Will The Next Big Immigration Wave Come From This Region?

A look at Central America and the potential for migration.

ByABC News
February 28, 2013, 7:24 PM

March 1, 2013— -- Last year, Mexican immigrants did not make up the majority of those apprehended at the border in South Texas.

Border Patrol doesn't break out apprehensions by country of origin -- just by Mexican or non-Mexican. But agency statistics show that apprehensions of non-Mexican migrants, the majority of which are from Central America, now outnumber those of Mexicans. That's happened in the past, but it's certainly not the norm.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

In the Rio Grande Valley sector, which stretches from the tip of Texas to southwest of Houston, the agency caught 98,000 people in the twelve-month period that ended last September. About 50,000 were from countries other than Mexico, while almost 48,000 were from Mexico. For the same period in the previous year, agents picked up more than 38,000 Mexicans versus almost 21,000 immigrants from other countries.

Does this mean that a new wave of illegal immigration, akin to the last one from Mexico, is now on the way from Central America?

Definitively no.

First of all, Central America is a lot smaller than Mexico. Mexico's population is roughly 115 million; all of Central America is about 40 million.

When you look at the Central American countries that appear to be sending the most undocumented immigrants -- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- you're talking about an even smaller pool of people. The combined population of those countries is 28 million.

Then there's geography. To get to the U.S. from Central America, you might have to travel through several countries, including Mexico. The land crossing along Mexico's southern border is infamous for shakedowns by local authorities and the threat of getting robbed, or worse. Crossing Mexico can be perilous, too. The train that many poorer migrants take north is dubbed "la bestia," the beast, because of its reputation for leaving migrants vulnerable to crime and physical injury from the train itself.

The distance makes a big difference when comparing Mexican migration to that from Central America, according to Andrew Selee, the vice president for programs at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. In addition, there are already networks in place to help this process along in Mexico.

"You travel through your own country, you can often get a smuggler," he said.

That's different for Central American migrants heading north.

"It's a very daunting challenge," he said. "It's amazing how many people still do it."

Border security likely has an impact in discouraging migration, as well. There are more Border Patrol agents along the southern border than during any time in the country's history. In the 2012 fiscal year, Border Patrol had 21,370 agents on payroll, double the amount it had seven years ago.

Perspective is important. The wave of immigration from Mexico over the last several decades was the largest from any one country in the history of the U.S. Yes, it might be drying up, but there's no reason to believe that immigration from another region to this country will reach similar levels any time soon.

Of course, there are factors that will continue to drive people here. Violence and economic struggles will continue to push migrants North, particularly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But the scale just isn't the same as the migration from Mexico since 1970, and experts like Selee say it will never come close to that.