Dispatch

Guatemalan Deportees Find Little Hope at Home

All too often, migrants return to find their living conditions worse than when they left.

A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.
A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.
A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute in Guatemala City after being deported from the United States on June 10. Jeff Abbott Photos for Foreign Policy
By , a freelance journalist based in Guatemala.

GUATEMALA CITYIt was a gray, overcast day as two flights from the United States and a third flight from Mexico arrived in Guatemala City on June 10 carrying hundreds of deported migrants. Among them was Álvaro Chávez, a 22-year-old from the highland Indigenous Mayan K’iche’ community of Momostenango, Guatemala, who was deported from San Antonio just days after crossing the border into the United States.

Chávez arrived with other migrants at a new reception center for deportees that sits next to a Guatemalan Air Force base across the runway from La Aurora International Airport. The center, which was inaugurated in July 2021, was built with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). After arriving here on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-chartered airlines, each deportee gets a sack lunch, one phone call, and a clear plastic bag containing their personal possessions. Unaccompanied minors receive a little more attention, with Guatemalan officials ushering them off to a separate wing to meet with social workers. All deportees register with the Guatemalan Migration Institute, a government agency, before they leave.

As we sat in the seating area of the reception center, Chávez said he was driven to migrate due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation, where around half of the population lives in poverty. He had dreamed of earning money in the United States in the hopes of becoming a cobbler and one day moving back to Guatemala to open his own shop. “It is difficult for one to advance economically,” Chávez said. “There are no means to do so here.”

A family registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.
A family registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.

A family registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute in Guatemala City after being deported from Mexico on June 10. Jeff Abbott Photos for Foreign Policy

GUATEMALA CITYIt was a gray, overcast day as two flights from the United States and a third flight from Mexico arrived in Guatemala City on June 10 carrying hundreds of deported migrants. Among them was Álvaro Chávez, a 22-year-old from the highland Indigenous Mayan K’iche’ community of Momostenango, Guatemala, who was deported from San Antonio just days after crossing the border into the United States.

Chávez arrived with other migrants at a new reception center for deportees that sits next to a Guatemalan Air Force base across the runway from La Aurora International Airport. The center, which was inaugurated in July 2021, was built with assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). After arriving here on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-chartered airlines, each deportee gets a sack lunch, one phone call, and a clear plastic bag containing their personal possessions. Unaccompanied minors receive a little more attention, with Guatemalan officials ushering them off to a separate wing to meet with social workers. All deportees register with the Guatemalan Migration Institute, a government agency, before they leave.

As we sat in the seating area of the reception center, Chávez said he was driven to migrate due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation, where around half of the population lives in poverty. He had dreamed of earning money in the United States in the hopes of becoming a cobbler and one day moving back to Guatemala to open his own shop. “It is difficult for one to advance economically,” Chávez said. “There are no means to do so here.”

In the past two years, Guatemala has seen a sharp increase in the number of people attempting to leave the country—and being returned. As of August, 40,522 Guatemalans have been deported from the United States and Mexico this year via chartered flights and another 26,557 individuals have been deported by land from Mexico. All too often, migrants return to find their living conditions worse than when they left due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, few state-led projects are available to help them reintegrate into society after they arrive.

A couple hours after arriving, Chávez was ushered out of the reception center and taken to Guatemala City’s main bus terminal, where he would be returned to his community on an old, repurposed school bus. He didn’t know what would come next for him, but he was worried about explaining his situation to his family. They had paid a human smuggler, known locally as a “coyote,” for the trip. The family still owed money to the coyote, though Chávez wasn’t willing to say how much. As the United States and Mexico instate more measures to stop migrants, coyotes are charging higher fees for their services. Right now, migrants seeking to reach the United States pay on average $15,500 (around 120,000 Guatemalan quetzales) for a package that includes multiple attempts to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Migrants often make use of these follow-up attempts after being deported.

Deportees walk toward the reception area in Guatemala City.
Deportees walk toward the reception area in Guatemala City.

Deportees walk toward the reception area in Guatemala City after being deported from Mexico on June 10.

A major problem for Chávez and other deportees is that there are no state-led policies in Guatemala to support returning migrants. The extent of the attention they receive essentially ends once they leave the reception center in Guatemala City. When they return, they are likely to find the same issues as before: rising costs of living, limited opportunities, and the majority of the population working in the informal sector. This lack of services especially affects deportees who lived abroad for years as many of them face stigmatization upon their return, which can make it harder to reintegrate into their communities.

