Migration Management Challenges in Guatemala

  • Delbert H. Field, Jr. | Chief of Mission, IOM Guatemala

Guatemala - January 2012 saw a change of government in Guatemala.

As a candidate, newly elected President Otto Perez Molina had pledged to restore security and order to a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

He received broad support from a private sector eager to improve the legitimate national business environment, to attract foreigners in increased numbers, and comfort to Guatemala’s relatively undeveloped historical and vacation sites.

The administration underscored its commitment to making the country a safer place for law abiding Guatemalans to live and work.

The challenge, of course, remained of how rapidly this transformation might be achieved so long as limited educational opportunity, widespread violence, institutionalized corruption, and judicial impunity drove so many persons to seek security, and a decent livelihood, abroad.

Migrants and migration are fundamentally important to the Guatemalan economy.

Perhaps the best explanation of the importance of migration to Guatemala lies in the amount of cash remittances that workers send home, amounting to nearly USD 4.4 billion in 2011. The women and men who send these remittances are likely to have traveled north, overland, at great personal risk. To do so, they rely on others who may take their money, subject them to forced labour, abuse them sexually, and sometimes require them to carry illegal drugs under threat of death.

Guatemalans represent the third largest group of irregular migrants living in the United States, after Mexicans and Salvadorans.

The new president asked the US Government to designate Guatemala for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a temporary immigration status granted to eligible nationals of designated countries because of extraordinary and temporary conditions at home.

In 2011, the US forcibly returned 30,855 Guatemalans to their country by air. This was the highest number of direct returns in five years. Mexico sent another 31,427, many of whom had sought to reach the US overland. Those 62,282 returnees represent approximately 12 per cent of the irregular Guatemalan population living in the US.

The unexpected return of a family member after years working abroad is a tumultuous event, threatening both the economic and social stability of a household.

This continued return flow is a challenge to Guatemala as a society, to each returnee’s community of origin and to the precious core of Guatemalan life, the migrant’s immediate family. Household income falls, while basic expenses rise. Families used to living better than their neighbors suddenly live worse, with debts they cannot repay in both Guatemala and the US.

Newfound economic balance tips back toward poverty and hunger, away from access to education and health care. Fragile domestic harmony, accustomed to distance and regular cash transfers may, with abrupt reunification, transform into alienation and family violence.

Men, some 93 per cent of Guatemalan returnees, go suddenly from breadwinner to dependant. Their change in social standing puts them at higher risk of alcohol abuse, drug addiction, petty crime, and recruitment by organized criminal gangs.

The unemployed returnee is happy to be again with spouse and children, free of having to look over their shoulder for fear of arrest. But he, or she, may feel like an “alien in a foreign land,” still lost, not really home, at least not home anymore.

And many forced returnees leave close family members behind in the US.

Over half of Guatemalan returnees consider crossing Mexico again. They knowingly risk being beaten, kidnapped, forced to work, and falling from a fast moving freight train.

Yet more and more returnees are considering reintegration. They seek a safe home, a family life, and a decent living in the same place. It’s not an easy road, but the options are increasing.

January - March 2012