US and Guatemalan Migration-Related Pandemic Policies: A View from Guatemala

Briana Nichols
University of Pennsylvania

Credit: / Salmon-Negro

US and Guatemalan Migration-Related Pandemic Policies: A View from Guatemala

The US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to fortify migration policies that violate the human rights of migrants. Beyond suspending hearings for asylum-seekers subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),[1] the US government has ordered the rapid repatriation of apprehended migrants, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors,[2] has continued deportation proceedings and removals, and has suspended many legal migration processes. On April 10, the administration asserted its right, resulting from the “profound and unique public health risks posed by the novel (new) coronavirus” to impose visa sanctions on countries that deny or delay “the acceptance of aliens who are citizens, subjects, nationals or residents of that country” that impede the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) response to the pandemic.[3]

Expulsions, removals, and denial of access to asylum have become central to the US pandemic response, without the US offering evidence connecting the spread of the virus to persons arriving at US land borders. Rather than limiting the viral contagion, US policies may hasten the spread of the virus in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.[4]

The US response to COVID-19 is having a profound effect on the wellbeing of recent deportees, their communities of return, and the families of undocumented migrants living in the United States. The situation unfolding in Guatemala is particularly illustrative.

History of Migration Policy: US and Guatemala

Migration has tied Guatemala to the United States for decades.  A US-backed military coup d’état, and the resulting 33 year-long internal conflict led to significant migration from Guatemala between 1970 and 1996.  After the conflict officially ended in 1996, migration continued to the United States due to Guatemala’s weak infrastructure, precarious employment opportunities, and high levels of corruption that made economic survival nearly impossible, particularly for indigenous and rural residents.[5]  Driven by an increasing wealth divide, continued economic insecurity, societal violence, and the devastating effects of climate change, Guatemalans now represent the largest proportion of migrants apprehended at the US Southern border.[6]  As a result, Guatemala has become the primary focus of US enforcement and migration prevention policies.

The Guatemalan government, while democratically elected, continues to be controlled by military-backed leaders and a small group of oligarchic industrialists who have a strong financial interest in maintaining a favorable relationship with the United States. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Guatemala and the United States entered into a number of bilateral agreements that supported the migration prevention efforts of the United States. These included the designation of Guatemala as a “third safe country,” which allows the United States and Mexico to deport to Guatemala not just Guatemalans but any other foreign national who passes through the country en route to the US border.[7]

Timeline of Coronavirus in Guatemala

On March 12, in response to the global pandemic, Guatemala began banning entry to citizens of all European countries, Iran, China and South Korea. On March 13, it confirmed its first case of coronavirus.[8]  In response, Guatemala banned all flights from the United States and Canada, and asked the Mexican government to halt deportations by land.[9] By March 17, Guatemala had suspended all deportation and “safe third country” asylum flights from the United States due to concerns of widespread COVID-19 infections in the United States and, in particular, in US migrant detention centers.[10]  However, under pressure from the US government, flights of deportees were resumed only days later.  By March 26, Guatemala confirmed the first cases of coronavirus among deportees.[11]  On April 6, it suspended deportation flights for the week of Easter, but the flights later resumed. The Guatemalan health minister blamed the deportations of former US detainees infected by COVID-19, for the escalating number of cases of coronavirus in Guatemala. In March, between 50 and 75 percent of US deportees to Guatemala ended up testing positive for the virus.[12]

Since January, 11,940 people have been deported to Guatemala from the United States by ICE Air,[13] and 9,362 people have been deported from Mexico by land.[14] These deportations are making an already precarious situation in Guatemala worse. Guatemala’s health infrastructure is ill-equipped to manage the coronavirus epidemic, and with nearly one-half of Guatemalans living below the poverty line,[15] there is little ability to withstand a widespread economic shutdown.

