More of the same? The United States, Guatemala, and Immigration in 2021

By Henry Bielenberg

The early months of 2021 made it possible to feel a bit optimistic regarding evolving relations between the United States and Guatemala. In February, both nations agreed to suspend the Asylum Cooperative Agreement, popularly known as the “safe third country agreement,” bringing to an end an ineffective and unbalanced policy which allowed non-Guatemalan asylum seekers to be deported from the US to Guatemala, where their asylum claims would subsequently be mediated. Despite the fact that Guatemala possessed neither the security capabilities nor bureaucratic infrastructure necessary to ensure the interim safety of refugees, this agreement was strongarmed into existence in 2019 amongst threats of increased tariffs and remittance taxes, further streamlining the US’s ability to rapidly deport asylum seekers before they were able to submit claims on US soil.    

The end of the ACA represented what many hoped would be a markedly different approach by the US toward relations with its Latin American neighbor. A far cry from the bellicose rhetoric of walls and travel bans that had come to define the dysfunctional Trump-Morales relationship, the United States’ new approach to Guatemala, summarized in “The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America,” appeared significantly more inclined to cooperation.

Of course, while new lines of negotiation had been drawn up between the two nations, the cornerstone issue of US-Guatemalan relations would remain migration, specifically the illegal immigration of Central Americans into the United States. The Biden administration has been consistently vocal in its desire to stimy the flow of immigrants from Central America by “addressing the root causes of migration.” The grandiose, if vague, strategy proposed to do so consists of a four billion dollar plan meant to address these causes by focusing on the following areas: improving national security capabilities, increasing private investment in Central America, addressing corruption, and reducing poverty. 

Judged solely by the rhetoric surrounding it, such an initiative should be lauded. The Biden administration, it would seem, seeks to decrease the flow of migrants to the US by creating economic and security conditions in would-be-migrants’ home countries that would alleviate the factors driving migration in the first place. In practice, however, the policy leaves much to desire. Biden administration actions in 2021 toward Central America have thus far shown that either a rethought US policy toward Mexico and Central America has yet to hit its stride, or, more cynically, that the current administration’s policies simply represent an improved approach to domestic public relations.

Throughout the last decade, the US approach to immigration has increasingly focused on outsourcing border security to its southern neighbors. This innovation in policy showed itself in force in 2014, when the US funded and supported Mexico’s “Southern Border Program,” with the intent of fortifying Mexico’s southern border against Central American immigrants, further militarizing Mexico’s border patrol and increasing Mexican forces’ apprehension of US bound immigrants by 71% between July 2014 and June 2015. Rather than target the root causes of the issue, recent US policy has focused instead on pushing the policing of migration away from its physical borders and into the sphere of responsibility of Mexico and Central America.

Such an outsourcing of border policing is a critical component of Biden’s Central America plan. During a June 2021 meeting between US Vice-president Kamala Harris and Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Harris pledged to work to strengthen cooperation between the two nations. One of the few concrete commitments to come out of the meeting was an offer by the US to send 16 Department of Homeland Security employees to Guatemala in order to train members of the Guatemalan border patrol to better police their borders against migrants en route to the US. This strategy, as seen in both Mexico and Guatemala, does not seek to solve any factor driving migration, it simply seeks to contain migrants. Tragic scenes of immigrants being confronted by border control agents along the Mexico-US border have consistently been a public relations disaster for US administrations; recent shifts in policy seek only to push these confrontations south, out of sight of the US electorate.

In April of 2021, while announcing agreements with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to further bolster their border security, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that “the objective is to make it more difficult to make the journey, and make crossing the border more difficult.” Leaving no doubt regarding the administration’s strategy to reduce illegal immigration, such frankness certainly stands in contrast to the warm promises of cooperation and solidarity seen in recent US communiques.

If the US approach to border security has been straightforward throughout recent months, other components of its plan to “build security and prosperity” in Central America remain opaque. The expressed desire to further mobilize private investment is nothing new in the region; the promise of investor-driven development has been a fundamental aspect of the last century’s economic policies that, if anything, have led us to the contemporary crises. Likewise, the critical issue of corruption has been a constant source of discussion between the two nations in 2021, while producing limited response. The revocation of a handful of visas falls short of a legitimate confrontation necessary with structures that allow and encourage systemic corruption.

The challenge in developing a consequential political relationship between the US and Guatemala, as well as the rest of Central America, lies in accurately defining the root causes of the disparity that drives migration north and developing cooperative solutions. Of course, this is easier said than done. The cumulative effects of corruption, colonialism, and decades of conflict have entrenched inequalities in the region to the point that the task of uprooting them is a truly monumental undertaking. 

Current US policy has had the primary effect of pushing further violence south, aggravating an already precarious situation. While this may temporarily alleviate direct pressure on the United States, it does not represent a sustainable approach to international relations and will not result in the dissolution of any of the key factors behind forced migrations. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, if the US wishes to find a long-term solution to the migrations it views as such a threat, long-term policies must be put into action that do not simply pass the issue on to the next administration. Perhaps this starts with a more honest look at the root causes behind regional inequalities, and a more earnest assessment of how to strengthen Interamerican cooperation and solidarity.