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Guatemala: Focus on Root Causes of Migration

*Thanks to Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns for article and image*

In a June 7 news conference in Guatemala City during her first foreign trip as Vice President, Kamala Harris told those who were thinking of making the “dangerous trek” to the United States, “Do not come…[the United States] will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border…I believe you will be turned back.” 

Many immigrant rights advocates in the United States bristled at these words, saying they ignored the desperation with which migrants often flee the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which is plagued by economic devastation, violence, the effects of climate change, and government repression. They also expressed concern that her words belied the fact that seeking asylum is a legally protected right and could dissuade desperate people from seeking protection. 

Refugees International, an organization supporting refugees and asylum seekers, wrote in a statement, “Refugees International is concerned that the Vice President’s message to Guatemalans not to come to the United States undermines the right to seek asylum under U.S. law. We continue to urge the Biden administration to build policies that recognize that many Guatemalans will need to seek protection until the long-standing drivers of forced displacement are addressed and realign its message to the Guatemalan people to reflect America’s commitment to the right to seek protection internationally.” 

Other organizations, including the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, citied similar concerns and specifically named as an injustice the Administration’s continued use of the Trump-era Title 42 health policy to rapidly expel asylum seekers without allowing due process for their asylum claims. 

The Biden-Harris administration has sought to provide further context for the vice president’s words, saying that the purpose of her speech - and of her visit - was to express the United States’ commitment to addressing the root causes of migration by strengthening the economy and civil society and combatting corruption. Vice President Harris has been tasked with management of U.S.-Central America relations, including the Biden administration’s $4 billion project to invest in the region.

Around the vice president’s trip, the Administration announced an investment of $48 million in entrepreneurship, housing, and agricultural programs in Guatemala. At the same time, the Administration announced further investment in training for Guatemalan border security personnel and for in-country processing of asylum seekers hoping to enter the United States. The hope, the Harris team said, was to prompt those seeking to migrate to find solutions closer to home. However, critics of this policy say such programs can be repressive of migrants’ legitimate rights to seek asylum. 

Given the history of U.S. involvement and investments in Central America, some Guatemalan and U.S.-based advocacy organizations are urging careful consideration as to where exactly the U.S. investments flow and whom they benefit. The Root Causes Initiative, an advocacy partnership of a coalition of faith-based organizations in the U.S. and Northern Triangle countries, has been clear that U.S. investments to strengthen the Guatemalan economy should flow to community-led enterprises and organizations, rather than to large corporations or aid organizations which can perpetuate cycles of poverty by paying low wages and maintaining overseas management and leadership. 

In a March 25 joint letter to the Biden administration, signed by the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, the Latin America Working Group named recommendations for implementing a root causes strategy in Central America: “We counsel taking the necessary time to develop the final strategy so that the United States can transform diplomacy and aid so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past, including the ways in which U.S. policy has contributed to human rights violations and forced migration from the region.”

Likewise, in a May 9 Letter to the Editor in the Washington Post, Jean Stokan, justice coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, wrote that the Biden administration’s root causes strategy lacked acknowledgement of U.S. complicity in structural problems driving migration to the United States, including the United States’ historic support of corrupt and repressive governments, economic policy that favors corporations and elites, and contributions to environmental pollution and destruction. 

“Vice President Harris would do well to acknowledge our country’s responsibility for the furnace of violence that Central America has become and adopt a humble posture with social movements there, which are clear on needed policy changes,” Stokan wrote. “Hopes of ‘would-be migrants’ might be stirred if they could experience real change in their political realities, and ours.”

Faith in action: Sign a petition to Pres. Biden asking him to address root causes for migration from Central America: Read a new report from Catholic Relief Services outlining the conditions which prompt Guatemalans to remain home rather than migrating: