Guatemala has captured the attention of media and policymakers across the globe with historic proceedings against former leaders, discussions on drug decriminalization, its U.N. Security Council and OAS involvement, organized crime, and other hot topics. Despite progress on important fronts like security and an improved image abroad, the pressing issue of deportation from the U.S. remains unsolved and continues to worsen, increasing pressure on an already fragile economic and social fabric.
Guatemala’s bilateral relationship with the U.S. is its most important, reflected by the country’s 12 diplomatic posts there and plans to open others soon. In 2012, cash flows from the U.S. reached record levels, totaling over 10 percent of Guatemala’s GDP at $4.78 billion. President Otto Pérez-Molina’s government is encouraging migrant families and their recipients to invest these funds, aware that creating opportunities for Guatemalan citizens and influencing the U.S. Congress to provide legal status to the over 700,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the U.S. are crucial to the economic and social sustainability of Guatemala.
Deportations from the U.S. in 2013 have already surpassed 2012 levels, with two months remaining in the year. This further exacerbates pressures on the Guatemalan government to provide those with a “stunted American dream” access to key services, sound infrastructure and, most importantly, jobs.
With activities like the Guatemala Investment Summit, the manufacturing, tourism and construction industries are providing Guatemalans with job opportunities and the chance to integrate into the country’s economy. Although many higher-skilled and English-speaking workers are able to find jobs upon returning to Guatemala, the biggest remaining challenge is to create opportunities outside of Guatemala City.
Most new jobs require higher skills and are concentrated in urban areas, yet a majority of deportees are low-skilled workers from rural areas with few employment opportunities. The difficulty of incorporating these individuals into the national economy despite their limited sources of income is creating tremendous strains on both returning migrants’ families and their communities.
Although it is ultimately up to the Guatemalan public and private sector to provide opportunities and a stable business environment, they cannot do it alone. The fate of continued remittances from Guatemalans residing in the U.S.—the very lifeline of the Guatemalan economy—is an issue that remains exclusively in the hands of the U.S. Congress. Moreover, the country requires FDI to help further develop its industries and to provide increased dynamism to its economy.
While long-term reliance on remittances should not remain a central policy goal for Guatemala, the massive cash influx is currently the country’s main source of economic expansion. With fewer Guatemalans living abroad, many Guatemalan families and communities will inevitably plunge into crisis and add increased pressure to the country’s fragile social fabric.
In order to prevent unsustainable levels of unemployment, Guatemala needs the U.S. to enact policies that will grant legal status to migrants, prevent the forced separation of undocumented and mixed-status families, and in effect, benefit both countries’ economies.
It would be a sound foreign policy decision to strengthen U.S. relations with Latin America, and would further serve to boost the U.S. economy while improving the well-being of children in the U.S. who were forcibly separated from their parents by deportation.
At the same time, Guatemala should continue to pass reforms and to ensure that its policies maximize opportunities for migrants living abroad. Allowing those who sustain the Guatemalan economy the much-sought right to vote abroad would be a positive start to ensure that this key sector remains engaged in Guatemalan policy efforts and government oversight.
Provided the difficulties of navigating political interests around immigration reform, it is unlikely that deportations of undocumented Guatemalans will stop anytime soon. With failed negotiations around temporary protection status for Guatemalans in the U.S. and the recent halt to immigration reform in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Pérez-Molina and his team will have to push to create enhanced conditions for those returning to the country.
But with heavy investments in security and natural disaster relief, in addition to a political stalemate in Guatemala City, this will be easier said than done. There are, however, positive developments in important areas of public interest—including infrastructure, energy, tourism and service industries—all of which are bringing jobs to previously disconnected areas.
Guatemalan leaders, politicians and activists continue to try to inform U.S. lawmakers on the urgency and importance of securing Guatemala’s economic future. They know that current rates of deportation from the U.S. are unsustainable and will continue to tremendously strain the country’s social and economic stability, if not eventually leading to a full collapse.
Efforts to protect Guatemala and Central America’s capital flows and to prevent an oversaturation of the labor market from mass return migration flows could prevent a crisis and increase stability across the region. Until a formidable solution is reached, the issue will remain Guatemala’s and one of Central America’s primary concerns about the U.S.—Central America relationship.