ESCAPE: "Emilio" says he still wants to reach the United States, even after being held hostage by a smuggler. (SANTIAGO BILLY PREM)
Aggressive recruiting by smugglers, known as “coyotes,” also feeds the increased migration. A leader in Guatemala’s western highlands — a coffee-growing region near the Mexican border that was hit hard by a decades-long civil war and is now a major source of U.S. immigrants — blames smugglers for the current increase. The smugglers openly advertise over the radio and also hand out cards to prospective clients. But the rate the coyotes charge is so high — nearly $6,500 per person — that parents can’t afford to go with a child, says Pedro Raymundo Cobo, the mayor of Nebaj, a municipality that includes the city of Nebaj and two dozen nearby communities.
“We have children from 12 to 14 years of age that are going,” the mayor says. “The parents cannot go with them.”
What neither the mayor nor the priest mentions is that migration brings a huge economic benefit to governments, communities and families throughout Central America because of the money, or remittances, that immigrants send home once they find jobs in the United States.
The impact is evident in areas such as Nebaj, where U.S. officials point out the larger, sturdier concrete houses that dot the region. Those are typically built with remittances the families have received, they note.
Guatemala received an estimated $5.4 billion in remittances last year, El Salvador $4.2 billion, and Honduras $3.2 billion, according to World Bank data. The contribution to the local economies is huge. In 2012, remittances accounted for 16.5 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product, 15.7 percent of Honduras’ and 10 percent of Guatemala’s.
The remittances dwarf the $172 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development spends annually in the region, primarily for nutrition and health assistance and agricultural development.
Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in fiscal 2014 supplemental spending includes $295 million for repatriating deportees in Central America and $5 million for media campaigns designed to discourage the migration. The overall package has run into opposition from congressional Republicans, in part because the spending, they say, needs to be offset by cuts in other areas of the budget.
Governments in the region could do a lot more to help their own people, too, but are held back by corruption and lack of resources. Tax collections in Guatemala, for example, amount to 10 percent of gross domestic product, about the same amount as U.S. remittances in 2012. In the United States, taxes are about half of GDP. The Obama administration has been lobbying the Guatemalan government to boost taxes, but it has had little success so far because of opposition from corporate elites, according to U.S. officials.
Guatemala’s president, Otto Perez Molina, has adopted a “zero hunger” policy — the name is borrowed from the plan that transformed Brazil through heavy spending on welfare and nutrition assistance — but he is relying a great deal on USAID and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
Seeking a ‘Healthy’ Place
It’s clear in talking to Emilio, the youngest of seven children, that being able to help his family the way so many other Central American migrants have been able to help theirs was on his mind when he set out alone three days before he landed in the Guatemala City shelter.