Can US aid help would-be migrants see opportunity at home?

Jeff Abbott
Martín Zapil stands among the lettuce plants growing in one of his plots of land on June 10, 2021, in the village of San Martín la Calera in Zunil, Guatemala. He chose to stay in Guatemala instead of migrating to the U.S.

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Martín Zapil, single and in his 20s, fits the profile of many Guatemalans who head to the United States in search of opportunity. He estimates four of his seven closest friends have left – and he half expected to do it himself.

But his family raised him with an emphasis on working the land, and connecting to their Mayan history. And he has something else that puts his dreams within reach: access to land. After years of planning, he’s built an organic agricultural business here in the western highlands. 

Why We Wrote This

As the U.S. boosts aid to Central America in order to reduce migration, success could hinge not on what drives people to leave, but on what makes them decide to stay put.

“My connection to the land helps maintain me. ... This is what opened opportunities for me,” he says.

U.S. conversation about halting migrants and asylum-seekers along its southern border tends to center on “push-pull” factors. Crime, hunger, and limited jobs push migrants away from home, while promises of employment, family reunification, safety, and education pull them north. Rarely does the conversation focus on learning from cases like Mr. Zapil’s: those who decide they can build a future at home.

It’s a perspective migration experts say could make or break the success of new U.S. initiatives. The Biden administration has pledged an additional $310 million in aid to Central America to improve living conditions and lower migration, on top of a proposed four-year, $4 billion package.

Martín Zapil crouches down and examines the lush green leaves of a lettuce plant growing on one of his small plots of land here in Guatemala’s western highlands. Access to this land – parcels that he rents from neighbors and family – has given Mr. Zapil the opportunity to build an organic agricultural business, supplying restaurants and local markets with his fresh vegetables.

And it’s done something else that few in rural Guatemala can claim: It’s given him hope, and alleviated his drive to migrate to the United States. 

“I’m tied down here; these lands have absorbed me and told me living here is possible,” says Mr. Zapil, taking a seat on a nearby boulder where he surveys his onion, lettuce, and spinach crops.

Why We Wrote This

As the U.S. boosts aid to Central America in order to reduce migration, success could hinge not on what drives people to leave, but on what makes them decide to stay put.

Guatemalans make up one of the largest groups of migrants apprehended on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years. Many are fleeing rural areas, where climate change and lack of access to land and food have severely limited opportunities to thrive. Rates of chronic malnutrition are some of the highest in the world, racism is rampant toward the nearly 44% of the population that identifies as Indigenous, and corruption is rife, with high rates of violence and crime.

U.S. conversation about halting migrants and asylum-seekers along its southern border tends to center on “push-pull” factors. Crime, violence, hunger, lack of public services, and limited formal job opportunities push migrants away from home, while promises of employment, family reunification, safety, and education pull them north. But rarely does the conversation focus on learning from cases like Mr. Zapil’s: those who fit the profile of someone prone to migrate, yet decide there’s a way to build a future at home.

It’s a perspective migration experts say could make or break the success of new U.S. initiatives.

The Biden administration has pledged an additional $310 million in aid to Central America to improve living conditions and lower migration, on top of a proposed four-year, $4 billion package. It’s an about-face from the Trump administration, which focused on penalizing migrants’ home countries, even threatening to cut off U.S. aid from the region entirely.

As vice president under Barack Obama, Joe Biden played a key role in trying to reduce migration through an aid partnership in the region called the Alliance for Prosperity. Some question how this round of efforts will differ from prior attempts to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle.

Just last week, Kamala Harris visited the region – her first international visits as vice president – and was criticized for telling Guatemalans, “Do not come.”

“The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. ... I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back,” she said at a press conference.

“It’s not about telling people not to come to the United States; it’s about explaining or showing them why they should stay” in their home countries, says Nicole Kast, head of programs in Guatemala for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The international aid organization, which receives the vast majority of its funding from the U.S., recently published a study exploring factors that tend to decrease someone’s likelihood of leaving Guatemala – like education and training opportunities that feed into formal employment, access to fertile land, and a sense of connection to one’s community.

The U.S. has traditionally looked at migration from Central America “as what are the problems that exist in those countries that are pushing people out, and not from an opportunity or resilience perspective,” Ms. Kast says. She’s hopeful there could be a broader shift in the future to focus on what’s keeping people at home and tailoring aid initiatives accordingly.

“People don’t migrate because they want to,” says Juan José Hurtado, executive director of the migrant advocacy group Pop N’oj, based in Guatemala’s western highlands. “The lack of hope, the despair is something that pushes [migration].” Like most people, Guatemalans want to remain in their communities, he says – if they can.

Jeff Abbott
María and Elena sit in a field preparing onions for market on June 10, 2021, in the village of San Martín la Calera in Zunil, Guatemala. The fields produce agricultural crops for the surrounding area.

Land to dream on

Mr. Zapil, single and in his 20s, fits the profile of many Guatemalans who head to the U.S. in search of opportunity. He estimates four of his seven closest friends have left in recent years.

He half expected to do it himself. Zunil is an agricultural town, where children can attend school locally through junior high. If they want to continue studying – as Mr. Zapil did – they have to travel to a nearby city, making a diploma a sometimes cost-prohibitive prospect.

His father migrated, like many before him, when Mr. Zapil was just 2 years old. The elder Zapil couldn’t read or write, and spent 10 years in the U.S., driven by poverty and a desire to provide for his family. The children’s grandfather raised them, while their father sent paychecks home to put food on the table and keep them in school. When Mr. Zapil was 13, a cousin proposed they migrate north together, and he considered the offer. But his dad had just returned home, and his grandfather raised him with an emphasis on the value of working the land and connecting to his K’iche’ Maya history.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I had gone,” he says. “My connection to the land helps maintain me. ... This is what opened opportunities for me,” he says. “Most youth don’t want to work in the field like their grandfathers.”

His access to land is key to building what he refers to as the Guatemalan dream. It allowed him to develop his company, Sorel Granjas Ecológicas – a project he’s been working on and dreaming about for at least five years. The pandemic shuttered many markets and restaurants, but he’s continued making connections with potential partners.

“Those who have sufficient land to live on will not migrate,” says Mr. Hurtado, from the migrant advocacy group. Some 40% of the 874 people interviewed for the CRS study said they’d been affected by extreme weather and natural disasters over the past year. The impact of droughts and hurricanes on farmers is intensified by what little land is available, with most ownership in the hands of a small percentage of Guatemalans.

Nearly half of Guatemalans live in rural communities, according to the 2018 census. If there’s no land to work, there’s not much else to do. This can drive migration first from rural to urban areas, and then abroad, Mr. Hurtado says.

There’s also the education conundrum. The report found that young people with higher levels of education are also likely to migrate. Their families may have invested in education as a way to get ahead at home, only to find there are few jobs available that tap into those skills or ambitions.

Informed incentives

Studying past aid projects and looking more closely at what keeps potential migrants at home is key to the success of the U.S.’s most recent financial pledge to the region, says Úrsula Roldán, director of a migration research institute at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City. She says she and her colleagues plan on doing follow-up research on the CRS report.

Incentives to stay home tend to be more effective than disincentives, observers say, whereas crackdowns at the border or on traffickers only make the trip riskier and more expensive. When potential migrants hear a message like Vice President Harris’, telling them “do not come,” they might “pause for a moment. But it’s just a moment,” Dr. Roldán says.

“More than disincentives, we need more structural changes and alternatives to illegal migration: more visa options for working in the U.S., more attention to what gives people hope for a future at home.”

Mr. Zapil agrees.

“I want to believe in myself and stay,” he says.

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