The Guatemalan-Mexican Border: Central American Immigration to the United States Today

Featured image: Aerial view of a Honduran migrant caravan heading to the US, on the Guatemala-Mexico international border bridge.

By Frank Lukens

Borders may strengthen, but they will never be as strong as the hope of immigrants in search of greater opportunities. The issue of Latin American immigration is more politicized than ever in the United States, especially with the 2020 election around the corner. The U.S. government has been placing significant pressure on the governments of Mexico and Central America—most notably Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, collectively known as “The Northern Triangle”—to deter migrants from immigrating to the United States. Deterrence, however, is not an effective policy strategy to stop migrants and only makes their journey longer and more dangerous. Government policies will never change the fact that seeking a better life for oneself and one’s family is a human endeavor, rather than the polarizing political issue it has become in the United States.  

While anti-immigrant rhetoric in the U.S. has historically targeted Mexicans, there has been a shift toward marginalizing Central Americans, reflecting the rapidly rising number of immigrants from the Northern Triangle over the past twenty years. In response to this influx of Central American migrants, the U.S. government has pressured Mexico to limit Central Americans entering through Mexico’s border with Guatemala—effectively extending border security from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Mexico-Guatemala border through what is known as border externalization. Yet, these measures do not address the reasons why Central Americans are leaving their countries.

Cinthia Zavala Ramos, a junior at Yale College, immigrated to the United States from Honduras in 2005. Cinthia’s father, previously a farmer in rural Honduras, had immigrated to the U.S. earlier and was able to start a construction company in South Carolina, working hard to provide Cinthia’s family with a higher standard of living and better access to education than in Honduras. Thousands of Central American families like Cinthia’s are immigrating to the United States for similar reasons. 

Pedro Pablo Solares, an immigration lawyer and journalist based in Guatemala City, cites the lack of human development in Guatemala—demonstrated by malnutrition; low educational attainment; high illiteracy rates; and lack of health, hygiene, and infrastructure, among other problems—as the main push factor for Guatemalans, leading to emigration from poor, rural, and mostly indigenous communities. Solares also notes climate change as a reason why Central Americans are leaving their home countries. According to Solares, irregular rain patterns in Guatemala have caused a significant decrease in agricultural production. In some cases, farmers are yielding only 40 percent of what they were yielding three years ago, hurting their ability to sustain their families. 

Former ambassador and President of Guatemala Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre also attributes migration to the inability of the rural poor in Guatemala to sustain themselves economically, citing insufficient agricultural production, the scarcity of industrial plants as job opportunities, and the shortage of jobs in the service industry. Maldonado adds the importance of remittances—U.S. dollars sent from family members already in the U.S. back to their families in Guatemala—to the economic factors driving immigration to the United States. Because the U.S. dollar is much more valuable than the Guatemalan quetzal, families in Guatemala are able to increase their quality of life, albeit marginally.

The 956 kilometer-long border between Guatemala and Mexico, mostly through remote, jungled areas, has historically been porous and easy to cross. Professor Rebecca Galemba, an anthropologist at the University of Denver who specializes in Central American migration, lived and conducted research at this border in the mid-2000s. Galemba emphasizes how easy it was for her to cross the border almost daily: “It was relatively simple to cross the actual border at the time, and there were very few security checkpoints with authorities. Depending on the location, this is largely still the case, as people who live in the border region rely on crossing it for their everyday livelihoods—to buy basic commodities such as toilet paper, soap, or sugar for their homes or stores. Now, however, checkpoints have been intermittently present on the highways once migrants attempt to travel further north.” Rodolfo Córdova Alcaraz, Vice President of Impacto Social MetGroup, a social service and human rights consultancy in Mexico City, agrees that it’s historically been easy to cross the border between Guatemala and Mexico: “[Migrants] see the border as if it didn’t exist at all. They can literally cross the river between the two counties in balsas, or wooden rafts, without getting stopped by authorities.” By contrast, according to Mr. Córdova, getting into the U.S. is much more difficult due to tightened U.S. border policy. To help them reach—and cross—the U.S. border, migrants often hire smugglers.

La Mesilla, Guatemala, a town located at the border with Mexico. According to Professor Galemba, “people who live in the border region rely on crossing it for their everyday livelihoods—to buy basic commodities such as toilet paper, soap, or sugar for their homes or stores.”

