ALDEA XUCUP, PANZÓS, Guatemala — Here, in the small Mayan indigenous village of Xucup, men and boys pack tightly and stand in the back of pick-up trucks in the early morning, heading to the fields to check on their crops after a night of harsh rain.
It’s early June — and any strong storm has the potential to derail months of work tending to crops, mostly maize, which soon people will harvest to feed their families. And these days, everyone is on high alert after back-to-back hurricanes last year left their home province of Alta Verapaz among the most devastated in the region.
As the men head for the fields, women and young girls — many dressed in bright colored skirts and tops with hand-embroidered flowers and patterns — hold bowls of maize over their heads, gingerly walking between homes made of wooden sticks, straw, metal sheets and concrete blocks.
In one of the homes, right off the main road, sisters Miriam Noemi Cuc Cac and Irma Cuc Cac are beginning their day. They stand in front of the open fire in their kitchen, good-natured and talkative, making breakfast and chatting in their native Q’eqchi’ language about their plans to make the trek north. Again.
Both sisters tried to reach the U.S. southern border in December 2019, but were apprehended by Mexican law enforcement mid-way in Mexico and sent back home. Since then, they’ve lost their crops to last year’s hurricanes and are bracing for more widespread crop failure. And, now, more than a year and a half after their first attempt, they’re ready to try again.
“God must know why we didn’t make it,” Miriam, 29, says while Irma, 40, listens as she nods and flattens the dough for the tortillas. “But it’s our dream. We want to better ourselves. And there’s no way to make money here. It’s only getting harder.”
There was a time here in Xucup — and in other neighboring villages — where people rarely, if ever, talked about leaving. Most have lived here for generations. Few left home. But that’s changing.
Now, like the Cuc Cac sisters, thousands of rural Guatemalans — as well as Salvadorans and Hondurans in agrarian areas — increasingly are leaving their communities. These days, migration — including the record number of unaccompanied children — is on the rise in rural areas, as an increasing portion of the country’s land and population faces the fallout from climate change.
And it’s not just climate change acting alone. It’s food insecurity. Malnutrition. Poverty. It all ties together.
Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border more than 153,000 times this year, according to Customs and Border Protection figures. Exact numbers are hard to know: The majority of those migrants were kicked out of the country, and, separately, thousands of migrants slip undetected over the border each year.
But as the Biden administration navigates the puzzle that is the U.S. immigration system, there’s another far-reaching challenge it faces: climate change. It’s impossible to know the motives of migrants — and it’s rarely just one reason — but U.S. and Guatemalan officials, regional experts and civil society leaders say climate-fueled displacement is a likely factor for thousands who’ve decided to strike out from home and head to the U.S.
In Alta Verapaz and Huehuetenango, a mountainous region close to the Guatemala-Mexico border, in 15 percent of households displaced by the hurricanes here, at least one family member migrated or attempted to migrate in the last five years, according to a survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration. One of their top five motives, the survey found: fleeing from natural disasters and climate change.
Meanwhile, after the hurricanes, at least one member in one out of every 10 displaced homes said they planned to migrate in the next 12 months, according to the survey. Natural disasters and climate change were one of the main motivating factors for them as well.
Climate change, in the coming years, will only continue to exacerbate an already dire situation for millions of Guatemalans, analysts say. In the long term, the number of people in the region displaced by climate change is only expected to grow dramatically — leading many to migrate to more urban areas in Guatemala or head north to Mexico or the U.S. in search of jobs, money and security.
“On any given day, [Guatemalans are] suffering various shocks — whether it’s droughts, floods, natural disasters, volcano eruptions, fluctuations in coffee prices,” said Anu Rajaraman, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission director in Guatemala.
“All of these incidents are exacerbating loss of income, loss of jobs, infrastructure damage … And then you have things like the pandemic that just exacerbate the situation.”
In 2020, food insecurity doubled as a result of the pandemic, storms and droughts, Rajaraman said. And in some parts of the country, it tripled.
Migration as a result of climate-fueled displacement isn’t just happening in Guatemala — or the rest of Central America for that matter. As many as 143 million people could be displaced in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia by 2050 due to climate-related factors, according to World Bank estimates. In all three regions, people are confronting challenges, such as decreased crop productivity, rising sea levels and water shortages.
And as the Biden administration touts its commitment to tackling the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, any work it does to tackle climate as a driver of migration could serve as a framework for other countries facing the same challenges.
