The Root Causes of Migration

Migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico

Migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico

Both the Old and the New Testament reveal God’s abiding love for migrants (cf. Ex. 22:21, Lev.19:33-34, Mt. 25:35, Rom. 12:13). Scripture, as well as our Church’s two-thousand-year history, tell many heart-breaking stories about people fleeing from violence, persecution, and poverty. Even Jesus and his family were refugees.

Reflecting on these sacred foundations, the Catholic Church recognizes that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives, and the lives of their families, if they cannot do so in their country of origin. The migrant’s story reminds us of a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching: that the goods of the earth are intended to benefit all people. It is never God’s will that some of God’s children live in luxury while others have nothing (cf Caritas in Veritate, 21).

Catholic Social Teaching states that countries are obligated to design and conduct their immigration processes with mercy and justice. Governments should understand their duties in light of the absolute dignity of all people and their sacred commitment to the common good (Pacem in Terris, 103-107).

In our times, it’s especially important to be aware of how subversive discourse distorts conversations in the public square and government policies, as well as our own attitudes (Evangelium Vitae, 8e). St. Columban teaches us that “a life unlike our own can be our teacher.” We must always root ourselves in the lived experiences of vulnerable people, which includes migrants. Columban missionaries ministering to migrants on the United States/Mexican (US/MX) border consider it a blessing and an opportunity to serve and support them. All of us are transformed by the spiritual and cultural gifts migrants bring to our communities.

What follows on this webpage describes the reasons, or "root causes," that force migrants to flee their country of origin in the first place. 

What are Root Causes?

A root cause is the fundamental reason for the occurrence of an event. Migrants arriving at the US/MX border are often fleeing crippling poverty, environmental destruction, extreme violence, political instability, and other serious threats to life. This resource is an overview of the various push and pull factors, or root causes, that force people to migrate.

Below, we introduce you to a few of the root causes that force people to migrate, especially from Latin America. As you read, keep in mind that most people are being forced to migrate, because staying home is more dangerous than leaving. As British-Somali poet and refugee, Warsan Shire, wrote in her famous poem "Conversations about Home:" "no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark."

Economic Exploitation: Profit over People


Economic policies push people to migrate, especially when profit and not the common good motivate those policies. Two examples of this are the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Mexico and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Central America. Both NAFTA and CAFTA made importing US-grown produce cheaper than growing produce in Mexico and Central America. In Mexico's case, this meant that nearly 2 million small farmers lost their jobs.

In this resource, Dignity for Migrants explains how free trade agreements specifically and US intervention generally economically destabilized Mexico and Latin America. 

Environmental Degradation: The Cry of the Earth

Environmental destruction makes it hard for people to live and work in the places they've called home for generations. For example, climate change intensifies droughts and makes historically predictable rain patterns irregular, forcing some agricultural workers to find work elsewhere. In this video, Raul Perez explains how climate change is the biggest threat to his family's 120-year-old coffee farm.

Gang Violence: The Mouth of a Shark

Carlos' deepest wish is that one day, Guatemala, his home country, will be safe. He is only 18 years old, but has already experienced a lifetime of ethnic persecution and gang violence. Fearing that he would be killed if he stayed home, Carlos fled. Read Carlos' story to understand why he decided to leave Guatamala.

In Honduras, Abraham was only one year old when he saw a gang murder his father. As is usual after gang murder, this marked Abraham, despite his tender age, as the gang's text target." His mother received his death threats and eventually choose to flee their home. Read Abraham's story to understand his life-and-death situation that forced his family to migrate.

Gangs like the ones that terrorized Carlos and Abraham often originated in the United States and only spread through Central America once gang members were deported. Learn more about this history here.

Militarism: A Culture of Violence

Militarism, and its legacy of creating political and social instability, also drives migration. This is especially true in Central and South America, where the United States' military has intervened for over 100 years. This timeline documents some of the United States' military inventions, which include overthrowing democratically elected governments in the region. This video looks at how military involvement in Central America specifically led to migration.

What Can We Do Differently?

The most important thing that people living in the United States can do - whether you're a lawmaker or a concerned person - is to support policies that address the root causes of migration. These policies should help create just and dignified conditions for migrants in their home countries, allowing them to live in safety and with dignity. 

What do these policies look like concretely? As one example, the United States should ensure that US foreign assistance does not go towards supporting human rights violators and increasing militarization. The consequences of doing the opposite of this is illustrated in "Militarism: A Culture of Violence."

For other policies ideas, please visit "What US/MX border policy should look like."

But addressing the root cause of migration will take time, and we have migrants arriving at our borders searching for safety and freedom right now. We need to address the causes for their migration at the same time that we respond to their immediate needs. Lawmakers can do this by ensuring that our borders are places of welcome and compassion.

We also encourage you to download our Border Solidarity Toolkit, which includes a number of activites for prayer, education, and action that will help you stand in solidarity with migrants arriving at our borders.

As people of faith, God calls us to live in solidarity with others, especially with those who live in poverty or are marginalized. At the border, Pope Francis reminds us that we have "an opportunity to meet Jesus Christ, who identified himself with the foreigner who has been accepted or rejected in every age."

Publication Date
May 05, 2022