Post 2: Why are Guatemalan migrants coming to the United States?

This is the second entry in a series of eight blog entries about the work of the Institute for Immigration Research with the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC).  Our objective in this blog is to develop an in-depth picture of immigrant day laborers in the United States. In Post 1 we highlighted the amazing work the CLRC carries out to support the day laborers. In this Post we will examine some of the reasons for the Guatemalan migration.

The rate of emigration in search of economic opportunity in the US has steadily increased since 1999, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). It is estimated by MPI that the Guatemalan population has increased from by at least 118,000 in 1990 to 704,000 in 2013.

DMV guatemala (1)
Map of Guatemalan population in Fairfax County, VA. Map produced by the IIR/GMU.

Guatemalans have migrated to find employment since the 19th century. During that time, many young Guatemalan men migrated to Mexico to work on coffee plantations. Since the late 20th century, seasonal migration to work on Mexican plantations increased, largely due to Mexican wages being approximately 50% higher than Guatemalan wages. Between 1960-1996, nearly half a million Guatemalans fled, mostly to Mexico, due to the onset of civil war, which included violent military dictatorships and repression. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, less than 50,000 Guatemalans are reported to have returned from Mexico and abroad. The war destroyed the economy of Guatemala  and led to chronic underemployment, meaning that many Guatemalans were working in jobs below their skill sets.

Landscape of Guatemala
Guatemala: A Central American country located south of Mexico, bordering El Salvador, Belize and Honduras.

For many migrant workers who make the journey from the Central American country of Guatemala to the United States, home will always be with their family. The workers are predominately made up of men traveling alone, working arduous jobs with long hours, and living an existence solely to support the families they left behind.

Centreville, Virginia is a temporary home to many Guatemalan migrants. In our interviews with the day laborers  many of them explained that they have left elderly parents, wives, and children back in Guatemala.  As one said: “All my family is in Guatemala. I would like to go back and forth between Guatemala and the States”.

Another worker says, “I’m here with the mentality that I want to make the situation better at home and by providing financial support I help.” His youngest child, a nine-year-old girl, has had leukemia for nearly all of her life. “I had not thought about coming to the States before my daughter got sick, but the cost of the treatment my daughter receives made me decide to go to America. I could not earn the same amount of money in Guatemala as I make here. Thanks to God I made it and I’m glad to be here.”

boys from Guatemala
A group of Guatemalan boys, 2014.

Migrants come to the United States for several reasons. The day laborers we interviewed came here for financial reasons and to improve their buying power in Guatemala. For instance, $1 (US) is equal to approximately 7.65 Guatemalan Quetzals. We learn in the movie “Living on One Dollar” (2013) that in Guatemala you can buy 6 lbs. of black beans for $3.00, 6 lbs. of white rice for $3.00 or firewood and matches for $3.30.

Their lack of education and paying for their children’s education are other important reasons they migrate to the US.  The day laborers come here, because Guatemalan schools often are poorly funded and lacking in adequate curriculum materials. Schooling in Guatemala is free and compulsory until sixth grade, but secondary education can cost between $600-$1200 a year. Uniforms, books, and supplies are included in that cost. The day laborers manage to cover such expenses for their children by working in the US. In addition several of our interviewees studied for less than five years, which is the equivalent of an elementary school education in the United States. According to the Global Education Fund, only three out of 10 children graduate from sixth grade, and nearly 25% of the population is illiterate. In Guatemala’s indigenous population, the figure is around 60%.  This figure also substantiates why day laborers migrate to the US: ‘unskilled’ jobs tend to be better paid here compared to Guatemala according to all of the interviewed day laborers.

Example: El Rio School in Guatemala (c) H20 for Life
Example: El Rio School in Guatemala
© H20 for Life

Growing up, some migrant workers never received formal education except from a program called, “Teacher in your home (Maestro en Casa)”, which allows listeners to be taught through the radio by a teacher. Students learn to read and write through the radio at home. At the end of the week, students bring their work to the teacher in person for corrections. With more than half the Guatemalan population living below poverty level, many children aren’t able to use Maestro en Casa, instead they drop out of school in order to help support their families.

For one worker with four siblings in school back home in Guatemala, the prospect of an education is what wakes him up in the morning. Having studied for nine years in Guatemala, he is planning on returning to school once he saves up money. “I used to study at 5 a.m. in the morning and then I would feed the animals. Then I would eat breakfast and go to school. After school, I would eat lunch and start working.”

Back in Guatemala, he helped his parents on the family farm, growing beans and corn. “When I finished school, I moved here because it is very poor in Guatemala and it is hard to pay for what you need. Until I was six years [old] the government in Guatemala helped us, but after that the government stopped helping us. It was hard as we all had to work and it was difficult to buy much.”

Every migrant has a different reason for leaving their home country and their roots behind. Each one believes that by pushing themselves to work harder and sacrifice more, they can create an easier life in the future. As part of the American economy, the tenacity of these workers and their drive to care for their families only boosts our workforce with able and dedicated people.

Please keep an eye out for Post 3 where we will look at some of the obstacles the day laborers face when they first settle in Centreville, Northern Virginia.


One thought on “Post 2: Why are Guatemalan migrants coming to the United States?

  1. Thank you for posting this information. This is a really wonderful insight into the people in my community of Annandale and Northern Virginia as we have many day laborers in our communities. Thank you for this wonderful research report.


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