In a February speech before the United Nations Security Council, John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, talked frankly about how climate change will drive migration patterns in the coming years. “Hundreds of millions of people could be uprooted,” he said. “Not only can mass migration drive humanitarian crisis, but we also know that if it’s not managed well, it undermines peace and stability.”
For now, though, the Biden administration’s talk about the climate crisis has not translated into new work tackling the ties between climate and migration. During her first foreign trip last month, touring Guatemala and Mexico, Vice President Kamala Harris barely spoke about climate as a root cause of migration. Instead, she focused on the U.S. fight against corruption — a more traditionally discussed “root cause.”
But, like corruption and other root causes of migration — including poverty, violence and malnutrition, there isn’t a quick “fix” to climate change.
So far, Rajaraman said, funding for climate-related activities in Guatemala has been “fairly consistent” over the past three administrations. They are, however, waiting on additional funding for renewable energy projects. (Rajaraman did not disclose the amount of money earmarked for those projects.)
“What’s going on in Alta Verapaz and a lot of the Western Highlands are the product of the climate crisis, long-term drought, racism in the country, inequality built into the economic system,” said Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation and an expert on Central America.
“We need to get away from the notion that it’s just a matter of making an announcement with some kind of aid plan that would remedy all these problems,” he added. “It requires sustained strategy and that’s one thing the U.S. has not done a good job of. They constantly face crises in the moment. They try to fix everything at the moment and it’s not part of a sustained strategy.”
Climate change isn’t a phrase many Guatemalans use to describe why they feel the need to leave their home countries. But every potential and returned migrant POLITICO spoke to talked about it in other ways: worsening and unpredictable weather conditions, more crop failures, more flooding, longer droughts, widespread malnutrition and poverty.
They talk about how they’ve struggled to put food on the table after hurricanes wiped out their crops. How excessive summer rain has them bracing for months of wasted work. How they’re losing land by the minute to erosion along the Rio Polochic, the river located half a mile from Irma and Miriam’s home. How they’ve never received help from the government — and they don’t have much faith they ever will.
For rural Central Americans weighing migration to the U.S., it’s irrelevant that Harris stood beside the Guatemalan president last month and said, “Do not come.” Many feel they have no alternative. If they stay, they say, they face more devastation from crop loss. They’ll witness their families go hungry. Their only choice, they say: Leave and seek opportunity elsewhere.
The Biden administration, for its part, is still crafting its strategy to tackle the destabilizing conditions — including corruption, poverty, malnutrition and violence — that force thousands of Central Americans to migrate north to the U.S. each year. (A senior administration official did not offer a timeline for completion of their plan.)
But as the decades-long political fight in Washington over how to handle immigration policy drags on, the reality is: There’s no quick fix, which Biden officials acknowledge, and conditions are only getting worse.
“This is a conjunction of multiple inequalities that have been pushing these people forever,” said Ana Maria Mendez, Central America cluster director for the global anti-poverty group Oxfam. “But now with the issue of climate change, it has made everything even worse if it wasn’t bad enough already in past years. It’s very obvious.”
“At least our house was safe”
More than 8.8 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were affected by the two Category 4 hurricanes that hit the region just days apart last year. In Guatemala, the two storms ravaged 16 out of the country’s 22 departments, or provinces. Both storms resulted in a total of more than 60 deaths, about 100 missing and more than 300,000 forced to evacuate their homes.
That’s why people are bracing for another hurricane season that could cost their jobs, access to food — and, above all, their lives.
“All it takes is one,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team Leader for the three Northern Triangle countries, noting that it’s an “above average forecast year.”
And some families are still trying to build back from last year’s hurricanes. Part of USAID’s Guatemala team is focused on helping the most vulnerable families “recover from what happened last year and also build as quickly as we can some resilience to withstand, even if it’s just heavy rains” this year, Callaghan said.
That’s the kind of help that Miriam and Irma say their community desperately needs.
Even before hurricanes Eta and Iota devastated their village last year, Miriam and Irma had mixed success with their crops, which usually consisted of maize and chile.
Over the years, they watched their father slowly lose his land to erosion along the river. But they thought the separate plot of land they rent would be safe from the hurricanes: It’s further away from the river, they thought. There won’t be that much water.
They were wrong.
