E.g., 06/13/2024
E.g., 06/13/2024
Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees

Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees

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Guatemala, with a population of about 14 million, has a common Central American recipe for high rates of emigration: political instability, natural disasters, and a lack of economic opportunity. The country's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, caused thousands of political refugees to flee to Mexico, the United States, and Canada, though many in Mexico returned once the war was over. Migration to the United States recorded a steep rise after the 1976 earthquake and rose still further during the 1980s, remaining at a steady rate of about 40,000 per year throughout the 1990s, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Guatemala.

The 2000 U.S. census counted 480,665 foreign born from Guatemala, but IOM data suggest that approximately one million Guatemalans now live in the United States. Although the IOM estimates that around 200,000 Guatemalan migrants living in the United States are undocumented, some civil society organizations believe the actual figure is higher. In March 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center, estimated 320,000 undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, based on results of the U.S. Census Bureau's March 2005 Current Population Survey.

IOM also estimates that between 6,000 and 12,000 new Guatemalan migrants arrive in the United States via Mexico each year. Their remittances, which are used for a variety of short-term needs and long-term purposes, have yet to decisively reduce poverty levels.

Guatemalans who enter both Mexico and the United States illegally are subject to deportation. Each year, IOM estimates that some 60,000 Guatemalans are deported from Mexico, and an average of 2,500 are deported from the United States, including gang members who have helped gang violence flourish back at home.

Guatemala's government is concerned with the reintegration of deported migrants and its role as a transit country for migrants from Central and South America — as well as Asia, particularly India — seeking to enter Mexico and eventually the United States. Regional migration policy efforts have produced some results, yet the main concern of Guatemalans in the United States and at home is the direction of U.S. immigration reform.

Historical Migration Trends

Guatemala's first European immigrants were the Spanish, who conquered the country's indigenous Mayan population in 1524 and ruled them for almost 300 years. Although the Spaniards' conquest was mainly the result of their technical superiority, they were helped by the fact that the Mayans were already involved in bitter infighting. European epidemics the conquistadors brought over are estimated to have reduced the indigenous population from 14 million at the arrival of the Spanish to two million in two generations.

Despite being greatly outnumbered by the Maya — historians estimate that only a few thousand Spaniards settled in Guatemala before independence — the latter were able to impose their colonial system through a reign of terror. Since Guatemala had few get-rich-quick resources, such as gold and silver, the Spanish conquest focused on forced labor of the indigenous population.

The Spanish set up a system of domination that ensured slaves worked the land and paid taxes in the form of goods. The system was structured to exploit the indigenous population without destroying it. In 1663, the Spanish king tried to abolish slavery in the colonies, but the criollo (creole) class, those of Spanish descent born in Guatemala, fought fervently to ensure that forced labor continued to be practiced well into the 20th century.

Following its independence from Spanish colonialists in 1821, the indigenous population continued to be exploited by the criollos and the mestizos (those of Spanish and indigenous blood, known in Guatemala as Ladinos), who had risen into the elite. One of the enduring legacies of the conquest was the forced appropriation of all land for the Spanish crown; indigenous Guatemalans, granted communal lands to sustain themselves, were still dependent on working Spanish land.

However, when legislation safeguarding these lands was abolished in the 19th century, criollos (from Spain, Germany, and Switzerland) and Ladinos soon moved in and set up plantations to produce export crops, thus turning the rural population into an unemployed mass of migrant farm workers.

In 1821, the Guatemalan Republic — which included the Soconusco region (now part of Southern Mexico), as well as what are now the countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica — had a mere 1.5 million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in the urban centers of the young republic. In 1823, following a brief period as part of the Mexican Empire, the republic became known as the United Provinces of Central America.

After a politically unstable period aggravated by the collapse of the world market for indigo, the region's main export to Europe, each province separated itself from the federation, beginning with Costa Rica. The federation fell apart between 1838 and 1840, when Guatemala became an independent nation.

Migration to Mexico

Guatemalans have sought employment abroad since the 19th century, when significant numbers made their way to work on the coffee plantations in Soconusco, now part of Chiapas, Mexico. Traditionally, most of those who emigrated to Mexico were male and young. Once established, their families would often join them.

From the early 1980s to the late 1990s, seasonal migration to Chiapas during the coffee harvest grew significantly — not surprising given that Mexican wages are estimated to be some 50 percent higher than those within Guatemala. In 1992, a joint study of the Ministry of Labor and IOM found that over 87,000 Guatemalan workers had legally undertaken migrant labor in Mexico during that year.

Yet the Guatemalan government has estimated that the number of undocumented migrants to Mexico may be as high as 250,000. In the mid 1990s, the Guatemalan government, under a bilateral agreement with the state government of Chiapas and with support from the International Labor Organization (ILO), established a system of identity cards for the migrant workers to encourage more of them to migrate through official channels. The Ministry of Health has also established binational programs to provide primary health care for Guatemalan migrant workers in Mexico.

Emigration During the Civil War

Modern history in Guatemala dates back to 1944, the year when long-time dictator General Jorge Ubico retired and a successor regime was overthrown by a reformist alliance of military officers, students, professionals, businessmen, and politicians.

For 10 years, Guatemala experimented with democracy, social reforms, and economic modernization. A violent coup — supported by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), right-wing politicians, the Catholic hierarchy, and the oligarchy — brought that period to an abrupt end in 1954. The ensuing political exclusion and corruption resulted in a military uprising in 1960, which marked the beginning of a long civil war between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups.

Between 1960 and 1996, when the civil war formally ended, over 400,000 Guatemalans fled their country's repressive military dictatorships and armed conflicts. Those fleeing included political, union, and student leaders, as well as intellectuals critical of the region's autocratic regimes. While the vast majority left during the 1980s, when the violence was at its peak, emigration rates actually accelerated after the war (see Table 1).

Table 1. Emigration Flows from Guatemala,
1960s through 2005
Time Period Number of emigrants
1960s 6,700
1970s 56,843
1981-85 84,897
1986-90 159,809
1991-94 141,755
1995-00 558,776
Total (through 2005) 1,364,546
Source: International Organization for Migration, Guatemala

Thousands of Guatemalans sought safety in Mexico, which struggled to handle the flow; about 46,000 eventually received protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (see Mexico: Caught Between the United States and Central America).

Guatemalans' asylum applications were routinely rejected in the United States, their main destination. The politicization of the asylum process reached a peak during the Reagan years. During the 1980s, the U.S. government denied the majority of Guatemalan asylum applications, despite the country's civil war. At the same time, Washington granted over 50 percent of applications from people fleeing countries whose governments the Reagan Administration opposed, such as Nicaragua and Cuba (see Central Americans and U.S. Asylum Policy in the Reagan Era).

Canada, in contrast, saw the region's conflicts as the consequence of inequality and opposed military aid or any actions that might perpetuate Central America's wars. Between 1982 and 1987, Canada admitted 15,877 refugees from Central America, including Guatemalans (see Canada: A Northern Refuge for Central Americans).

Many Guatemalans who remained in the United States illegally were later able to legalize their status. The settlement from the class-action suit American Baptist Churches (ABC) v. Thornburgh in 1991 allowed them to reapply for asylum, and the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) allowed Guatemalans and Salvadorans protected under ABC to apply for permanent residence. Also, in 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which allowed undocumented aliens who had resided in the United States for a certain period of time to apply for legal permanent resident status, benefited 59,863 Guatemalans.

Emigration Since 1996

With the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, many thought return migration would increase and emigration would slow down as Guatemalans set about reconstructing their devastated country. Thousands of refugees who had been living in Mexico began returning home in 1995, when the peace process was still being negotiated, and, by 1999, 43,000 Guatemalans had made the journey back.

However, the war left the national economy in shambles. While the official unemployment rate in 1994 was relatively low at 4.9 percent, a more accurate indicator of the of the country's economic plight was its level of underemployment. Since 1994, economists have estimated this figure to be between 30 and 40 percent. Agriculture and foreign direct investment were particularly hard hit. From the mid 1970s until 1987, agricultural productivity recorded negative growth.

