To discourage immigration, the Obama and Trump administrations have deported hundreds of thousands of Central Americans over the past decade. But little was known about what was happening to the deportees. Eighteen months ago, we decided to find out. We interviewed 1,357 deportees upon entering Guatemala and followed up with 340 of them over the following months. Our data provides unique and systematic information about the driving forces of immigration in Central America – factors that the Biden administration must pay attention to while reformulating policy.
Our results are indexed in this report. Here are the key findings:
1. The lack of economic opportunities in Guatemala provides strong incentives for periodic immigration to the United States.
The current increase in boundaries is a small picture in a long-term cycle. As has been true for decades, most immigrants do so for economic reasons. Many immigrants work in the United States for a few years and return home multiple times during their lives. 41% of the deportees in our survey have immigrated to the United States more than once
This cyclical migration is the result of the enormous differences in economic opportunities available in the rural areas of Guatemala and the United States. The vast majority of survey respondents say their trip to the United States was driven by the pursuit of work. Rural Guatemala offers few opportunities; More than 50 percent of the deportees remained unemployed three to six months after their arrival. Male respondents Countless obstacles to finding work, Including a lack of jobs, difficulty translating skills developed in the United States into local labor markets, and social stigma against deportees. COVID-19 may have slowed economic migrationBut with restrictions lifted, the recovery of the US economy and the slow pace of vaccination in Guatemala are making the US more attractive again.
2. Most immigrants are productive members of American societies, and strict enforcement is detrimental to law-abiding families.
Almost all immigrants who arrived in the United States have worked. Only 1.5 percent of respondents reported no work experience in the United States. Eighty-one percent of respondents have family in the United States, and 31 percent of those deported from American communities have children here. After searching for work, the desire for family reunification is the most common reason given by deportees for their determination to emigrate.
Interviews with organizations working with immigrants in North Carolina also indicate the fear immigrants face when interacting with government authorities. This fear of deportation leads to underreporting and tolerance of domestic violence Unfair sanitary and labor practicesAnd the crackdowns by the US immigration and customs authorities are linked to everything from Low birth weights to Reduced access to health services.
3. Poor governance in Guatemala contributes to immigration, and the United States can help.
Poor management apparently appeared moments after the deportees had arrived at the airport. Most of the deportees arrive with little money and are not actually from Guatemala City, but there are few basic services available. The government does not provide housing, transportation, or assistance in finding work. Some churches and NGOs offer food and phone calls, but compete with taxi drivers and gang recruits for deportees when they leave the airport.
A survey to understand the factors that affect where deportees go when they leave the airport showed that fear of gangs and police harassment play a big role. These fears are confirmed by experience in subsequent months. In follow-up interviews, nearly 60 percent of deportees end up in places with significant gang activity, and more people report regular police harassment.
It is difficult to improve governance in any developing country, but there is evidence the United States can help. Some programs at USAID have shown promising results. The US State Department’s Model Police Service (MPP) project in Guatemala has demonstrated how central and local government coordination, police training, and joint patrols lead to safer communities. During MPP, national homicide rates have nearly halved.
These programs indicate the key components of successful governance programs: First, relying on local stakeholders to identify key problems and solutions; Solutions imported from Washington will not work. Second, programs must be built over the long term; Without long-term planning, shifts in leadership can dismantle successful interventions initiated by previous departments. Third, the programs must have a solid evidence base; That is, they must reflect the growing body of evidence and must be subject to rigorous evaluation.
4. Despite the costs and risks of immigration, many of the displaced intend to return to the United States.
Fourteen percent of the report sample was assaulted or detained against their will, and 17 percent were extorted for higher smuggling fees. Migration is also expensive, with immigrants typically paying thousands of dollars for coyotes to help them cross Mexico and the border. Despite these costs and risks, however, 37% of the deportees expressed a desire to return to the United States within a year, while another 41% did not. Consequently, the deportees (re) intend to migrate at a much higher rate than the typical Guatemalan rate.
In a separate survey of more than 18,000 Guatemalans, we found that only about 13 percent of respondents intend to immigrate to the United States again. Economic factors loom large on the horizon. Thirty-six percent of the deportees identified work as the main reason for leaving them again, and another 30 percent cited the need to make money in the United States to pay off debt.
To better understand deportation decisions, we published a survey trial in which hypothetical scenarios were presented for participants who might migrate. In addition to the importance of economic factors, we found that fear of physical harm in both Guatemala and the United States – however Especially in the United States–It seems to have a big impact on accounts. In other words, the desire to avoid harm either abroad or at home looms large in immigration decisions.
Deportation is not a solution
Our data shows that deportation is not a solution to the pressures on the southern border of the United States. It does nothing to address the issues driving migration in the first place. The huge gap of opportunity between sending and receiving communities will continue to drive migration even if the policy is punitive and imposes massive risks and penalties. Conversely, a liberal policy advocating immigration will actually lead to massive numbers of immigrants from the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
Our overarching message is that the drivers of migration are robust, structural, and require policy changes on both sides of the border. We recommend that repairs have three components:
- The United States should normalize the legal status of immigrants not currently registered in the United States. This normalization must be accompanied by humane and legal pathways for employment in the vital sectors of the US economy.
- The United States must become an ally of civil society in the Northern Triangle in its fight against corruption. In the case of Guatemala, the United States should do what it can to support justice reform and protect those who preserve the legacy of the International Committee against Impunity in Guatemala. The focus of the Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle is on Judgment as the root challenge It is a step in the right direction.
- US policy should promote economic growth in Central America, including infrastructure to stimulate rural economies and policies to foster entrepreneurship in cities. Only when there is an opportunity in local communities will the U.S. immigration cycles decline.