Central America: Let’s focus on why people stay

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When U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris lands in Guatemala early next week to learn more about the root causes of Central American migration, I hope she’ll hear from people like 29-year-old farmer Raúl Chanchavac

Raúl lives in Guatemala’s western highlands with his wife Lilian and their two children. The family’s farm is in the Dry Corridor, which stretches across Central America from Southern Mexico to Panama. Alarmingly, the Dry Corridor is experiencing one of the worst droughts in a decade, with more than 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Yet despite the drought, the Chanchavacs are thriving. They’re prospering because they had the opportunity to participate in several U.S.-funded programs that supported their farming business. These programs helped the Chanchavacs build a greenhouse to improve the quality of their produce and taught them how to link their crops to markets. As a result, the family has signed contracts with more than a dozen schools, which has more than doubled the family’s monthly income. What’s more, as their agribusiness grows, the family employs people in their community.  

As the head of programming for the humanitarian and development organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which implements U.S.-funded projects, I’ve met many families like the Chanchavacs. In my three years in Guatemala, I’ve seen dozens of families beat the odds to live dignified, fulfilling lives. 

When people feel properly supported in their communities, they’re far less likely to leave. Out of 785 people we recently surveyed as part of a national study, 77 percent had little or no intention to migrate out of Guatemala. We found that factors keeping people rooted to their homes include: access to essential health and educational services; access to stable and formal jobs, especially for young people; access to formal education and other types of training, especially when linked to profitable job opportunities; and the knowledge and skills to adapt to climate change.  

By better understanding and investing in the factors that help people thrive in their communities, we can address migration more effectively and humanely.

To be sure, Harris has an extraordinary challenge ahead of her as the head of the administration’s efforts to address the root causes of migration. In the past five years, northward migration from Central America has sharply increased. As the number of migrants grows, the profile of migrants has also shifted. While the traditional migrant profile is a young single male, recent years have seen more women, unaccompanied minors, and even entire families migrating north in search of asylum and better opportunities.

The problems facing the region and driving people north are as complex as they are varied. The impacts of climate change, which include prolonged drought and more frequent and violent storms, are decimating crops and worsening food insecurity. What’s more, decades of marginalization and ongoing systemic inequalities have left tens of thousands of families feeling abandoned. There will be no quick fix. To be adequately addressed, these challenges will require interventions that take an equally long view of development.

In a welcome step forward, the administration recently announced significant commitments from the private sector to invest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. It’s a smart move that will help address the opportunity gap for young people who need to know jobs await them when they finish their education. 

However, more can be done to reduce the number of people fleeing to the U.S. border. As the vice president and the administration develop a new strategy toward the region, we need more programs that cater to families like the Chanchavacs.  

When we began working with them, Raúl and Lilian Chanchavac dreamed of transitioning from subsistence farming to profit-generating agriculture. They’re finally able to live out that dream. 

“We are still farmers, but now we think like entrepreneurs, and we see prosperity in our community,” Raúl told us. 

When she returns from her visit, I hope that Vice President Harris relays the message that Guatemalans, like most Americans, are deeply connected to their communities and their country. They want to stay. It’s up to our policymakers — and the voters who elect them — to help these families make good on that desire.

Nicole Kast is head of programs for the humanitarian and development organization Catholic Relief Services. In addition to supporting programming related to migration, she supports programs in emergency response, agriculture, youth and peace-building. She is based in Guatemala City.

Tags Caravan Central American immigrants Immigration international affairs migration southern border

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