Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Web Exclusive

Motives and Experiences of Immigrants at the U.S. Southern Border — Through the Social Work Lens
By Mary Lehman Held, PhD, LCSW

The U.S. immigration debate has garnered widespread national and international attention. Potential immigrants, and especially those residing in Mexico and Central America, are likely to be aware of the high rates of detention and family separation at our southern border, the multiple executive orders aimed at reducing immigration, and the ongoing dialogue around building a border wall. In the current sociopolitical climate that promotes more stringent immigration policies and enforcement, less attention is given to the experiences of immigrants. Latinx immigrants arrive at the U.S. border after having already endured a broad range of hardships in their home countries, as well as during the migration journey. These hardships are often traumatic, posing risks to well-being and even survival. Despite the realities of being exposed to extensive trauma, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and the “northern triangle” countries of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—annually seek refuge in the United States.

Immigrants make the difficult decision to leave their homes based on both “pull” factors in the United States and “push” factors in their home countries. Some of the pull factors include availability of higher-waged employment options in the United States, in addition to educational opportunities and an increased ability to keep their children safe. Often, more compelling for potential immigrants today are the push factors experienced in the home countries. Understanding the push factors not only provides improved context for motives to immigrate but also sheds light on traumatic experiences endured prior to the immigration journey. While Mexico and Central American nations possess vast resources and strengths, the current environments of these countries pose risks of poverty, unemployment, and extreme violence that serve as key immigrant push factors.

Immigrant Push Factors
According to 2019 World Bank data, 44% of the population in Mexico lives below their nation’s poverty line, as do 64% of Hondurans, 59% of Guatemalans, and 29% of Salvadorans. Immigrants report that jobs are very scarce in northern triangle nations; the federal governments of these countries provide very limited or no social support for individuals living in poverty. It follows that if individuals don’t have work, they have limited access to money and food. Of course, the inability to meet basic needs is distressing for anyone, but especially for parents who are desperate to provide for their children. In such a situation, immigration might serve as the sole option for not only meeting basic needs but also ensuring survival.

Unemployment is compounded by the prevalence of natural disasters in Latin America. Multiple Central American nations, including those in the northern triangle, are among countries at greatest risk of natural disasters. Hurricanes, floods, and droughts are widespread and impose devastating damage. Without the political stability, financial security, and infrastructure to rebuild, people are readily displaced by natural disasters. Also damaging is the mass destruction of farmland that occurs from flooding, landslides, and droughts. Decimation of land and existing crops eliminates both sustenance and employment options. As individuals residing in rural agricultural-dependent communities are impacted, they are forced to move to urban areas to find employment. Yet, work options are limited or unavailable in these regions as well. Again, immigration emerges as the only option for many to earn an income and survive.

In addition to the challenge of meeting basic needs, lack of income hinders the ability to utilize medical care. Whether coping with a chronic health condition that requires ongoing medication or dealing with a medical emergency, individuals can be forced to forego care due to the inability to pay. Receiving care in Mexico and the northern triangle nations can involve costs associated with traveling to a hospital for those living in rural communities, in addition to fees for the care itself. Again, the struggle for adults is certainly difficult, but even more so when they cannot meet the needs of a sick child. One way to facilitate the ability to pay for health care is to have a family member immigrate for higher-waged employment. Immigrants in the United States report that sending money, in the form of remittances, to loved ones back home is a vital strategy to meeting a range of needs that includes medical care.

Economic hardship in Mexico and the northern triangle nations is indisputably high. Yet, another major concern that prompts mass immigration from this region is intense violence. All of the northern triangle nations, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, are on the top 10 list of the highest per capita murder rates worldwide. These extreme homicide rates are heavily driven by gang-related violence. Youth can be forced into membership, because choosing not to join a gang places both the youth and the youth’s immediate family at risk of violence and death. Other forms of violence are also prevalent and include physical assaults, kidnapping, and rape. Women are at particular risk of domestic violence and sexual assault. Further, femicide in Central America is widespread and typically remains unsolved. Not surprisingly, violence is a fundamental push factor for immigration. A study by Keller and colleagues (2017) found that of 234 Central American immigrants in south Texas, 83% had left their home countries for the primary reason of escaping violence; of these, 90% feared returning home.

Push factors in the home countries clearly serve as motivation for immigrants to seek protection in the United States. These factors also place individuals at the forefront of enduring trauma as a result of unmet basic needs, seeing loved ones’ suffering, and experiencing and/or witnessing violence. Unfortunately, leaving one’s home country does not immediately eliminate the hardships or trauma. Immigrants, instead, leave home for a journey that is wrought with further violence and adversities.

Fleeing for the United States
In addition to violence, traveling to reach the U.S. border places immigrants at risk of trafficking, illness, injury, the emotional toil of leaving their known lives behind, and even death. Violence related to gang attacks remains prevalent along the journey. Though most immigrants hire a guide (i.e., a “coyote”) to help them reach the border safely, coyotes are known to abandon immigrants when confronted by gangs or immigration enforcement officers. Further, women can be subjected to sexual trauma by both gang members and coyotes.

Illness and injury are also common during the journey. Immigrants travel extensive distances with limited supplies. They cannot carry enough food and water for the full trip. Dehydration and hunger are common experiences during an immigrant’s journey. The trip typically requires crossing the Rio Grande River or the Sonoran Desert. A number of individuals drown while trying to cross the river each year. The desert route also poses serious risks of extreme heat during the day that can result in dehydration, heat stroke, and death.

Finally, upon reaching the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrants are often emotionally drained from the journey and grieving over their loved ones and lives left behind; they face an unknown new life in a country where they may lack language proficiency or cultural knowledge. They are physically drained from lack of sustenance and the long, demanding trip. By the time an immigrant enters the United States, they have suffered considerable hardships in their home countries and during the journey to our nation. They have been deeply traumatized.

Implications for Social Workers
Social workers are in a unique position to serve and advocate for immigrants. We are trained to treat individual and intergenerational trauma. We view individuals through the full person-in-environment perspective to understand the context in which immigrants had to make the decision to leave their home countries and the context in which they had to endure trauma to get here. We have strong advocacy skills to encourage organizations to provide services, regardless of immigrant legal status, and to promote policies that respond to immigrants in a humane and ethical manner.

Journeying to an unknown country, for many, is not about seeking a better life but is about fleeing for survival. Individuals and families make a difficult, yet necessary, decision to leave their known lives behind, striving to achieve security and safety. By the time an individual decides to leave, he or she has been exposed to considerable hardships. Stressful experiences continue to be present throughout the trip to reach the U.S. border. Being knowledgeable about this trauma places social workers in a better position to best serve a vulnerable population in search of refuge.

 Mary Lehman Held, PhD, LCSW, is an assistant professor at University of Tennessee College of Social Work. Her research focus is on Latinx immigrant health and well-being related to the hardships endured throughout the immigration process (before migration, migration journey, and post migration) and how to better address the impact of these hardships.


Keller, A., Joscelyne, A., Granski, M., & Rosenfeld, B. (2017). Pre-migration trauma exposure and mental health functioning among Central American migrants arriving at the US border. PLOS One, 12(1), e0168692.