Hunger drives Gu­atemalan mi­gra­tion, US says

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY NICK MIROFF AND KEVIN SIEFF Wash­ing­ton Post

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have for the first time of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion for a puz­zling in­crease in the num­ber of Gu­atemalan fam­i­lies show­ing up at the U.S. bor­der this year seek­ing asy­lum.

Rather than a spike in vi­o­lence, the fam­i­lies ap­pear to be flee­ing a hunger cri­sis in Gu­atemala’s west­ern high­lands, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, cit­ing U.N. and USAID food in­se­cu­rity data as well as the agency’s own in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ments.

Years of mea­ger har­vests, drought and the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of “cof­fee rust” fun­gus on an in­dus­try that em­ploys large num­bers of ru­ral Gu­atemalans is speed­ing up an ex­o­dus of fam­i­lies from vil­lages bereft of food, CBP of­fi­cials say.

It also ex­plains why large num­bers of indige­nous vil­lagers who speak lit­tle or no Span­ish have ar­rived with their chil­dren to turn them­selves in to U.S. bor­der agents, cre­at­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion chal­lenges for en­force­ment of­fi­cials and im­mi­gra­tion courts.

The CBP as­sess­ment posits more tra­di­tional “push” fac­tors – poverty and lack of op­por­tu­nity – as a ma­jor driv­ing force be­hind the lat­est mi­gra­tion trend, rather than an uptick in crime. Such an anal­y­sis chal­lenges the claims of ad­vo­cacy groups and law­mak­ers that Cen­tral Amer­i­can asy­lum seek­ers are pri­mar­ily flee­ing vi­o­lence, but it also sug­gests the root causes of em­i­gra­tion could be al­le­vi­ated by re­duc­ing hunger and cre­at­ing jobs.

“Food in­se­cu­rity, not vi­o­lence, seems to be a key push fac­tor in­form­ing the de­ci­sion to travel from Gu­atemala, where we have seen the largest growth in the mi­gra­tion flow this year,” CBP Com­mis­sioner Kevin McAleenan, the top U.S. bor­der se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, said in an in­ter­view.

Per cap­i­tal mur­der rates in Cen­tral Amer­ica’s North­ern Tri­an­gle – Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador – re­main among the world’s high­est, but they have trended down­ward in re­cent years. Gu­atemala’s homi­cide rate fell to its low­est level last year since 2000, crime statis­tics show.

Bor­der ar­rests of fam­ily mem­bers from Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador were at sim­i­lar lev­els in 2017, but Gu­atemala’s num­bers have soared this year as El Sal­vador’s have fallen. U.S. agents have ap­pre­hended more than 42,000 Gu­atemalan fam­ily mem­bers in the past 11 months who crossed the bor­der il­le­gally, nearly dou­ble last year’s amount, in ad­di­tion to 20,000 un­der­age mi­nors, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est CBP data.

The high­est per­cent­age of those mi­grants are from Gu­atemala’s Hue­hue­te­nango depart­ment, whose iso­lated and tra­di­tional moun­tain vil­lages have mal­nu­tri­tion rates near 70 per­cent. High lev­els of food in­se­cu­rity and em­i­gra­tion also cor­re­spond in other sub­re­gions of Gu­atemala and Hon­duras, ac­cord­ing to the un­pub­lished CBP anal­y­sis.

“While we work to in­crease our bor­der se­cu­rity and ask Congress to strengthen our le­gal frame­work at home, it is equally im­por­tant to sup­port pros­per­ity and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in Cen­tral Amer­ica,” he said, in a state­ment. “Cur­rent mi­gra­tion flows are a com­plex re­gional phe­nom­e­non and re­quire mul­ti­fac­eted re­sponses. Mi­grants are not leav­ing for one rea­son.”

Five years ago, sin­gle adults from Mex­ico trav­el­ing to the United States for sea­sonal work ac­counted for nearly 80 per­cent of bor­der ar­rests, ac­cord­ing to McAleenan. They are be­ing rapidly re­placed by fam­i­lies and chil­dren from Cen­tral Amer­ica “mi­grat­ing per­ma­nently,” he said.

McAleenan ar­rives in the re­gion on Sun­day for six days of meet­ings in Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador with diplo­mats, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives and indige­nous lead­ers, a trip he said is meant to gather in­for­ma­tion and re­fo­cus at­ten­tion on the fac­tors fu­el­ing em­i­gra­tion.

His trip comes at a fraught mo­ment for U.S. diplo­macy in Cen­tral Amer­ica. The United States re­called its am­bas­sador from El Sal­vador ear­lier this month when the coun­try sev­ered re­la­tions with Tai­wan in an over­ture to China.

THE CBP AS­SESS­MENT POSITS MORE TRA­DI­TIONAL “PUSH” FAC­TORS – POVERTY AND LACK OF OP­POR­TU­NITY – AS A MA­JOR DRIV­ING FORCE BE­HIND THE LAT­EST MI­GRA­TION TREND, RATHER THAN AN UPTICK IN CRIME.

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