Guatemalans from all backgrounds and with various education levels have continued to emigrate in search of opportunity, and the rate of emigration has steadily accelerated since 1999 (except for a post-September 11 dip in 2001) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Net Emigration from Guatemala per Year,
1990 to August 2005
Source: IOM

In 2005, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans left the country legally, according to official government figures, 95 percent of whom went to the U.S.; the net number who left (which takes into account the number who returned) was about 140,000. While it is impossible to know how many migrants entered the United States illegally, the number of migrants the United States deported by air in 2005 was only 11,512.

According to the 1990 U.S. census, about 226,000 Guatemalans were living in the United States, the destination of the majority of Guatemalan who emigrated during the 1990s. They chose the United States because of perceived economic opportunities and because friends or family were already living there.

IOM's 2005 "Survey on Remittances and Micro-enterprises" reported a total of 1,136,175 Guatemalan citizens living abroad, of whom 97 percent lived in the United States. They were concentrated in Los Angeles (36.3 percent), New York (10.6 percent), and Miami (8.3 percent), but they were also present in Washington, DC (4.1 percent); Houston (3.8 percent), Boston (3.6 percent), and Chicago (3.2 percent). Altogether, these six cities are home to 70 percent of Guatemalan emigrants.

Guatemalans abroad come from all over the country but mainly from the departments of Guatemala (20.6 percent), San Marcos (9.7 percent), Huehuetenango (9.7 percent), Quetzaltenango (6.3 percent), Jutiapa (5.0 percent), Alta Verapaz (4.9 percent), Chiquimula (4.1 percent) and Escuintla (3.9 percent).

In recent years, increasing poverty among rural families has led to the "feminization" of emigration, with growing numbers of women moving northward in order to maintain their families back home. According to a report in 2006 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), most women emigrants are young single mothers or heads of family looking to help their families.

The United States' tougher border enforcement policies since September 11 mean that most Guatemalans pay coyotes between $5,000 and $10,000 to get to the border, and an additional $1,500 to cross it. The journey is fraught with danger, and most migrants are robbed by their own "guides" or suffer some kind of physical abuse by street gangs or security officials. The Guatemalan and Mexican media are also full of stories about migrants illegally transported in containers, who die from asphyxiation or dehydration.

At the same time, economic migration to southern Mexico continues. According to official figures from the Guatemalan Ministry of the Exterior, around 50,000 Guatemalans travel to the Mexican state of Chiapas every year to work on a temporary basis. The men — who make up 90 percent of these temporary workers — mainly work in harvesting coffee (70 percent), papaya (15 percent), plantains and bananas (six percent), sugarcane (six percent), mango and other crops (three percent), while the women work as small traders, domestic help, or prostitutes. Both men and women are often awaiting opportunities to move further north.


Remittances from Guatemalan emigrants have been and will continue to be a fundamental pillar of economic support for hundreds of thousands of urban and rural families. As remittances have grown — in 2005 they topped US$3 billion for the first time ever — their macroeconomic impact has begun to be felt nationwide, but especially in those departments which have experienced the largest emigration.

According to IOM, almost all (97.6 percent) are sent from the United States, and each household received, on average, about US$306 per month. Guatemala's remittances now exceed the total volume of its annual exports or income from tourism.

In 2004, the population residing abroad and sending remittances back home was approximately 1,049,349; 71.5 percent were men and 28.5 percent were women. Around 3.7 million Guatemalans (around a third of the population) now receive remittances; 57 percent of them live in rural areas. Four departments — Guatemala, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, and Alta Verapaz — receive almost half of all remittances.

Table 2. Distribution of Remittances
by Department, 2005
Department Percent of Total
Guatemala 21%
San Marcos 9.6%
Huehuetenango 9.1%
Alta Verapaz 5.1%
Izabal 4.5%
Jutiapa 4.3%
Quiché 4.1%
Escuintla 4.1%
Source: IOM

Initially, remittances were used to purchase basic goods such as food and clothing, but more recently, families have started spending the extra money on "luxury" items such as televisions, cookers, irons, and electrical goods, according to a 2006 study by the Centro de Estudios de Guatemala (CEG). More recently, remittances have been invested (largely through hometown associations) in housing projects, water and drainage systems, schools, health centers, and other communal services. Thus, argue many civil society organizations, the government has been freed up from its traditional responsibilities.

