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Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Shift in Guatemala’s leadership spurs fresh focus from US on migration

GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala’s election of a new president is sparking a renewed focus from the Biden administration, which is placing dual pressure on the Central American nation to limit migration and strengthen its borders. Guatemala’s demographics and geography make it a key player for the U.S. — both as a significant contributor to migration from within the country but also as the last stop before Mexico for those traveling through Central America in hopes of reaching the U.S. southwestern border. “The country is in a complicated position when it comes to migration because it’s a country of origin, it’s a country of transit, it’s a country of destination,” Stéphanie Daviot, chief of mission for the United Nations’s International Organization for Migration in Guatemala, told The Hill. Guatemala has seen a significant shift in its leadership with the election of Bernardo Arévalo, an academic who pulled off a long-shot victory in August but wasn’t sworn in until January. His transition to power was fought by allies of the outgoing president, sparking protests across the country. For the U.S., Arévalo represents new opportunities in its strategy to address the root causes of migration, investing heavily in economic efforts as well as programs designed to combat corruption and crime. Arévalo campaigned on battling corruption, a departure from his predecessor, who was barred from entry to the U.S. after exiting office on allegations he accepted bribes. The extent the U.S. sees new opportunities to work with Guatemala was underscored by the February announcement of trilateral discussions on immigration alongside Mexico. The joint effort eyes greater coordination on monitoring migratory flows and bolstering enforcement not just of the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Guatemala-Mexico border as well. Arévalo also met in March with Vice President Harris, who commended him for bringing “a sense of optimism to the people of America and around the world.” But new opportunities come amid the same tensions — a struggling Guatemalan economy and historic levels of migration throughout the hemisphere. “Of course the salaries you receive in the U.S. don’t compare with what you can earn in Guatemala,” Ursula Roldán Andrade, who runs a migration research center at Rafael Landívar University, said in an interview with The Hill in Spanish, noting more than half the country lives in poverty. “People don’t have options for social mobility in this country. What are the routes for social mobility? Migration and remittances.” Remittances to Guatemala, largely sent by those working in the U.S., represent roughly a fifth of its gross domestic product (GDP), no small contribution in a country where malnutrition remains a serious issue. Eric Hershberg, a professor emeritus at American University focused on Latin American studies, said economic imperative has long been an undercurrent of the Guatemalan approach on migration. “From Guatemala’s point of view, they’re desperate to have migration and as much of it as they can, and that’s a different perspective than the Biden administration,” he said. “At the end of the day, what people want and need is work. And they will work. And the question is, are they going to come here to work in some legal fashion?” While the U.S. conversation on migration is almost always billed as a national security issue, Guatemala sees migration as a human right, while their security concerns at the border are primarily transnational crime, including smuggling. But under Arévalo, there’s been a greater focus on boosting conditions internally, in particular by doing outreach with the country’s significant population of Indigenous people. “The Guatemalan government recognizes that there has been a lack of attention to the urgent needs of people,” its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement to The Hill. “Dialogue between countries is important to address the concerns on the management of the current flows of migration which have increased in the last years, but also, to address the needs of communities of origin of migration, in order to improve their livelihood.” Roldán Andrade said the high migration levels represent a loss for the country. “You think we don’t need the people that have left? These are our youth. These are the people that have a level of education, that have another vision for life,” she said. “So it doesn’t benefit us if everyone’s leaving.” Migrants mostly from Venezuela and Cuba rest in a tent camp as they wait for a Honduras Migration transit permit to continue their way north to Guatemala, and hopefully make it to the Mexico-United States border, in Danlí, Honduras on Oct. 11, 2023. (Elmer Martinez, Associated Press) Root causes balancing act The Biden-Harris strategy is meant to be a balancing act, a significant investment throughout Latin America paired with an expansion of legal pathways. The hope is that both will alleviate pressure to migrate irregularly. But the new methods for arriving to the U.S. have not been as ample as the funding. In Guatemala, the investment for addressing root causes has been significant — some $133.5 million was spent in fiscal 2022 for implementation of the strategy. And USAID has continued its roughly $200 million in annual investments in programs there. The funding has gone toward everything from malnutrition and farming to midwives and clean water access. It has also helped beef up inspector general units within the government to investigate allegations of corruption. “What is good for Guatemala is good for the region and the United States,” the State Department said in a statement to The Hill. “This assistance will support efforts to combat corruption; conserve biodiversity; scale agricultural technologies; and improve health outcomes, inclusive of all Guatemalans, especially Indigenous communities.” Corruption is no small issue in Guatemala, threatening access to government programs and employment — and even the transition of power to Arévalo. It’s also a barrier to recruiting the kind of foreign investment in the country that the U.S. wants to attract. “American business leaders need stability, predictability and rule of law to make their investments in countries like Guatemala worthwhile,” Harris said at a joint press conference welcoming Arévalo during his visit in March. The U.S. is working closely with different integrity units within Guatemalan government offices, something the State Department said would “determine how corruption occurs, identify perpetrators, and issue recommendations to improve existing units.” But Guatemala has been a contrast with a handful of other countries where the U.S. has expanded options to immigrate legally. A parole program for Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans and Haitians has opened the door for some 30,000 each month who are fleeing instability — should they be able to secure a U.S.