Why are Guatemalans Migrating to the US?

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Since the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, immigration to the United States has resurfaced as an unfolding news story – and for good reason. The amount of people seeking to enter the U.S. at the nation’s southern border has grown dramatically. A large percentage of those migrating are Guatemalans, and despite the risk of losing their lives, they keep coming. The journey is perilous – on January 22nd 2021, 19 people were killed close to the border by Mexican police, 13 of whom were Guatemalan.  

Guatemala is currently the home country of the largest percentage of migrants at the southern U.S. border. This trend started in 2019, during which U.S. Customs and Border Patrol apprehended 264,168 Guatemalans at the border. So why do migrants continue to risk their lives to leave their homes in Guatemala?

Causes of Migration to the U.S from Guatemala

Misinformation and Rumors

One reason for increased migration is that the path to the U.S. has become seemingly more accessible and commonplace. “Coyotes” (migrant smugglers) have become adept at marketing their illegal services to everyone, particularly youth, via social media platforms. This includes compelling selfie testimonials of migrants who have successfully made it to the other side. Parents with kids receive discounts because they are told they can surrender to border patrol once they reach the United States. Rumors of laws allowing family entry – laws that don’t actually exist – are also a pull factor. In reality, U.S. immigration authorities have sometimes released migrant families because they lacked space to hold them temporarily. 

So while the Biden administration has attempted to communicate that migration is currently unsafe due to the pandemic and other factors, and that changes in policies will take time to implement, these messages conflict and compete with the coyotes’ messages of hope.

Lack of Economic Opportunity

Guatemalans migrating is an essential part of the country’s economic survival. Roughly 2.7 million Guatemalans living outside of the country send part of their income to their families back at home each month. In total, about 11% of Guatemala’s GDP comes from remittances, and this amounts to approximately 46% of household income in the country. Many studies have documented how these funds have been able to reduce the level of poverty for the households that receive them. Poverty is certainly an issue – around 60% of Guatemalans experience poverty, and that number rises to about 75% when looking only at Guatemala’s indigenous population. But while remittances may reduce poverty, this cash flow tends to encourage more migration.

Agriculture Challenges

Subsistence farming has contributed to recent trends regarding migrating Guatemalans. Farmers barely grow enough to feed their families, let alone sell for a profit. This fact is exacerbated by the drug trade. Guatemalan farmers in the country’s western highlands have historically been coerced by Mexican drug cartels into growing the red poppies – amapola in Spanish – that are used to produce heroin. For instance, there was estimated to be about 31 million plants worth $105 million in San Marcos, a town of about 50,000 people. However, in 2018, the government came in and destroyed the poppy fields. Some farmers returned to cultivating potatoes and other produce, which only yielded about a fourth of the profit they were making previously, while others headed for the U.S.

A family of Guatemalan farmers in their crop fields.
A family of Guatemalan farmers in their crop fields. Credit: World Bank

Coffee farmers have also suffered challenges. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Guatemala was the world’s fifth largest producer of coffee. The crop has been grown in the region since the Jesuits brought it over from Europe in the 1700s. However, the country has fallen to 11th place as it struggles to keep up with international competition amidst internal issues. Coffee rust, a fungal disease, has affected the plants in the region. The disease has significantly decreased coffee yield and the number of jobs available in the industry. Coffee farmers have tried to mitigate the problems by diversifying their crops. However, produce like bananas and macadamia nuts require fewer workers than coffee thus not solving the employment crisis entirely. 

Climate Change & Corruption

Climate change has also exacerbated these issues, with an increase in droughts, floods, and cold shocks. These environmental factors combined with all time lows in global coffee prices due to competition from producers in countries like Brazil and Vietnam that have lower production costs make turning a profit a challenge. As a case in point, the coffee cooperative president from the Guatemalan town of San Pablo migrated to Arizona in 2012 to work and send money home to his family when coffee prices first started to plummet.

