Argument

To Solve the Border Crisis, Look Beyond the Border

U.S. policy should focus on legal circular migration, targeted investments, and leveraging diaspora networks to make staying put a viable option for Central Americans.

Migrants enter Guatemala.
Migrants enter Guatemala after breaking a police barricade at the border checkpoint in El Florido, Honduras, on Jan. 16. Josue Decavele/Getty Images

The public hospital on the outskirts of San Pedro Necta, a rural town in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, started to be built more than 10 years ago but today remains empty. It was billed as a hospital that would serve hundreds of thousands of residents in Huehuetenango, one of the poorest regions in Guatemala’s mostly Indigenous Western Highlands, a mountainous region seven or eight hours from the capital. But before the hospital could be finished, corrupt hands siphoned away the funds. Politicians lost interest in procuring more money, and construction ground to a halt.

This giant concrete carcass on the edge of town is all people in the surrounding communities need to remind them that the government is unlikely to resolve their most pressing problems and that corruption eats away at even the most promising attempts to change that reality.

It is also perhaps not surprising that Huehuetenango has become the epicenter of migration to the United States. In a year when unauthorized migration at the U.S. border reached its highest levels in recent years, Guatemalans and Hondurans make up well over half the families and unaccompanied minors who have arrived at the U.S. border.

The public hospital on the outskirts of San Pedro Necta, a rural town in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, started to be built more than 10 years ago but today remains empty. It was billed as a hospital that would serve hundreds of thousands of residents in Huehuetenango, one of the poorest regions in Guatemala’s mostly Indigenous Western Highlands, a mountainous region seven or eight hours from the capital. But before the hospital could be finished, corrupt hands siphoned away the funds. Politicians lost interest in procuring more money, and construction ground to a halt.

This giant concrete carcass on the edge of town is all people in the surrounding communities need to remind them that the government is unlikely to resolve their most pressing problems and that corruption eats away at even the most promising attempts to change that reality.

It is also perhaps not surprising that Huehuetenango has become the epicenter of migration to the United States. In a year when unauthorized migration at the U.S. border reached its highest levels in recent years, Guatemalans and Hondurans make up well over half the families and unaccompanied minors who have arrived at the U.S. border.

Migration is not new for people from Huehuetenango. Many early pioneers came to the United States during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict in the 1980s, and they built the ties that are helping others come today. It costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 for a smuggler these days, based on interviews, and relatives already in the United States often put up the required 25 percent down payment. These same relatives help newcomers find a place to stay and a first job, permitting payment of the remaining debt.

Central Americans who face hunger and poor nutrition are more likely to migrate. But people of all income levels migrate because it is simply the best way to get ahead in a country that has few pathways to prosperity.

There is no question that migration is transforming communities dramatically. Remittances, the money that migrants send back home, now make up around 15 percent of Guatemala’s economy—and more than one-fifth of that in neighboring Honduras. Remittances are as important to the Guatemalan economy as the value of all of the country’s exports and greater than all government expenditures put together.

While the government can’t build a hospital in San Pedro Necta, families that receive money from relatives abroad can access health care in private clinics nearby or send their children to private universities, even if no public ones are available.

A home made of wooden boards sits next to a more solid house built with concrete in Yalambojoch in the Huehuetenango department of Guatemala, on Dec. 28, 2018. The village was home to 8-year-old migrant Felipe Gomez, who died in a medical center in Alamogordo, New Mexico while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

A home made of wooden boards sits next to a more solid house built with concrete in Yalambojoch in the Huehuetenango Department of Guatemala, on Dec. 28, 2018. The village was home to 8-year-old migrant Felipe Gomez, who died in a medical center in Alamogordo, New Mexico, while in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

It’s not hard to spot the houses of those who have migrated: larger and often modeled on U.S. construction styles. And they often have new cars, trucks, or motorcycles parked in front. So it’s no surprise that more and more people are migrating despite the risks and sacrifices involved.

Scholars have shown emigration tends to increase once people have just enough resources to conceive of a journey abroad and the social connections to make it happen, and migration only declines once local economies improve enough that it makes more sense for people to stay home. Mexico, Turkey, and even South Korea are good examples of countries that once had massive outflows of migrants but today have comparatively limited outward migration after reaching a level of development that made it more economically sustainable to remain.

Of course, there is no guarantee Guatemala will follow the route of neighboring Mexico, much less South Korea. Pervasive corruption, poor governance, and discrimination against the Indigenous populations make advances difficult, though not impossible. Smart policies over the next few years could determine whether migration slows over the longer term. But some of these policies will require managing migration in the interim so there are legal pathways for people to take.


Cooperative farmer Luisa Huinel collects eggs in the western highlands town of Cajola, Guatemala, on on Feb. 11, 2017. Grupo Cajola, an NGO funded by American donations, organized the cooperative to help improve the local economy and reduce the need for emigration to the United States.

