Hunger drives Guatemalan migration, US says
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.