The latest IOM survey on remittances and microenterprises conducted in 2005 found that 48.7 percent of remittances are used to supplement household budgets, mainly for food; 20.6 percent are spent on other goods and services; 15.2 percent are invested or saved; and 15.4 percent go toward "social investment" (education and health).

Those who emigrate are normally between 20 and 45 years old — something that is reflected in the demographic benefiting from remittances (see Figure 2). According to the IOM survey, Guatemalans living abroad and sending remittances are mainly the sons or daughters of the surveyed heads of family (51.6 percent) and spouses (17.4 percent).

Almost 22 percent of remittance recipients are heads of household, of whom 23.3 percent are indigenous and 76.7 percent nonindigenous. Other groups benefiting from remittances are spouses (11.8 percent), children (48.7 percent), grandchildren (10 percent), parents and parents-in-law (1.5 percent), brothers and sisters (1.4 percent), and other relatives.

Figure 2. Guatemalans Who Receive Remittances by Family Relationship with the Surveyed Head of Family, 2005
Source: IOM

Thus far, the evidence seems to indicate that remittances are not reducing overall poverty levels at the rate expected. In 2002, remittances composed 6.8 percent of Guatemala's GDP. By 2005, that proportion had risen to 9.5 percent, a 40 percent increase. According to a 2003 World Bank report on the effect of remittances worldwide, the remittance effect alone would have contributed to reducing poverty levels by 6.4 percent in this period, but poverty actually only fell by two percent.

A 2005 report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) made three key points regarding public policies towards remittance flows in the region, including Guatemala. First, the cost of remitting money keeps decreasing but is still too high, considering the widespread use of electronic transfers. Second, data collection is improving but needs to be made more systematic in order to formulate well-based policies. Finally, financial institutions, both public and private, need to provide more options for investing remittances.

Migrants and Guatemalan Policy

The biggest problem facing the Guatemalan government regarding migration has been the reintegration of returning refugees who have a hard time finding jobs and housing. Meanwhile, many deportees who tried to enter the U.S. illegally are also stigmatized for "failing" to make a new life abroad.

A further problem for Guatemala is the increasing U.S. policy of deporting mareros (criminal gang members) who bring their newfound gang activity back to Guatemala (see National Policies and the Rise of Transnational Gangs).

In 1996, U.S. immigration authorities began aggressively targeting illegal immigrants within the U.S. prison system for deportation. The Guatemalan deportees, usually young men who came to the United States in the 1980s with their parents, usually did not have familial connections in Guatemala, and in some cases did not even speak proper Spanish. Society offered them few opportunities since their criminal past stigmatized them.

Guatemala currently registers over 100 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Many of those killed are young men believed to be associated with street gangs. In 2004, some 5,553 youths were killed in Guatemala, according to Emilio Goubaud, director of the Association for the Prevention of Crime, a Guatemalan organization.

Until now, the Guatemalan government has only implemented ad-hoc policies concerning the reintegration of deported migrants. The most recent Guatemalan legislation on the issue passed in 2001, when the government of Alfonso Portillo approved the Social Development Act (Ley de Desarrollo Social, Decree 42-2001). This led to the approval of a state policy on social and population development (Politica de Desarrollo Social y Poblacion) in April 2002. Both measures, together with repatriation programs to encourage the return of refugees, help to protect the human rights of all returning migrants.

Guatemalan civil society has developed other initiatives to deal with the issue of resettlement more comprehensively, including the establishment in 1999 of the National Forum on Migration in Guatemala (MENAMIG), where civil society organizations draft public policy proposals based on a humanitarian view of migration. MENAMIG worked on the first draft of the legislation mentioned above.

A number of civil society organizations have also set up refuges for migrants on their way to and from the United States, including the Center for Assistance to Migrants and the House of the Migrant(established in 1994 and 1997, respectively), both in the border city of Tecún Umán.

One Guatemalan-American organization deeply concerned about migration policy's effects on Guatemalans has already demonstrated its influence at home. Founded in 1998, the National Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the United States (CONGUATE) aims to influence migrant-related policy in both countries. In Guatemala, CONGUATE is working toward economic development and the strengthening of democracy in Guatemala, including giving Guatemalans abroad the right to vote.

