Guatemala’s Emerging Climate Migration Crisis

Every day, 2-3 planes travel from the United States to the Guatemalan Air Force base located in Guatemala City. Unlike the flights landing across the tarmac in Guatemala’s La Aurora International Airport, however, these planes aren’t carrying foreign tourists or businessmen. They’re transporting hundreds Guatemalan citizens deported from the United States.

A stream of men and women walk single file across the tarmac, squinting into the sunlight. They’ve landed in their home country with their hands and feet shackled, stripped of their belongings, and as many tell me, of their dignity. Many had been stripped away from their families as well.

Many arrived tired and weary, wearing the same clothes they had worn when they set out on the dangerous journey north before being intercepted near the United States-Mexico border. Others wore uniforms emblazoned with US business names – “Ken’s Landscaping” or “Southern Work Supply Center” – and spoke to me in perfect, unaccented English polished over a lifetime spent growing up, forming families, living, and working in the United States.

The majority of those standing in line waiting to make a phone call to alert their families looked pale, visibly shaken, dehydrated, worn thin. Some made small talk while others stared blankly into the distance, their eyes glazed over.

When I asked, most were too shell-shocked to reflect upon the true implications of what deportation would mean for themselves and their families. Grown men cried, and to be honest, I cried with them.

“All I can think about is my little girl. When will I see her again?”

Many had left Guatemala out of necessity. Recent inter-agency studies show that nearly 50% of migrants intercepted at the US border from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador cite “no food” as their main reason for migrating.

Increasingly erratic climate cycles have caused agricultural families to lose nearly every harvest over the past few years. Faced with potential starvation, entire families – including small children – are risking it all to migrate towards the United States, which is becoming more hostile by the day towards those seeking a better future for their families.

Whether related to human-induced climate change or a streak of bad harvests and severe El Niño events, Central America is teetering on the brink of a massive agricultural crisis, the consequences of which extend far beyond the subsistence farmers counting their last grains of corn while praying for rain.

Gena Steffens, Fall 2018 Guatemala Reporting Fellowship