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GUATEMALA: Population Growth Impacts Migration

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jul 10 2009 (IPS) - Marco Tulio Guerra went to work as usual that morning at the meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. But his life was turned upside down when immigration agents swept into his workplace and arrested him along with another 388 foreign workers. Their crime: using false Social Security numbers.

More than eight months have passed since Guerra and 286 other Guatemalans who formed part of that group of undocumented migrants seized in the May 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors plant in the Midwestern U.S. state of Iowa were deported to their home country, and most of them have not yet found a job.

“There are no jobs here in Guatemala,” said Guerra, who organised a committee seeking the social and labour reinsertion of the group of deported Guatemalans.

“We went (to the United States) with the dream of having a little house and a car to get to work in, because that’s impossible here,” he commented to IPS. “But luck was not on our side, and we were unable to stay longer,” said Guerra, who was deported on Oct. 14, 2008 after spending five months in prison.

Guerra’s story is a common one among Latin American immigrants in the United States. So far this year, 29,515 Guatemalans have seen their hopes for a better life cut short by deportation. Of that total, 14,141 were sent back by plane and the rest by land, vía Mexico, according to Guatemala’s General Immigration Office.

A large number of people from other Central American countries are also lured northwards: 12,594 Hondurans, 5,151 Salvadorans and 510 Nicaraguans were deported to Guatemala vía Mexico as they tried to reach the United States.

It is mainly poverty and the lure of the “American dream” that drives Central Americans to leave. But population growth is another factor that inevitably has an effect, although it is not often discussed.

Guatemala has one of the highest demographic growth rates in Latin America. The World Bank put this Central American country’s projected population growth rate for 1998-2015 at 2.1 percent, only behind Nicaragua’s 2.2 percent.

According to the National Statistics Institute (INE), the Guatemalan population will climb from the current 13 million to 28 million by 2050 – compared to just 3.1 million in 1950.

Of the more than one million Guatemalans living abroad, 96 percent are in the United States.

Ana María Méndez, defender of immigrant rights in the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, told IPS that the main reasons people leave the country are economic, impacted by population growth because large families increase the pressure on scarce household resources.

“There are large families that fail to achieve minimal or decent living standards here and decide to leave,” she said.

Florentín Martínez, a researcher at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies (CEUR) of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, said population growth translates into labour power, but also into higher demand for services.

For that reason, he said, governments must undertake actions to guarantee social rights by facilitating access to education, health care, employment and housing.

A similar view was expressed by Luis Linares, an analyst at the non-governmental Association for Social Research and Studies (ASIES).

“One of the challenges faced by the state is to not only secure the resources to provide basic services to a growing population, but also to generate conditions for better-paid employment and keep people from being forced to leave the country,” he remarked to IPS.

“The problem is that Guatemalans see an opportunity for earning money in the United States that they could not earn here. Immigrants there can send home 500 dollars a month relatively easily, while here you can’t make that much with two minimum wage jobs,” said the analyst. The minimum wage here is 6.5 dollars a day.

Linares acknowledged the importance of the law on social development that has promoted and regulated reproductive health policies since 2001, although he said economic issues should be addressed in an integral manner.

According to the World Bank, approximately 75 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, defined as an income that is insufficient to purchase a basic basket of goods and services, while nearly 58 percent of the population have incomes below the extreme poverty line, defined as the amount needed to purchase a basic basket of food.

And poverty rates are higher than average in rural indigenous areas in northern, northwestern and southwestern Guatemala, along the Mexican border.

Among indigenous people – who make up a majority of the population – the poverty rate stands as high as 90 percent.

In the northern provinces of Huehuetenango and San Marcos, between 25 and 39 percent of the population receive remittances from family members in the United States.

These are two of the four provinces that will have the largest populations in 2020 – more than one million people each – according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index 2007-2008.

Catholic priest Mauro Verzeletti, assistant secretary of the Pastoral de Movilidad Humana, which works with migrants, said the high population growth rate is a reality in many Latin American countries plagued by high poverty rates that force people to seek opportunities abroad.

However, he said migration cannot be analysed from the standpoint of population growth without taking into consideration the high levels of poverty and the responsibility of those who hold economic and political power.

Verzeletti, a Brazilian who lives in Guatemala, said it is necessary for the elite to exercise social responsibility towards the poor in order to boost equality, since this is one of the most unequal countries in the world. For example, around 80 percent of the farmland is in the hands of just five percent of the population, according to the UNDP.

“We do not have the impression that the powerful are interested in sharing their wealth so that people can develop, and we know that where development exists, families control their birth rates and migration rates go down,” the priest told IPS.

Saturday, Jul. 11 is World Population Day, and Guatemala and other countries in the world are facing new challenges in the fight against poverty, and against high population growth which is linked to large-scale migration.

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