools without bilingual classes) and possible discrimination from teachers or other students.
In areas besieged by gang violence (often cities and towns), students face dangers in simply attempting to get to school unharmed, particularly if the gang has targeted their family. Moreover, schools are prime recruitment grounds for gangs, and the KBI has encountered many teenaged migrants who fled their homes to escape the join-or-be-killed ultimatum they faced. Tragically, poverty and poor job prospects alongside gang violence can also tip the scales in the opposite direction, when economic and security incentives make students more susceptible to gang recruitment. Not surprisingly, for the unaccompanied minors who arrived in the U.S. by the thousands in 2014, gang violence and poverty were cited as the most common reasons for migration.
LOOKING AHEAD: The complexities of these multi-faceted and inter-related conditions produce scenarios that spur migration, and education is a major part of that landscape. Lack of education is a root cause of poverty, and increasingly, access to quality education can be an avenue out of poverty. For example, many factories now require high school diplomas, shutting out the countless applicants who do not have that credential. Further, educational gaps reinforce social and cultural gaps, so that the circumstances which give rise to poverty and other educational obstacles and inequalities can prevent entire generations from successfully seeking a better standard of living.
Government programs and interventions in these countries can help pave the way to brighter prospects for the poor and those for whom educational access is compromised. These include not only continued educational reforms, but also supporting robust judicial systems to counter gang violence (and internal corruption) and providing universal access to basic life needs, such as health care and clean water, which enhances community and family stability. The state and local governments in Mexico and Central America continue to make efforts in these directions.
Meanwhile in the U.S., foreign aid spending in 2016 totaled around $4 trillion for all countries, across all categories of assistance; this represents a mere 1% of the federal budget, a minimal obligation the Trump administration is determined to reduce. Only $1 billion of that figure went to education, and notably, Mexico and Northern Triangle countries were not among the top recipients of foreign aid overall, nor have they been in subsequent years. (Compare this with $17.4 billions spent in 2016 and $22 billion in 2018 on border security and immigration enforcement!) It’s a serious and complex issue, and learning more about it as well as supporting U.S. foreign aid for educational programs in Mexico and Central America is yet another way to advocate for migrants, their families, and their futures.