A report this week in the Wall Street Journal chronicles the border crisis at one of its sources, a city in Guatemala that’s emptying out as families leave for the United States, and leaves little doubt that what’s motivating most of them to leave isn’t violence or persecution, but economic opportunity.
The focus of the story is the mountainous city of Joyabaj, “population 100,000 and falling.” The United States has deported 627 people to Joyabaj in the first six months of this year, more than any other municipality in the country except Guatemala City, population 2.5 million, which saw 643 deportees from the United States over the same period. According to one school official, about 2,000 out of 16,400 first- through ninth-graders in Joyabaj’s public schools have gone north over the past 18 months.
Indeed, Guatemalans now make up the largest nationality of those arrested along the southwest border, with 235,638 Guatemalans apprehended so far this year. Of these, the vast majority are family units or unaccompanied minors. As of June, more than 167,100 family units from Guatemala had been arrested, more than the previous three years combined.
What’s driving the exodus? Grinding poverty at home, the chance to get ahead in America, and a robust smuggling industry. On this last, the Journal report is eye-opening. Radio stations in Joyabaj advertise the services of smugglers with ads that ask, “Tired of so much poverty? Tired of so much humiliation?”
Business is good. One smuggler barrels along roads in a bright yellow Hummer. He doubles as a priest in the Maya religion and is paid handsomely to perform ceremonies to insure a safe journey.
Many Guatemalans use homes and plots of farmland as collateral for high-interest loans to pay smugglers.
A popular YouTube influencer has sophisticated equipment to create videos with such titles as ‘The American Dream,’ and ‘I left for the US looking for a better life.’ Together, they have notched almost three million views. Some of the inspirational videos are, in fact, advertisements for one of the area’s most successful human smugglers.
The Key Is Getting a Family Member into America
The Journal isn’t alone in its Guatemala reporting. News organizations that have actually bothered to send people to the country have reported at length on the economic benefits of migration, how Guatemalans who sent a family member to the United States live in large, comfortable houses while those who have not live in shacks with dirt floors.
In April, the New Yorker ran an article titled, “The Dream Homes of Guatemalan Migrants,” about American-style casas de remesa, or remittance houses, “which have become ubiquitous in the country’s western highlands as a way for immigrants to invest their earnings while living abroad.”
All of this reflects what Guatemalans say about why they’re leaving. A 2016 survey by the International Organization for Migration found that more than 90 percent emigrated to the United States for economic reasons. According to the report, “56.8 percent of Guatemalans migrate in search of better employment, 32.9 percent to improve their income, 1.2 percent to buy a home, and 0.1 percent to open businesses.” Only 0.3 percent say they migrate because of violence, and 0.2 percent cite gang problems.
Meanwhile, the entire political class in Washington DC is seemingly content to pretend that none of this is happening. Rather than confront the reality that the vast majority of those crossing the border are economic migrants, media elites tend to repeat, mantra-like, that migrants are fleeing violence and crime.
Few of them ever mentioned that although the Northern Triangle remains a relatively violent place, homicide rates in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have plummeted in recent years. In Honduras, the murder rate has dropped by more than half since 2012; In El Salvador, the rate has fallen for three years in a row; and in Guatemala it has decreased by half since 2009.
Others emphasize poverty in these countries, which is understandable because poverty is rampant in this part of the world. Less emphasized is the fact that the economies of Guatemala and Honduras have grown about 3.5 percent on average in recent years (El Salvador’s GDP growth has been a bit more sluggish, at about 3 percent).
So if violence is decreasing and the economy is growing, why are so many people leaving Guatemala? The answer varies depending on the region of the country, but the common theme is that people are leaving because they are poor and have far better prospects in the United States. Subsistence farmers in the western highlands are facing crop failures due to climate change, so they pack up and leave.
In cities like Joyabaj, cheap cell phones keep people in touch with relatives in the United States, and success stories spread quickly, inspiring others to follow. As one man told the Journal, “If you work in the U.S., you get paid $12 an hour for eight hours, that’s $96 a day. Here you make 40 quetzales [$5.30] a day when there is work. Not enough to live.”
What we’re witnessing is a mass exodus from Central America driven above all by poverty but made possible by a broken asylum and immigration system in the United States. The scale of this exodus is hard to convey. About 17 million people live in Guatemala. Since October of last year, 235,638 Guatemalans have been apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol. That means over the past nine months nearly 1.4 percent of the entire population of Guatemala has been apprehended and processed by U.S. authorities.
It’s time for policymakers and establishment elites to get serious about what’s happening and quit pretending that the vast majority of those now arriving at the southwest border are anything but economic migrants doing what any of us would do in their shoes: exploit a broken U.S. asylum system to forge a better life for ourselves and our children.