Maureen Meyer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), highlights the helpful—but not always trustworthy—role smugglers play on a migrant’s journey: “Smugglers are very creative in how they pitch their services to vulnerable people. They work to manipulate people, and view their clients as commodities. However, most migrants who are victims of crime in Mexico aren’t traveling with a smuggler. While those who travel with a smuggler may be abused on the journey and may be extorted for money, they will get to the U.S. border much quicker, because the smuggler knows who to pay off in order to help their clients.” 

In response to the almost uninterrupted flow of Central Americans through Mexico and into the United States, the U.S. government has increased pressure on Mexico to stem the flow of Central American migrants through the implementation of deterrence policies. In the mid-2010s, according to Meyer, for the first time, more Central Americans were being apprehended in the U.S. than Mexicans due to an increased presence of Central Americans in the U.S. In 2014, only a few days after U.S. President Obama declared a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border, Mexican President Peña Nieto launched the Programa Frontera Sur—or Southern Border Program. Meyer states, “In part, this was due to U.S. pressure, but it was also due to the Peña Nieto administration’s own recognition that the fact that there were too many families migrating through Mexico without anybody stopping them was hurting Mexico from a publicity standpoint, damaging its relationship with the U.S. As a result, the Peña Nieto administration decided to crack down in order to please the United States.” The Programa, according toMeyer, was marketed as a way to create more orderly migration and respect migrant rights. In practice, however, it only sent more immigration agents to southern Mexico, increasing the number of security checkpoints throughout the country. As a result of the Programa, the number of Mexican apprehensions of Central Americans skyrocketed, making migrants more vulnerable. There was no concern for the rights of migrants, who, in remote areas, were being abused and extorted by security forces, immigrant agents, and criminal groups. According to Meyer, even federal police officers along the Mexican-Guatemalan border were extorting migrants, forcing them to pay in return for not being turned in to immigration officials. Despite the Programa’s attempt to deter migrants, however, the number of Central Americans traveling through Mexico was not decreasing enough to satisfy the United States.

“At the beginning of President Lopez-Obrador’s term in 2018,” Meyer reported, “Mexico wanted to have a more humane, welcoming policy [toward migrants], but the high demand for humanitarian visas—mostly to stay in Mexico—by Central Americans became difficult to address, especially with U.S. pressure to keep migration from Central America down. With increasing apprehensions and the difficulty of obtaining humanitarian visas, Mexico felt the need to respond to President Trump’s threats for tariffs.” As a result, Mexico pledged to deploy 60,000 members of the National Guard—a mixture between civilian police and the Mexican armed forces—to the border with Guatemala in February 2019.  According to Meyer, this action was Mexico’s way of demonstrating to the U.S. that it was capable of enforcing its border. By deploying a military force, Mexico was able to please President Trump with a concrete demonstration of physical force. Despite this strict plan, enforcement along the actual Guatemalan-Mexican border varies in strength by location, whereas checkpoints installed throughout southern Mexico along highways make it harder for migrants to travel north within the country. Professor Galemba added that the deployment of the National Guard is “pretty problematic, given the poor human rights record and lack of transparency and accountability of the military.”

“All evidence shows that enforcement-first policies do not deter migration,” stated Professor Galemba, on whether policies like 2014’s Programa Frontera Sur and the 2019 deployment of the Mexican National Guard were effective methods of keeping Central Americans from migrating. “There’s a general lack of resources to fully control a border that has been porous with lots of dense networks that have been crossed over time. The border itself has always remained relatively easy to cross—it’s more that the highway checkpoints have intensified—but that does not necessarily deter people. It does, however, place migrants at risk of a variety of crimes such as extortion, robbery, and sexual assault.” Professor Galemba claimed security checkpoints produce a whack-a-mole effect, in which migrants “find more remote avenues to attempt to circumvent [the checkpoints], which may be in riskier locations in terms of susceptibility to crime or treacherous terrain.” Deterrence has actually led to an increase of apprehensions of Central American migrants—by 76 percent between January and July 2019, according to WOLA’s Ms. Meyer—and no significant decrease of these migrants entering Mexico. Professor Galemba cites Stephanie Leutert, Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, by noting a direct correlation between enforcement and crimes against migrants, emphasizing that the deterrence policies only make migrants even more vulnerable, causing them to rely more on smugglers and forcing them into much riskier, remote routes (Leutert 2019, Galemba et al. 2019).

The Guatemala-Mexico border, which mostly traverses remote areas.