Guatemalan Government Responses

On March 15, the Guatemalan government suspended classes for all students. On March 17, it suspended all public transportation, as well as labor and commerce deemed inessential. On March 22, it implemented a nationwide curfew, confining people to their homes from 4pm to 4am, and it declared a state of emergency that limits the ability of people to congregate in public.[16] Each of these strategies may seem in line with international responses to the pandemic. However, Guatemala’s history of government repression during internal conflict, its lack of social supports, and its economic precarity have caused these policies to be met with widespread fear and distrust, particularly from rural and indigenous Guatemalans. Initially, heavy fines were imposed for those who did not follow the government’s mandates. These fines quickly increased to threats of jail time ranging from 15 to 30 days. One day after the curfew was announced, more than 900 people had been arrested and imprisoned for its violation.[17] The size of Guatemala’s detainee population and the overcrowding of its prisons increase the likelihood of COVID’s spread. Curfews, widespread incarceration, cancelling of university and school classes, and limiting of public gatherings have their roots in the strategies of population management and control during the internal conflict.

What a crisis enables: (un)anticipated consequences

Rural and indigenous communities suffered the greatest violence and repression during the internal conflict. They are also the communities most dependent on migration and, not coincidentally, the areas to which many deportees are returning.

The government’s response to the virus has hit these communities hard. Whereas the major chain grocery stores (Walmart, MaxiDispensa, etc.) have been designated essential and allowed to stay open during the crisis, food vendors associated with the informal economy have experienced harassment and fines. The distinction between what is deemed essential and inessential favors the country’s industrial elites. Guatemala has also enacted a “fondo bono familia” that is supposed to provide monthly funds to the most vulnerable during the crisis. These funds are being distributed through a banking system to which many of the poorest Guatemalans lack access.

Families that support themselves from subsistence farming and produce sales are finding it challenging to complete their work in the fields during the time allotted by the curfew. They have also been cut off from markets because of the ban on public transportation. Many of these families augment their income through remittances from loved ones working abroad.  However, during the month of March, remittances from the United States fell more than 40 percent.[18] Economic shutdowns in the United States mean that many immigrants who had been supporting their families in Guatemala are now left without work. Many are also ineligible for any type of US government support. This creates a unique dilemma for communities in Guatemala, where families report scrambling to scrape together money to send to their relatives in the United States in order to cover their rent and basic needs while they are effectively stuck in quarantine and unable to send money home. This situation will lead to greater levels of both informal and formal debt as families take out loans to cover their basic needs, and the needs of their loved ones abroad. Rising levels of debt were a significant driver of Guatemalan migration before the pandemic.[19]  The long-term impact of the economic shutdowns in Guatemala and the United States may lead to increased migration due to greater poverty and new family debt.

Beyond the trauma of deportation, recent returnees are viewed as potential sources of viral contamination. This distrust extends to those working in the industries that have developed around deportation. In a recent example, an email message circulated around a community asking people to avoid shopping at a store operated by a bus driver’s spouse who, it was believed, had been exposed to coronavirus in bringing migrants back from the Mexican border.

Guatemala’s status as a “third safe country” is also causing complications. While there was already a level of social distrust in Guatemala towards El Salvadorans and Hondurans, those concerns have escalated during the pandemic. The escape of deportees from four busses in the Guatemalan city of Retalhuleu, en route from the Mexican border, caused widespread panic and anger about their potential to spread the virus.[20] Honduran and El Salvadoran migrants who had returned to Guatemala hoping to file their asylum claims are now stuck in a limbo.  The economic situation coupled with social isolation makes it extremely challenging for these migrants to find work and housing, leaving open the possibility of their homelessness and indigence.

The situation in Guatemala illustrates the interconnectedness between COVID-19 responses, migration policy and governance. To understand the full impacts of US migration policies, researchers and policymakers must assess the effects of US laws and policies on those living in migrant sending communities. In circumstances characterized by enduring transnational power imbalances, such as the case between the United States and Guatemala, policies implemented in the US can have the effect of further compelling people to leave their communities in search of survival elsewhere. Understanding policy effects in migrant sending communities is necessary in order to protect the rights and dignity of migrants, and to examine whether these policies align with the long-term interests of these two nations and the well-being of all their residents.




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[19] Heidbrink, L. (2019). The coercive power of debt: Migration and deportation of Guatemalan indigenous youth. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology24(1), 263-281.


Author Names

Briana Nichols

Date of Publication April 27, 2020
DOI 10.14240/cmsesy042720