“It’s really sad. The storm was so quick. We thought nothing had happened to our land,” Miriam says, trying to muster a chuckle as she shows photos of the field after the hurricane. Full destruction. All the corn stalks on the ground. Lots of flooding. “My mother cried and cried, but at least our house was safe. We were safe.”
Last year, due to the hurricane, they lost 150 quintales — about 33,000 pounds worth of maize — and 8 cuerdas, or about four-fifths of an acre, of chile. The maize was worth more than $2,400, a huge sum for the sisters. And with the land unusable for months after the hurricane, in December Miriam decided to head to Guatemala City, about 150 miles and a five-hour car-ride away, looking for work. Irma decided to stay behind to look after their extended family.
“I’m not the only one. There has been no way to make money here. And there’s a lot of families with several kids here and no way to maintain them. So, people left,” Miriam said. “There are some who tried migrate to the U.S. — some succeeded in making it. Others didn’t.”
For the past six months, Miriam worked cleaning office buildings to have money to feed her family and invest back into the land. Now, she’s back in Xucup to see if her latest maize crops — which her family has been tending to — are ready.
Still, she plans to attempt another trip with her sister — and two of their children — soon.
That’s despite her vivid memories of the days they spent in the scalding heat walking for hours alongside the mountains trying to evade notice by officials.
Initially, Irma wanted to strike out on her own so she could join her son and husband in the U.S. But Miriam, the baby sister of the family and a veteran of the Guatemalan military wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted to be sure they did the trip as safely as possible — and she figured her military training would hold them in good stead.
They paid the smuggler — known as a coyote — almost $4,000 for each of them to make the trip, money they got in a loan from the bank. They each were allowed to bring one of their sons, who were both under 13 years old at the time.
Their trek began with a seven-hour bus to Huehuetenango, the starting point for many migrants leaving Guatemala to head north. And right away, Miriam sensed something was wrong with the coyote, who was the brother of the coyote who took Irma’s husband to the U.S.
First, the coyote told them they couldn’t bring their phones, then handed them phones that had no service. He told them they had to wait in a hotel for three days before they could continue the trek in Mexico. They ended up waiting 15 days, worried. Then he tried — multiple times — to separate the adults from the children. And at one point, he wanted to send Irma’s son alone with a young man also heading to the U.S.-Mexico border. The sisters refused, raising a fuss until the coyote relented. Looking back, Miriam is convinced that her military credentials — and her willingness to confront the coyotes — kept them safe from harm.
But in the end, Mexican officials captured them in the middle of the trek through Mexico. They were held in Mexico — they’re not sure where — for about 8 days before they were deported, hundreds of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border where they’d hoped to find opportunity.
“Sure, they fed us while [we were] detained there. But why would I want to eat?” Miriam said. “My dream was to make it, so I can get ahead and help my family. But I didn’t make it. I cried and cried when they said we were going back to Guatemala.”
Back home, they held out hope that the coyote would give them another chance. They’ve heard of other migrants getting three chances to make the trip with the fee they paid. But the coyote stopped answering their calls.
Now, Miriam pays about $125 a month to the bank for the loan, which she claimed was for farming expenses — but she remains grateful that she didn’t turn over the deed to her house, another common method of payment to coyotes. At least, she said, they didn’t lose their home.
The truth is, Miriam and Irma say, they don’t know much about President Joe Biden — or the vice president who’d just paid their country a visit. When they tried to make it to the border, Donald Trump was president. They knew he didn’t like immigrants. He is, they said, a “bad man.” But two years ago, during the Trump administration, Irma’s husband and her eldest son, now 18, managed to make it across the border unnoticed. They now live in Arkansas, where they live undocumented, while Irma remains here with two of her sons.
Her husband, however, hasn’t sent Irma any money in more than two months. Miriam says it’s because all he does is drink. She’s convinced that sooner or later his drinking will get him into trouble and he’ll get sent back. Miriam’s not fond of her brother-in-law, but she worries about his well-being: If he gets deported, what happens then to her nephew?
“You will be turned back”
During her trip here, Harris had a lot to prove, even if administration officials tried to manage expectations by setting modest goals for her visit. It was an early test of both her ability to handle thorny diplomatic issues and be a leader on the world stage — skills she’ll need if she runs for president again.
The goal of her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico: setting the tone for the Biden administration’s work to tackle the root causes of migration, issues that for decades administrations Republican and Democratic have failed to address.
And standing beside Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei after a two-hour meeting at the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, her approach was clear: Be blunt.
At a presser with U.S. and Guatemalan journalists and officials, Harris did not equivocate. She stood in a grand courtyard, called the Patio de la Paz in honor of the 1996 signing of peace agreements between the Guatemalan government and a leftist guerrilla group, and criticized the country’s long-standing system of corruption — which critics argue includes the president himself.
To that end, she announced the U.S. would launch task forces to fight corruption, human smuggling and trafficking. She said the U.S. would make various investments, including an initiative to create opportunities for young, primarily indigenous, women entrepreneurs.
But some immigrant advocates and experts on the region worry the Biden administration will fall back on the U.S. pattern of focusing on curbing migration from Central America through deportations and border control enforcement — without actually ending up helping people in the region.
That worry grew after Harris’s press conference.
“The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” Harris said.
“At the same time, I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come,” she added. “I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”
Her message, during a visit that was “ostensibly to see the reasons people are being forced to flee,” was “a tremendous red flag,” said Noah Gottschalk, global policy lead for Oxfam America.
“After four years of the Trump administration viewing Central America primarily through an anti-migration lens, we don’t want to see the Biden administration come in and do a softer, slightly better version of that,” Gottschalk said.
So far, it remains to be seen how the Biden administration will tackle many of the structural challenges that plague Guatemala and the rest of the region. And in Washington, much of the chatter stays on script: Which is to say, they’re focused on politics, not policy. As Republicans see it, Biden owns the increased numbers of migrants flocking to the border. It’s now the “Biden border crisis,” they say.
Meanwhile, Democrats argue Biden inherited an immigration system decimated by Trump, one which will take time to rebuild.
None of this matters to Francisco Coy, a day laborer who lives with his wife, Josefina Huc Tiul, and six children, ages 6 to 18, a 15-minute walk from Miriam and Irma.
They never heard about Harris’s trip. Nor do they know who she is.
They’ve never heard about U.S. promises to address root causes of migration. Nor have they given much thought to the root causes of migration.
They’re just trying to get by.
Their hut, made of straw and wooden sticks and tied together with cords, sits plopped on a small plot of dirt, in an area of the village so remote it can’t be reached by car. As Francisco and Josefina chat in Q’eqchi’, their children wander about barefoot in the mud, munching on tropical fruit and keeping the ducks company.
They’ve been left behind by the world, Francisco and Josefina say — and life is only getting harder.
After the hurricanes, no one would hire Coy. He used to go into the field to help other farmers, but with no crops to harvest, there was no work. And with no income to feed his family, he resorted to chopping wood in the forest nearby in the hopes of earning some cash.
“No one ever came to help. Not the president. Not the mayor. No one,” Huc Tiul says as they sit outside their hut.
While they’re just minutes walking distance from Miriam and Irma’s house, their reality is different — more difficult, by Miriam’s own description. They’ve never owned land — or had the money to rent a plot of land to grow their own crops. They’ll soon be forced to tear down the little house they’ve built, dismantling it piece by piece, then bundling the wood together and moving it somewhere else. Where? They’re not sure. The only thing they do know: The woman that owns the plot of land they’re squatting on doesn’t want them there anymore.
For Coy’s family, migrating to the U.S. isn’t an option: They’ll never have enough money to pay a coyote. Still, he and his wife wish the U.S. — or their own government — would help bring about real change in Guatemala so that fewer families would struggle as they struggle.
“Sometimes, in the middle of the day, I sit and cry thinking: How am I supposed to get ahead?” Huc Tiul says. “How can I get help?”
“We have to start over”
In Chivich, a small village adjacent to Xucup, about a dozen neighbors stand about, examining the latest batch of harvested maize, spread out on a tarp on the floor.
It’s the late afternoon, humidity hovers just before it begins to rain. The neighbors shake their heads ruefully, talking in a mix of Q’eqchi’ and Spanish as they inspect their day’s work. It doesn’t take an expert on maize to see there’s something wrong. The maize is meager and undergrown. They’re disappointed: Most of it did not grow as it should. They have to make do with what they’ve got to feed themselves and their families.
Maybe fertilizer and insecticides could have made a difference, they say. But they couldn’t swing the cost. And even with those accoutrements, they’re not convinced it would make a difference. The land had yet to recover from last year’s hurricanes.