Cooperative farmer Luisa Huinel collects eggs in the western highlands town of Cajolá, Guatemala, on Feb. 11, 2017. Grupo Cajolá, a nonprofit funded by U.S. donations, organized the cooperative to help improve the local economy and reduce the need for emigration to the United States. John Moore/Getty Images

Patzún, a mostly Indigenous municipality on the edge of the Western Highlands in the department of Chimaltenango has followed a migration pattern entirely different than San Pedro Necta’s. Occasionally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents will catch someone from Patzún, but the numbers are strikingly low. Instead, Patzún has developed a long history of legal migration to Canada through that country’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, which allows Guatemalans to work for several months a year in farms in Quebec and then return home.

In the villages around Patzún, the houses are generally well built and they are often surrounded by gardens overflowing with fruits, vegetables, and flowers that are mostly for sale on the export market. Those who participate in the Canadian seasonal worker program earn more money than people who stay in Guatemala, but they also have a reason to return home every year and continue to develop their small plots of land. “With the money they earn [in Canada], they invest,” one woman in Patzún, whose family members have taken part in the program for years, told us.

This circular migration has set up a virtuous cycle between mobility and development, helping people who migrate stay connected to their families and communities while achieving a greater level of prosperity. It also means they have far less incentive to take the dangerous journey north to the United States with a smuggler. Roughly 10,000 Guatemalans come to Canada every year on the agricultural worker program, many of them from Patzún.

Circular migration has set up a virtuous cycle between mobility and development, helping people who migrate stay connected while achieving a greater level of prosperity.

In contrast, the United States takes in only 4,000 to 6,000 seasonal workers from Guatemala each year, even though the U.S. economy is more than 10 times larger than Canada’s. The United States admits more than 250,000 seasonal workers from Mexico yearly under the H-2A and H-2B seasonal worker programs, one of the reasons Mexican unauthorized migration has generally dropped over the past 15 years. But since U.S. employers choose their own workers and already have well-developed networks in Mexico, they have not had a reason to look further south to Guatemala or Honduras.

Over the summer, the Biden administration released its Collaborative Migration Management Strategy, which commits the U.S. government to work with countries in the region to manage migration. One key element of this strategy is building legal pathways to replace unauthorized migration over time. It’s a smart idea, though not an easy one to put into practice under existing U.S. laws since employers make the decision on where to recruit workers. The government can do things to encourage employers to look to Central America, but it can’t mandate this.

And seasonal worker programs have their own inherent problems too. In Patzún, people whose relatives participate in the Canadian program acknowledge that not all employers treat workers fairly, and some have been cheated out of wages—though they are still far better off than those who work unauthorized in the United States. But this means efforts to expand seasonal worker programs need to be accompanied by efforts to regulate recruitment practices, provide consular protection, and ensure workers have access to legal counsel.

For Guatemala’s Western Highlands, expanding seasonal worker programs would make an enormous difference in people’s lives and serve as an alternative to unauthorized migration. Right now, most people can’t imagine a legal way to get to the United States, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built. Evidence from countries where the United States has built legal pathways—Mexico, Cuba, and Jamaica—suggest the balance shifts fairly quickly to legal migration when options are there. But until those options exist, people in Guatemala’s Western Highlands are likely to continue to leave the only way they can.


An aerial view shows a Honduran migrant caravan heading to the United States on the Guatemala-Mexico international border bridge in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Oct. 20, 2018.

An aerial view shows a Honduran migrant caravan heading to the United States on the Guatemala-Mexico international border bridge in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on Oct. 20, 2018. PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

While seasonal work opportunities seem to be a clear and obvious alternative to unauthorized migration in Huehuetenango and Patzún, it’s less clear if this would work in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the two largest cities in neighboring Honduras. Here, migration to the United States is far newer than it is in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, and it’s also more chaotic and spontaneous.

It is no wonder Honduras gave birth to the so-called migrant caravans that have periodically galvanized public attention. In San Pedro Sula, neighborhoods are divided up by local gangs. Residents need to know where the “invisible frontiers” between different groups lie so they don’t find themselves on the wrong side at the wrong time. Gangs have a long history in Honduras, but shifts in the international drug trade that made Honduras a favored transshipment point for cocaine and have emboldened these once smaller groups, injecting money and guns into an already volatile situation. Police often take payoffs from the gangs to look the other way.

A Honduran government report with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that almost 1 in 10 people in Honduras’s largest cities have been displaced at some point over a 15-year period. And occasional flooding adds to the woes of these already volatile communities. In 2020, two hurricanes in the span of three weeks wiped away many people’s few possessions and forced them to start from scratch.

Even in places where violence is severe, labor pathways could help the vast majority of people whose motives for moving are perhaps more mixed.

Addressing violence and climate disasters as a catalyst for migration requires a different set of tools from those that seek to create options for employment. A few nongovernmental organizations, such as Cristosal—based in both Honduras and El Salvador—have led efforts to help resettle those who are displaced internally by helping them find work and a home in a new neighborhood. But none of the governments in Central America have a comprehensive plan to address this—nor does the international community. And the response to climate displacement has been even more ad hoc.