Thanks in part to CONGUATE's efforts, the Guatemalan government has created a Deputy Ministry for Human Rights and Migrant Affairs that publicizes the difficulties facing potential migrants going to the United States. Also, the Guatemalan Congress formed a Commission for Migrant Affairs, which regulates migration laws and tries to support migrants in their efforts at repatriation. Finally, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman signed an agreement with CONGUATE to monitor and protect migrant's rights. The Guatemalan government has also agreed to set up a modest fund of US$50,000 to repatriate the remains of immigrants who die in the United States when their families cannot afford the bill.

Guatemala's role as a transit country for migrants trying to reach the United States is also a concern for the government. Throughout the 1990s, nearly one million migrants were deported from Mexico to Guatemala, including 100,000 Central Americans in 1999. Mexico's deportation policy has created complex financial, humanitarian, and public security problems, especially in border areas and cities. According to official government figures, 83,890 Guatemalan migrants were deported from Mexico in 2005.

Policies in Central America and the United States

At the regional level, the Central American Commission of Migration Directors (OCAM) — founded in 1990 by the region’s governments in the context of the Central American Integration system, with technical support supplied by the Central American Secretariat for Economic Integration (SIECA, in Spanish) — deals with matters relating to the transit of Central American nationals through the region. The commission makes proposals to improve the country’s migration systems and trains local government personnel in migration issues.

One of OCAM's key achievements has been to push through proposals for a Central American passport, expected to become available by early 2007. Initially the passport will allow free movement between the C4 countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua), with Costa Rica and Panama entering the scheme at a later date.

The organization also has implemented the Electronic Network for Communications among Migration Directorates (RECAM), which helps coordinate the government migration departments of each country.

Meanwhile, bodies such as IOM and international civil society organizations hold an annual Regional Conference on Migration, informally known as the Puebla Process. In 2005, the conference’s latest action plan proposed a series of development policies to reduce migration, promote respect for human rights, stop illegal trafficking of migrants, and provide technical cooperation to returnees. Each Central American state has taken steps to implement these policies. In the case of Guatemala, the government has begun forging closer links with state authorities and employers in Mexico (particularly in Tecún Umán and El Carmen) in order to ensure the labor and human rights of migrant workers are upheld.

Both the Guatemalan government and migrant advocacy organizations in the United States and Guatemala would like to see unauthorized Guatemalans receive temporary protected status (TPS) from the U.S. government. TPS allows migrants from a designated country to live and work legally in the United States but does not provide a path to permanent residence; it is intended as a temporary relief measure for those suffering from natural disasters, ongoing conflicts, or other extraordinary and temporary conditions. Once TPS is terminated, migrants revert back to the status they held before receiving TPS.

The United States granted TPS in 1998 to migrants from Nicaragua and Honduras after Hurricane Mitch, and, in 2001, TPS was granted to migrants from El Salvador. Following Hurricane Stan in October 2005, the Guatemalan government tried to convince the United States that Guatemalans should also receive TPS status, but those efforts have so failed and are considered unlikely to succeed.

The outcome of current immigration debates in the U.S. Congress could well affect Guatemalan migrants who reside in the country illegally. Civil society organizations in Guatemala and the United States, as well as the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), which lobbies on behalf of migrants throughout the region, are concerned that legislation focused only on border enforcement would undermine basic due process protections, human rights obligations, and principles of fundamental fairness.

CONGUATE has joined efforts with other Latino immigrant groups to bring about U.S. immigration reform that would regularize unauthorized migrants. Their main strategies: community organizing, leadership development, lobbying Congress, and working with the media.

Looking Ahead

Neighboring El Salvador received Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) status on March 1, 2006. The agreement is likely to go into effect for Guatemala and other CAFTA countries after they make necessary legal changes (see CAFTA: What Could It Mean for Migration?).

U.S. President George W. Bush has said that CAFTA will help forestall illegal immigration to the U.S. by creating new job opportunities in the region. However, some analysts believe that tariff-free U.S. agricultural products could undercut the sale of locally produced goods and lead to the loss of agricultural jobs, thereby spurring more emigration.

While the possible effects of CAFTA remain uncertain, IOM studies have revealed that after seven years the amount of remittances sent home decreases significantly. Therefore, it is in the Guatemalan government's interest to maintain emigration flows.


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