“What our community needs is to recover what we lost. We lost our crops. We have to start over and we simply don’t have enough,” said Ramiro Yat Coc, a father of two and grandfather of two, who comes from a long line of field workers.
A couple of months ago, a representative from Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food visited their village with a promise: The government would soon send fertilizer, seeds and cash assistance to help them recuperate, Yat Coc says.
“We got excited,” he said, as several neighbors sat around a plastic table, nodding in agreement. “But turns out — there’s nothing. They haven’t come back.”
Instead, he’s seen more neighbors leaving — or plotting their exit. Everyone, he says, thinks there’s no future here. And even with widespread poverty, Yac Coc says, many are coming up with creative ways to rustle up enough cash to leave. Most first move to Guatemala City, where they find a job, any job, to raise money to pay a coyote and then head for the U.S.
This is the challenge perplexing U.S. officials, experts and civil society leaders: how to carve out the right combination of immediate aid and long-term assistance to help address the wide array of challenges faced here. The U.S. can’t stop climate change. But development experts say the U.S. government can pay for technical assistance to farmers here, who primarily are focused on subsistence agriculture — as well as provide humanitarian aid to tackle immediate needs, like fighting hunger and malnutrition.
Crops like corn, grains, sugar cane and coffee are more vulnerable to climate change, USAID’s Rajaraman said. Given that, USAID looks at the work here in two parts: building resiliency, which means helping farmers diversify their crops and learn techniques that can help withstand some of the weather events — and seeking economic development outside of agriculture. More than 30 percent of the country’s employment is in agriculture.
“Guatemala isn’t going to suddenly not be dependent on agriculture,” Rajaraman said. But there are opportunities to expand and create jobs in the country’s information technology, manufacturing and tourism sectors, she said.
Meanwhile, the Guatemalan government has acknowledged the impact of climate change on its people, participating in talks with the United Nations, including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, USAID and other groups on the impact of climate change — and what it can do to help mitigate changing conditions.
But, on the day-to-day, the farmers who spoke with POLITICO said they don’t know what exactly their government is doing to help people.
And while politicians in Washington continue to debate the politics of immigration, Guatemalans, like Yac Coc and the Cuc Cac sisters, say they want the U.S. to understand why they’re migrating to the U.S.: because they have no other choice.
Yac Coc says he’d be first to sign up if the U.S. were to offer a temporary guest worker program. Before the pandemic, there were some opportunities to go to Mexico and work for a while. But with the Mexican border now closed due to the pandemic and Mexico increasing its border enforcement measures to keep migrants out, those opportunities evaporated.
“If they gave us the opportunity, so many of us would go,” he said. “Who doesn’t want an opportunity to make some money?”
Since the campaign trail, Biden has said he wants to create more legal pathways for migrants so they won’t have to make the dangerous trek to the border. So far, officials have restarted and expanded a program for Central American minors to reunite with family in the U.S. They also began processing into the country thousands of migrants that, due to a Trump-era program, had been forced to remain in Mexico while waiting for their asylum cases to be heard.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was making available 6,000 temporary, non-agricultural — known as H-2B — worker visas for people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, USAID Administrator Samantha Power said the 6,000 number is a start. “Let us go from there,” she said.
But, six months in, Biden has continued to use Title 42, a public health order Trump invoked in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic to kick out migrants without letting them seek asylum. And even when the Biden administration lifts Title 42 in the coming weeks, migrants who’ve been displaced by climate change aren’t eligible for asylum.
That’s why Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would create a U.S. resettlement pathway for climate-displaced people. The bill would also implement a global climate change resiliency strategy to guide U.S. policy going forward. However, the Biden administration has not weighed in on whether it’s supportive of the bill.
“We are unfortunately a world leader in contributing to this climate crisis,” Markey said in a statement, “and we have a moral obligation to be a world leader in addressing the ensuing humanitarian crisis.” Climate change, he said, “disproportionately affects women, children, Indigenous people, and people of color.”
“We must take the necessary steps to support those who are forced to leave their homes due to a changing climate,” he added.
With or without U.S. support, Miriam and Irma are determined to live in the U.S. — even as others insist it’s not worth trying to make the trek again.
“I’ve told my mother: I’m going to go. I’m going to get ahead. I’m going to buy your plot of land to plant and I’m going to build you a house,” Miriam says.
“That’s my dream. That’s our dream. And we will do it.”
Josué Decavele contributed to this report.
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