Separately, UNHCR and a small network of Central American NGOs have quietly begun identifying small numbers of Central Americans who are in imminent danger and then resettling them as refugees in the United States, Canada, and Australia before they have to flee. These efforts, under what is called the Protection Transfer Arrangement, help a few hundred people a year already, and the numbers are slated to ramp up significantly next year if bureaucratic hurdles can be overcome.

In the meantime, many of those in danger head north for protection. Most try to reach the United States, but along the way, some stop off and apply for asylum in Mexico. Through September, more than 30,000 Hondurans had applied for asylum there, along with almost 4,000 Guatemalans. Others head south to Costa Rica each month, another country that has seen a rise in asylum claims from neighboring countries.

Even in places where violence is severe, labor pathways could help the vast majority of people whose motives for moving are perhaps more mixed. But for those in imminent danger, it makes sense to think in terms of a layered approach that includes options for internal relocation, international resettlement, and asylum in a neighboring country or in the United States depending on circumstances.


Central America today can often seem like a bleak place that everyone is trying to leave, but the reality is most people aren’t leaving. Addressing migration in the region can’t just be about creating pathways to migrate; it also has to help give people reasons to stay.

In the working class neighborhood of San Francisco, on the outskirts of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, a group of young people, most between the ages of 15 and 25, run a community center supported by the Honduran YMCA. They plan neighborhood improvement activities, including a film series, educational seminars, street festivals, and after-school activities for children. Their community center has turned out to be the perfect alternative to the neighborhood gang, with whom they have a respectful but distant relationship, and it has given them an alternative to migration too. Most are either in college or college-bound in a neighborhood where many others have traditionally left for the United States.

Similar things are taking place in Guatemala’s Western Highlands and around Central America from youth and women’s groups to coffee cooperatives that try to engage the next generation in making coffee production successful, often with the support of larger but still locally based organizations like Pop No’j and Women’s Justice Initiative. My Guatemalan colleague Luis Argueta calls this the power of “arraigo,” the sense of rootedness, which gets people to invest in the places they live, even with all the obstacles they have to overcome.

To its credit, the Biden administration has pledged $4 billion to Central America and, through its Root Causes Strategy, has been looking for ways to decentralize its work so funding reaches as many grassroots organizations as possible. This can’t be the only strategy, of course, because Central American communities also need hospitals, schools, jobs, credit, and infrastructure, but it’s good that the U.S. government is recognizing it has to partner with local community efforts already underway.

Washington would be wise to leverage the diaspora’s untapped power.

Washington would also be wise to leverage the diaspora’s untapped power. The most widely read book in Guatemala in 2020 was Migrante, the beautifully written autobiography of a Mayan Q’anjob’al migrant named Marcos Andrés Antil, who left a small village in Huehuetenango when he was 14 and settled with his family in Los Angeles. Antil would go on to become an expert in information technology systems in the early 1990s, right as the internet boom was about to take off, and today runs a major global IT company, XumaK.

When Antil was trying to figure out where to put XumaK’s main offices, he made a trip to Guatemala and discovered there was a large pool of underutilized IT talent. He put out an ad and soon had the team of programmers he needed, setting up operations in Guatemala City. XumaK’s headquarters are still in the United States, but most of its technical talent is in Guatemala. And Antil himself sponsors a major effort to keep kids in school in Huehuetenango. Another Guatemalan migrant, Luis von Ahn, who invented both Duolingo and reCAPTCHA, has also invested heavily in his home country.

One of the most powerful forces for changing the calculus of migration in Central America—and the one most often overlooked—is that many Guatemalans and Hondurans who have left their country and now live in the United States also continue to feel the same sense of rootedness in the communities they left behind, and they are anxious to contribute. Most send remittances to their families, which helps keep local communities afloat, and many contribute to local projects like schools and churches. But they are also anxious to invest in other creative ways if given a chance.

One of my neighbors in Washington, who is from the Huehuetenango region, sources all the coffee for his hip coffee shop from the local community cooperative he used to belong to in Guatemala to give people there the financial means to stay rather than migrate.

There are multiple ways governments, the private sector, and nonprofits could help support and scale up the impact of these migrant-led efforts, including facilitating credit for diaspora investments, banking remittances in local credit unions that then lend money to community projects, and creating marketing partnerships that help farmers sell their products at higher value directly to diaspora-led businesses.

So although most of the attention in the United States has been focused on the large number of people arriving at the border this year, the real alternatives that would change this pattern may lie slightly further away: within Central America itself and among those Central Americans living in the United States. The real opportunities can be found in creating legal pathways for circular migration, protection mechanisms for those in danger, and investments that help people improve the well-being of their communities, whether they still live there or remain connected from abroad.

This is an ambitious agenda, but it’s one that’s in reach if the United States is willing to embrace the challenge. And it’s the kind of effort that would turn today’s chaos and political polarization around border migration into long-term opportunities for a safer, more prosperous neighborhood.

Andrew Selee is president of the Migration Policy Institute and author of Vanishing Frontiers: The Forces Driving Mexico and the United States Together. Twitter: @SeleeAndrew

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