Mr. Córdova agreed that migrants’ rights are being hurt by the increase in government enforcement at the Mexico-Guatemala border, citing migrants’ increased demand for smugglers and the subsequent increase in fees that smugglers charge their clients, making migrants both vulnerable economic opportunities and sources of income to their smugglers, bandits, and other extortionists. Like Mr. Córdova, Professor Galemba described these trends as an economy built around extorting migrants, their vulnerability, and inability to access safe means of mobility (Galemba et al. 2019).

Deterring migrants will never solve the problems that are causing them to migrate, according to Professor Galemba. Mr. Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre—who assumed the Guatemalan Presidency following the resignation of his predecessor amidst a corruption scandal—suggested that the Guatemalan government must enact strong policies to create job sources in the industrial, mining, and agricultural sectors, all three of which have been weakened by foreign competition and NGOs, which have obstructed past governmental policies regarding employment in these industries, according to Mr. Maldonado. Without adequate job sources, Mr. Maldonado argued, thousands of Guatemalans have no way to make a living and are attracted to the idea of emigrating from the country. Mr. Solares, on the other hand, is concerned about the lack of political leadership in Central America and a subsequent lack of will to discuss how to handle migration together with Mexico and the United States. Mr. Solares also notes the fact that no foreign industries—such as technology giant Google—will be attracted to the rural majority of the Guatemalan population as a source for human capital due to the lack of human development in the country. Because of this, Mr. Solares argues, Guatemala should change its approach to migration policy both in the long term and in the short term. In the long term, according to Mr. Solares, “the best immigration policy is to develop the local economy by creating jobs in the rural areas of Guatemala most prone to emigration.”

However, he realizes that it would take years for the Guatemalan local economy to develop, and thousands of migrants are leaving the country in the meantime. Because of this, Mr. Solares advocates for a short-term policy change, which would require diplomatic effort between the U.S. and Latin American countries to “improve the conditions of Central American immigrants already contributing to the U.S. economy, eliminate the image of the immigrant as a criminal, and to highlight U.S. society’s reliance on these immigrants’ manual labor.” Like Mr. Solares, Ms. Meyer believes that much of the change related to migration needs to come from migrants’ countries of origin: “Central American governments should increase strength in the criminal justice system to prosecute all crimes, including corruption, address youth gang violence, create a more effective police system, among other things that need to happen in these countries to strengthen the rule of law and address widespread corruption and impunity.” With corrupt, uninterested politicians embezzling money that could help tackle poverty issues, Central American governments are unable to have the broad, regional discussions about migration with the United States and Mexico that Ms. Meyer—among other experts—believe should take place in order to come to an agreement on how many people each of these countries are able to absorb effectively while providing a safe environment for vulnerable people. However, Ms. Meyer viewed these conversations as difficult to initiate under Trump’s administration, which seeks to minimize the number of Central American immigrants in the United States.

October 2018: Thousands of Central American migrants attempt to cross the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico, with a Mexican federal helicopter looming overhead, attempting to ward off the migrants.

The topic of Central American immigration seems like it will loom over North and Central American politics in the near future. “Between now and the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, Trump’s administration will push hard on the countries in this region to take on more of the U.S.’s responsibility over asylum seekers. We will continue to see a bullying attitude toward Central America, for example, in threats to cut funding to those countries. We will also keep seeing anti-immigrant rhetoric and increasing pressure to repel migrants from the U.S., and in return, lots of pressure on other countries to receive these migrants,” Ms. Meyer stated. The U.S.’s externalization of security from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Mexico-Guatemala border demonstrates the impact U.S. political and economic pressure has on shaping North and Central American diplomacy and exhibits the way borders are used as a political tool to attempt to intimidate populations in search of greater economic opportunities.

“At the end of the day,” Mr. Córdova said, “people are escaping violence, poverty, and the impact of climate change. It’s only getting more difficult to have access to a better life.” Cinthia Zavala Ramos said that while living in the U.S. as a Honduran immigrant has certainly come with many challenges, the “resources and ability to make something of yourself are so much better [than in Honduras].” Cinthia’s family members who remain in Honduras are happy to see their family members in the U.S. “thriving here,” which serves as a testament to the fact that migration is, at its core, a human endeavor—one that can’t be deterred by policies, no matter how hard governments try to politicize and dehumanize it. 

The approach to Central American migration should not consist entirely of extending or enforcing borders, but should also count on tackling the problems inducing migration in the first place, as difficult as those may be to address. Humanitarian problems call for humanitarian solutions. 


Frank Lukens is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles Colleges. He can be contacted at frank.lukens@yale.edu.