-based sponsor. Such a lifeline does not exist elsewhere in the region, however, despite the launching of the Safe Mobility Initiative, marketed as Movilidad Segura throughout the region. Launched last year in partnership with the United Nations as well as Canada and Spain, the initiative includes Safe Mobility Offices (SMOs) in four countries where migrants can assess their legal immigration options. While the office in Guatemala was initially open to migrants of any nationality, it now serves only Guatemalans — a group less likely to qualify for refugee status in the U.S. based on persecution than those in other countries. The other possible route is through a family reunification program that allows those legally present in the U.S. to petition to bring a relative. In a little less than a year since the program launched in June, some 23,000 Guatemalans have applied for protections or family reunification through the Safe Mobility Offices. But so far, only 3,000 have been granted some sort of status and made it to the U.S., though more are in processing. And the program doesn’t offer specific pathways to go work in the U.S. — the main driver for most Guatemalans looking to migrate. Ariel Ruiz Soto, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, noted that early data shared with partners showed that more than half of those applying through the Safe Mobility Initiative were seeking work permits. “It’s primarily people that are seeking to go to the U.S. to work. And so this makes it complicated because … the pathways that SMOs provide do not necessarily match the reasons why people are seeking to leave,” he said. “For those that are seeking to leave immediately or within a matter of weeks, the SMOs are unlikely to stop them from going on the path of being irregular.” The U.S. has faced calls to expand legal pathways, particularly on the employment front, as many may not qualify for family reunification either. “The key thing is to have someone legally in the U.S. that’s actually going to fill out the request. And this is a bit of an issue because of course not everyone has a relative in the U.S., and if they do not all those families are legally in the country,” said Daviot with the U.N. “So part of our advocacy is we’re asking the U.S., even though we know the difficulties, to expand the pathways to those that are more accessible or accessible to a bigger number of individuals.” “I do hope there is [going] to be a focus on labor mobility pathways because again, there is a need here. So that would be a win-win solution for everyone. And those things take time; they’re highly political,” Daviot added. The State Department does have efforts underway to pitch Guatemalan workers to U.S. companies willing to undertake the expense of hiring temporary workers, including their transportation to and from the country. And the department noted it set a new record last year, issuing 13,000 temporary worker visas to Guatemalans. But that’s a fraction of the nearly 130,000 Guatemalans encountered at the border over the last five months of this fiscal year, and it’s clear the Arévalo administration is hoping for more. “Guatemala is interested in increasing the temporary worker visa opportunities for Guatemalans who are interested in working in the U.S.,” its ministry said in a statement. “Those who benefit from these opportunities acquire skills, are not abruptly separated from their families, their income and living standards improve, and overall contribute to the economies of both countries and their development.” A pedestrian on the Matamoros International Bridge passes Jennifer, 2, from Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States with her mother June 29, 2018, in Matamoros, Mexico. (Eric Gay, Associated Press file) The returned The draw to come to the U.S. is strong, even with the risks of trip as well as a swift return. Many families have made serious sacrifices to fund the journey, selling off land or taking on steep debts. And success at crossing the border is far from guaranteed — a reality that pushes some smugglers to offer as many as three attempts to cross into the U.S. The U.S. returned some 55,000 Guatemalans last year. Sharon Huertas oversees a program called Camino a Casa, which works with youth up to age 24 who have been deported by the U.S. — an age range just beyond the minors eligible to receive services from the Guatemalan government. The program, carried out by Global Refuge, works with youth who have been deported in the last six months. But the goal is to reach them in the crucial 72 hours after they’ve been returned to the country, when many are mulling whether to make the journey again. “It depends so much on the experience. Many kids tell us, ‘I was so hungry during the journey, I don’t want to do it again because of that.’ They didn’t eat enough on the journey, and they completely reject the idea of going again,” Huertas told The Hill in an interview in Spanish. Others who have made the journey have complained about having to walk for 20 hours straight. “So it depends on the experience. But if they didn’t face anything dangerous, or that bothered them or hurt them, they don’t think it’s as dangerous and they’re willing to try again,” Huertas said. The program is in its early stages, working with 50 clients and their families. The goal is to evaluate each case systemically, looking at a variety of factors, including family dynamics that might be pushing youth to migrate. Some have wanted to migrate to help cover the expensive costs of medication for family members or are persuaded to stay when connected with training programs or other opportunities in the country. Still, some may also face pressure from family members who have sunk significant costs into the journey. “They’re more worried about paying the debt. Many people have sold land, their houses so that their family can attempt this journey,” Huertas said. “It depends on what they might lose if they don’t make it there that makes people try and go again.” For more information, visit us at https://www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com/.

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