In recent years, increasing numbers of families and individuals have arrived at the United States border from Central America, in particular, from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Debate has centered on the legitimacy of this population as asylum seekers, with some parties suggesting that these individuals and families are fleeing in pursuit of economic incentives they expect to find in the United States. The aim of the present study was to investigate the reasons cited for leaving and the mental health profile of these individuals.
We interviewed 234 adult heads of households in McAllen, Texas, using a structured interview and standardized questionnaires to assess their reasons for leaving their home country and current psychological symptoms. The sample included 198 women (84.6%) and 36 men (15.4%), ranging in age from 18 to 62 years old (mean=29.83, SD=7.3); 114 were from El Salvador (48.7%), 74 from Honduras (31.6%), and 46 from Guatemala (19.7%). Struc- tured instruments included the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ) to measure posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 to measure depression. In order to ascertain whether migrants described experiences that satisfied the criteria asylum, we developed an algorithm that considered whether:
- The person experienced threats or violence in their home country
- The individual fled their home country due to violence and persecution
- The individual did not have access to effective legal recourse or protection in their home country, and
- The individual feared for their safety should they be forced to return to their home country.
We found that 191 participants (83%) cited violence as a reason for fleeing their country, 119 individuals (69%) did not report the events to the police out of fear of gang-related retaliation or police corruption, and 90% of individuals (n=204) reported that they are afraid to return to their native country. In terms of mental health functioning, 32% of the overall sample met criteria for PTSD (n=51), 24% met criteria for depression (n=36), and 17% met criteria for both disorders (n=25). By examining these data against international criteria for asylum seekers, we determined that 70% of the overall sample (n=159) reported experiences that met criteria for asylum, with 80%, 74%, and 41% meeting asylum seeker criteria for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala respectively.
These findings suggest that the majority of Central American migrants arriving at the United States border are fleeing violence and persecution and warrant careful consideration for asylum status.
Funding & No Conflicts Declaration
We have no conflicts to declare.