“The government is not doing anything to prevent migrants who have been returned from trying to migrate again,” said Andrea Villagrán, a representative who serves on the foreign-policy commission in Guatemala’s Congress. “There is no type of follow-up despite the fact that there is information on all the people about who they are, where they live, and all their data.”

On paper, the secretariat of the National Council of Attention to Migrants of Guatemala is supposed to respond to migrants’ needs. But migrants, rights advocates, and government regulators have regularly accused the agency of corruption. (It has denied these accusations.) Migrants have also accused the agency of not complying with its responsibilities and of providing poor services. The Guatemalan Congress has called for reforms to the agency, including increasing its budget, but these have not yet materialized, and in 2021, the agency used less than one-third of its budget.

Other previous policies over the past 10 years have largely failed to address the factors that push people to migrate due to inadequate funding, lack of political will, and little continuity with subsequent governments. This lack of support has grown worse over the past two administrations. It is mostly members of civil society, rather than politicians, who work to promote laws that could address these issues. “The current government does not really have a real interest in the migrant population,” said Juan José Hurtado, director of migrant rights organization Pop No’j.

A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.
A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute.

A man registers with the Guatemalan Migration Institute in Guatemala City after being deported from the United States on June 10.

The few programs that currently exist don’t have much of an impact. The Guatemalan Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare as well as the Ministry of Social Development run a few job placement programs that direct a small minority of deportees with certain skills, such as speaking English, to jobs at private companies. But these projects are limited to Guatemala City and discriminate against people from rural Indigenous areas where people primarily speak Indigenous languages.

Nongovernmental organizations, such as Pop No’j and El Refugio de la Niñez, provide some additional support, including to deportees in more rural areas. Among the services that these organizations offer are counselors for mental health needs and support to help reintegrate minors into their communities and get them back in school. “Civil society organizations are the ones that have developed capacities for more adequate attention to the deported population,” Hurtado said.

Both organizations receive support from USAID, UNICEF, and other international agencies and religious groups. But these projects are limited due to a lack of substantial funding. “Civil society organizations are there fulfilling, very limitedly, tasks that correspond to the state,” Hurtado said. “We are small organizations. We do not have all the necessary resources.”

The state’s absence is part of a broader breakdown of social services in the country. “Today, the social protection system has been totally lost,” said Renzo Rosal, an independent political analyst in Guatemala. “Migration is a phenomenon that should be [understood] within the framework of social protection measures in general.”

Migrants line up outside a deportation reception center in Guatemala.
Migrants line up outside a deportation reception center in Guatemala.

Migrants line up outside the deportation reception center next to the Guatemalan Air Force base in Guatemala City on June 10 after being deported from Mexico.

The lack of state-led programs and policies to help deportees is also part of a larger problem in Guatemala: the fact that the economy relies on remittances, which makes the government unwilling to respond to the causes of migration.

“There is a group of [economic and political] sectors that do not really care about containing migration,” Rosal said. “On the contrary, they are interested in encouraging irregular migration because if these migrants manage to arrive, they will generate remittances.”

Remittances make up an estimated 18.4 percent of the country’s GDP. In 2021, Guatemalans living abroad sent more than $15 billion home to families, and that number is expected to rise in 2022, according to projections from the Guatemalan central bank. Last year, remittances were the largest growth sector of the economy, increasing more than 35 percent from the previous year. This money primarily goes into paying off debts to coyotes, building homes, supporting education and health care, and buying consumer goods.

“If you stop the stream of migrants, there will be no remittances or remittances will decrease,” Rosal said. “And as a result, these productive sectors would have problems.”

Thanks to all these factors, deportation is often not the end of a migrant’s dreams of reaching the United States. The lack of political will to address the needs of deportees means that many Guatemalans will need to set out again.

Chávez is one of the lucky few who found work after being deported. When we caught up on Aug. 1, he said that since then, he has found a job in construction, though it is not paying much. He did this on his own—without follow-up or support from the Guatemalan state. When asked if he is thinking of trying to migrate again, he said, “The truth [is], I’m still not sure.”

Jeff Abbott is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. Twitter: @palabrasdeabajo

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