This piece was originally published in The Hill.
In the town of Salcajá in the Guatemalan highlands, signs of migration are everywhere — there is a giant statue of a Guatemalan migrant in the town center. Huge houses paid for by remittances tower over smaller ones. Advertisements for phone plans to contact family in the United States plaster the streets and newsstands are full of headlines about Guatemalans on the move.
Indeed, Guatemalans are forced to migrate daily — over half a million peoplehave fled to the United States in the past three years. Now a lack of a coherent U.S. policy framework to address this challenge and specific unethical policies are exacerbating root causes of displacement and putting many people into a vicious feedback loop of increasing vulnerability.
Danger upon return
Key policies are resulting in the accelerated deportation or return of Guatemalans to their embattled countries. These policies include the Migrant Protection Protocols program which places many in dangerous situations; programs like Prompt Asylum Claim Review which allows for more rapid deportations; and Mexico’s border crackdown following tariff threats from the United States. Nearly 55,000 Guatemalans were deported back to Guatemala in 2019, and 96,740 were voluntarily returned from the United States and Mexico.
The prevalence of remigration is high for deportees. Even if they connect with the few organizations that help with reintegration, deportees face huge challenges with personal safety once back in Guatemala. Often, they find themselves forced to flee these untenable circumstances once again.
Deportees and returnees describe a common thread of violence and threats they experienced before leaving and after return — and the low-level corruption that aids and abets this danger. Dangerous people also perceive returnees as having money, making them a target. In Guatemala last month, I met a man who was repeatedly robbed, extorted, and threatened when he tried to start a business upon returning. It is now closed. The spread of COVID-19 adds new threats to Guatemalan deportees, who may return sick and with no real access to health care.
Cuts to aid
Guatemala needs support to tackle root causes so that people aren’t forced to leave. Since 2017, the U.S. Congress has not appropriated new funds for key programs for development, climate change resiliency, and democracy and governance.
Together, these programs could help returnees and deportees to reduce better the factors that force Guatemalans to flee to the United States. Some new money has been appropriated, largely related to building up asylum systems and security, but these programs won’t reduce the push factors of forced displacement.
Families and children at risk
Trump administration policies are closing the door to family reunification and creating more unaccompanied Guatemalan children who are desperate to join their parents in the United States but cannot. In 2019, over 80,000 Guatemalan unaccompanied minors fled to the U.S. and Mexico. The director of the only shelter in the Guatemalan highlands for deported children told me that between 25 and 35 percent of the children in their care try to migrate for family reunification.
But with the tightening of U.S. policies on asylum, the elimination of programs like the Central American Minors program, and the militarization of the Mexican southern border, the chances for reunification grow slimmer by the day. Coyotes profit off this desperation and can adapt to policy changes quickly, offering two or three chances to cross the border, charging higher fees, and taking children on more dangerous routes.
Pressure on civil society
Civil society organizations, which are providing the bulk of care to returned Guatemalans and migrants in transit now face a new challenge: caring for transferees from the Asylum Cooperative Agreement which violates the principle of non-return and allows the U.S. to send asylum seekers to Guatemala and bars them from applying for protection in the U.S. Without adequate funding from the Guatemalan government, these organizations are stretched to breaking points.
Although the number of ACA transferees is relatively low, even this small number threatens to destabilize a delicate and limited ecosystem of protection that hinges on the work of the civil society.
These U.S. policies are both morally wrong and counterproductive. Take the issue of corruption, which most Guatemalans cite as the major challenge confronting the governance of their country. For years, a unique joint UN-Guatemalan mechanism, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) made significant headway in battling government corruption.
Last year, the Trump administration withdrew support for the initiative. With the CICIG gone, it’s hard to say which is more diminished — the lack of government accountability or the lack of confidence the Guatemalan people have that things will get better.
However, there are real steps the United States can take to make progress. As Guatemalans continue to flee, the United States must provide a coherent U.S. policy framework that upholds legal pathways for Guatemalans to have a fear screening and apply for asylum in the United States; reduces the number of rapid deportations so that vulnerable people aren’t sent back without proper screening; and reinstates aid funding, including fiscal 2019 funds, to promote a more welcoming environment for returnees and reduces push factors so that Guatemalans aren’t forced to leave. This is the only way this forced displacement crisis will end.
The head of an organization of Guatemalan returnees told Refugees International that his goal was to create the “Guatemalan Dream,” where people could live freely and prosperously. I asked him if he thinks it’s achievable. He replied, “not in my lifetime, but I hope one day it will be so.” Realizing these policies would be a step in that direction.
Rachel Schmidtke is the advocate for Latin America at Refugees International. She traveled to Guatemala in February 2020 to research drivers of displacement and the effects of U.S. policies toward the country. Follow her on Twitter @r_schmidtke.