Seven Things to Know about Guatemalan Refugees


SEATTLE — On July 26, the White House substantially expanded the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program to admit refugee children and their families.

According to The New York Times, children, siblings older than 21, parents and other members of an extended family from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have the opportunity to apply to the new program.

Here are seven facts about Guatemalan refugees that will shed some light on their current predicament:

  1. The U.S. initially sparked the refugee crisis in Central America.
    The history of unrest in Guatemala can be traced back to 1954, when the CIA led the overthrow of populist President Jacobo Arbenz to help U.S. corporate interests.

    Arbenz had plans for a land redistribution program that would bolster the livelihoods of many landless farmers. The United Fruit Company, a U.S. corporation, owned a large portion of the land in Guatemala and turned to the Eisenhower administration for help in protecting its interests.

    After the Arbenz government was overthrown, Guatemala was thrown into a long period of political instability that has claimed more than 200,000 lives. The fighting continues today.

  2. Guatemalan gangs learned from inside U.S. prisons.
    The unstable political climate in Guatemala caused refugees to stream into the U.S. during the 70’s and 80’s, especially young people who had become accustomed to extreme violence. Isolation from peers, a lack of upward mobility and Reagan’s Drug War crackdown from the 1980s onwards landed many of these young Guatemalans in harsh U.S. jails.

    Many petty criminals were exposed to sophisticated networks and techniques in jail, and after they were deported back to Guatemala at the end of their sentences they found ample opportunity to use their new knowledge. Under the influence of new, hardened gang members, drug trade and violence in Guatemala flourished.

  3. More must be done to help integrate young refugees into U.S. society.
    As mentioned above, many youths who do get accepted into the CAM program are isolated from their peers in the Western school system due to their radically different upbringing.

    This isolation often drives youths to crime and the formation of gangs. By attributing more funds and existing therapeutic resources to help young Guatemalan refugees mix better with their peers, the threat of creating – and later exporting – criminals back to Guatemala would diminish significantly.

  4. Surprisingly, crime victimization is not a strong indicator for migration in Guatemala.
    Vanderbilt University’s Latin American and Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) found in a 2014 survey that crime victimization didn’t significantly influence a Guatemalan’s decision to move.

    This is a significant difference from what LAPOP found in El Salvador and Honduras, where crime victimization was a strong indicator for immigration. Experts in the field concluded that this was because crime rates in Guatemala have been steadily dropping, whereas crime has only increased in other Northern Triangle countries.

  5. Long-term residents and bi-nationals are most at risk for crime victimization.
    The Guatemala 2015 Crime and Safety Report found that residents and those of dual nationality are most likely to be easy targets for serious crimes. Their residences in unprotected tenements and interactions with the community put them at greater risk. Contrary to popular opinion, U.S. citizens and tourists are unlikely to be victims of violent crimes.
  6. Deportation is often a death sentence for unaccompanied children.
    For many young deportees, the deportation policies backed by both the U.S. and Mexican administrations can spell death. In the last year, Mexico and the U.S. have deported more than five times as many unaccompanied children as it had five years earlier, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

    Many of these children didn’t set out to escape their home states – instead, they were escaping certain death from gang members that were running rampant in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. By intercepting these minors and deporting them at the Mexican border, officials were sending children back into the angry hands of Central American gangs.

  7. Women are fleeing Guatemala at greater rates.
    Guatemala has the third-highest female homicide rate in the world. Women are regularly beaten, threatened, raped, abducted and murdered in Guatemala’s inhospitable environment, leading them to escape north to the U.S.

These seven facts about Guatemalan refugees make it clear that programs like CAM are sorely needed, but are not enough. More attention needs to be brought to the refugee crisis that is brewing in our own backyard, before the trouble spills over the border.

Regina Park

Photo: Flickr


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