Guatemala Is America’s Best Chance to Fix the Immigration Problem

Is the Mayan vision of a full, plentiful and dignified life finally within reach for all its citizens?,


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Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Guatemala on Monday to kick off a two-day tour aimed at trying to strengthen ties with the country and tackle corruption, violence and poverty — the core issues behind the record number of migrants from Central America seeking entry into the United States. During a news conference in Guatemala City with President Alejandro Giammattei, Ms. Harris warned people not to come to the United States, adding that “the goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home.”

Ms. Harris has her work cut out for her. While Guatemala’s civil war officially ended with the signing of the Peace Accords on Dec. 29, 1996, the country is still sharply divided along racial and class lines. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already dire economic situation. Over the past few months a growing number of Guatemalan migrants have left for the United States, lured by smugglers’ promises of safe passage and access to coronavirus vaccines.

But for all its enormous challenges, Guatemala also offers the Biden administration an opportunity to rethink its approach to migration from the region. For too long, U.S. policy has been guided by the assumption that everyone south of the border aspires to make a new life in the United States, and that tackling undocumented immigration requires a unified regional approach. But this approach has done little to stem the myriad drivers of migration from the region. The Biden administration would do well to take a closer look at why so many Guatemalans are leaving and determine what it would take for them to stay.

A 2018 survey of more than 1,800 immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, carried out by the region’s central development bank, tracked a steady growth in irregular migration from Central America since 1990. It highlighted the mix of push and pull factors, namely poverty, violence and family reunification, that drive people to leave. It also underscored the critical role remittances play in sustaining economies, communities and families.

But upon closer examination the survey illuminates striking differences that set Guatemalan immigrants apart from their counterparts in Central America. The Guatemalans surveyed, in contrast to their Northern Triangle neighbors, more often cited economic factors as their primary reason for migrating, while relatively fewer pointed to violence and insecurity as motivating factors.

Compared to two-thirds of all Salvadoran respondents and nearly half of Honduran respondents, only a quarter of Guatemalans said they intended to stay permanently in the United States. Consistent with their long-term intentions, many more Guatemalans are saving their earnings and investing them back home.

This data aligns with what is playing out on the ground. Over the past several decades, many Guatemalans have packed up and left for the United States. Their earnings cover their families’ basic needs back home and are helping to finance the slow-motion construction of multistory homes. A growing fleet of cars and pickup trucks are parked in driveways and convenience stores are sprouting up in even the smallest rural hamlets.

Prospective migrants tell us that they aren’t chasing an American dream. It’s a Guatemalan dream they’re after, but they need to go to the United States to attain it. They describe a mixture of despair and ambition that propel them to embark on an expensive and perilous journey knowing that backbreaking labor and the possibility of being caught and deported await them on the other side. They tell us that they are determined to make something of themselves for their own sake, as well as for that of their children and their communities. The goal is to pay back their debts, take care of their families and save what they need to make an economic go of it back home.

Given the chance, farmers in communities nestled around picturesque Lake Atitlan would build ecotourist lodges that showcase Mayan traditions and environmental stewardship. Agricultural workers living in the lush volcanic highlands of Huehuetenango are tired of just picking coffee; they aspire to roast, package and ship their beans directly to hipster cafes in Guatemala City, San Salvador and Los Angeles. Orange and cardamom growers in the fertile Verapaces want to bottle juices, can marmalade, package spices and distill therapeutic oils and perfumes that line the shelves of high-end stores in the United States.

But none of this feels even remotely possible in a Guatemala run by a corrupt and indifferent government and a rapacious elite that persists in seeing the country as their plantation and its farmers as their peons. United States policymakers with an eye on the data, an ear to the ground and a penchant for creativity have a set of tools that can help empower this citizenry.

The Biden administration has vowed to invest $4 billion in Central America to address economic insecurity, violence, environmental crises and government corruption. Getting results in Guatemala requires investing in the economic and commercial scaffolding that the country’s entrepreneurial farmers desperately need, including access to land, fertilizer, water, roads, credit, technical assistance, broadband internet and the ability to sell their products directly to consumers.

The United States should also expand the availability of H-2B seasonal worker visas and privilege Guatemalans in their allocation. The welcome decision to increase the numbers of eligible Central Americans to 6,000 in fiscal year 2021, compared to 467 last year, is not nearly enough to satisfy demand. Rural farmers would welcome the opportunity to participate in a program that allows them to come and go regularly and safely, avoid crippling debts, count on an annual income and hone transferable skills and ties to U.S. markets.

More important, the United States needs to break a pattern in which foreign assistance is channeled through government contractors with too little transparency, too much overhead and scant connection to community priorities. We should seize the opportunity to work directly with local communities to fund sustainable development projects.

If the Biden administration is serious about curbing undocumented immigration, it should insist that the Guatemalan government provide the resources and expertise its rural poor so desperately need. Rather than partnering with the same old cast of business executives, Washington should seek out Guatemalan entrepreneurs who favor greater economic inclusion and are willing to pay taxes, invest capital, lend expertise and share market access.

None of this will be easy or quick, but Vice President Harris’s visit signals a potentially new approach toward Guatemala. Her invocation of hope as an antidote to migration raises an intriguing possibility: With U.S. assistance and a sustained commitment, Guatemala could become a country where the Mayan vision of utz k’aslemal, a full, plentiful and dignified life, could finally be within reach for all its citizens.

Anita Isaacs (@AnitaIsaacs) is a professor of political science at Haverford College and a co-director of Jorge Morales Toj (@JorgeMoralesToj) is a Maya K’iche leader, human rights lawyer and specialist in rural agricultural development.

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