Finally, the endemic corruption in Guatemala’s legal systems disincentivizes the creation of new businesses as well as direct investment by foreign companies. For instance, enforcing contracts is much more time consuming, and businesses dealing with legal proceedings face a very high corruption risk as judges take bribes and pass inconsistent decisions. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Guatemala ranks 149 out of 180 countries, tied with other countries like Iran and Mozambique. Since 2012, it’s dropped 8 places in the ranking.

Lack of Educational Opportunity

Another significant cause of Guatemalans migrating to the U.S. is educational opportunity – both the lack in Guatemala and the promise of free quality education in the United States. While the U.S. offers free public school through the end of high school, in Guatemala, only primary education is free and even public schools require uniforms and school supplies – a direct cost to the students’ families. Additionally for children that work to help support their family, the hours spent attending school have an indirect cost of loss of income.

Guatemalan school children in uniform attending class.
Guatemalan school children in uniform attending class. Credit: World Bank

Of the 13 Guatemalan immigrants killed in Mexico in January, 11 were from a town called Comitancillo. Here, the only professional program is in education, and jobs are not guaranteed. Despite that, many families take out loans so their children can complete the program. Another 40 people from Comitancillo left for the U.S. border after their neighbors were killed. 

One of the many areas that Guatemala’s widespread corruption exists in is the country’s school system. Enrollment in primary and secondary school has fallen over the past decade and 85% of the education budget is spent on salaries. Currently only about 1 in every 4 students continues to middle school or beyond.

Gangs, Violence and Crime

While economic factors are primary motivators for Guatemalans migrating, many also seek to escape violence. Two main gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), use extortion across all sectors of society. Women, and indigenous women in particular, bare the brunt of sexual violence. In 88 percent of reported cases of violence against women, the crimes goes unpunished. Moreover, it’s estimated that the vast majority of potential cases go unreported due lack of confidence in the police.

Recent trends do show some promising signs though. The number of homicides per 100,000 people has been declining since 2009 (45 to 22 people in 2018). This shift has been credited to the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), a UN backed agency that helped strengthen Guatemala’s law enforcement infrastructure. CICIG was highly successful in uncovering corruption. For example, one investigation lead to the resignation of President Otto Perez Molina in 2015. However, in January 2019, then-president Jimmy Morales refused to extend the commission’s mandate. CICIG was officially shut down in September 2019. 

Despite over 70% of Guatemalans supporting CICIG, large protests, and the Constitutional Court’s rejection of Morales’ decision, they could not overpower his and Congress’s will to close the commission. About one in five of Guatemala’s congress members are under investigation for corruption. 

Guatemalans protest the country's widespread corruption.
Guatemalans protest the country’s widespread corruption. Source: Wikimedia

With CICIG gone, the remaining anti-corruption organizations do not have enough resources. They are dealing with cases lodged against them that have questionable merit. The high court selection process is also more open to manipulation. It is hard to gauge how much this situation has played into recent migration trends. However, Guatemalans’ trust in their institutions is far lower on average than their Latin American counterparts. 

How Supporting Guatemalan Nonprofits Can Help Prevent Migration

So what can be done to stop Guatemalans migrating to the U.S? The best way is to address the root causes – and by supporting Guatemalan nonprofits, whether by donating, raising awareness or volunteering, you can do just that, helping to create and nurture opportunities within communities and reducing the necessity of migrating north.

There are many Pionero Philanthropy nonprofit partners that stimulate community opportunities so families can thrive at home in Guatemala. For example, our partner Caras Alegres provides education and nutrition programs for children in Quetzaltenango. Watch the video below for a case study of how this nonprofit supported one family whose children who are now thriving professionals, contributing to the prosperity of their country.

Pionero Philanthropy aims to promote these outstanding community-based organizations so their increased visibility turns into more support for their programs. In order to recommend these organizations, a 5 Pillar Evaluation and site visit are performed. 

If interested in finding out about our nonprofit members and/or the nonprofit environment in Guatemala, browse our nonprofit map. Detailed reports on each of our nonprofit members and their impact are available for download with a donation. Alternatively, if you have any questions or queries, please don’t hesitate to contact us!