SANTA MARIA VISITACION, Guatemala
In a mountain village where every week people leave for the United States, the school broadcasts its message in its name: el Centro Quédate — the Stay Here Center.
It’s a low-slung white building in which teenagers gain skills that ostensibly will help them find jobs here, instead of the United States. They learn to cut hair and to fix computers. They sharpen their English so they can work in call centers or as tour guides.
They get lectures on the dangers of migrating. A poster shows stick figures drowning in rivers, falling off trains and being held at gunpoint.
What the students don’t know is that they’re subjects in a quiet experiment to deter migration.
The Stay Here Center is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Guatemalan government in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants from Guatemala, now the biggest source of people attempting to migrate to the United States. About one in 100 Guatemalans has reached the U.S. border in the last year alone.
The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on programs such as the Stay Here Center, aimed at improving the lives of would-be migrants in their own communities so they don’t leave home in the first place. It’s the softer side of migration enforcement: rehabilitation programs for prisoners in El Salvador, business training for young Hondurans, funding for the corn and bean farmers of Guatemala.
President Trump said last month he would cancel aid to those three countries — to punish them, he said, for not doing enough to stop migration. Development experts and diplomats called the move self-defeating: Cutting programs aimed at curbing migration would only increase the flow of migrants.
The funds have not yet been eliminated, and it’s possible that Congress might be able to preserve them. But for now, the Stay Here Center has entered the crush of U.S. politics, at the heart of a question plaguing Washington: How do you reduce the number of people attempting to reach the U.S. border?
It’s unclear whether this four-year-old school is helping. The school doesn’t maintain reliable metrics on its success at keeping students from migrating, and neither does USAID. Analysts have questioned whether any development program can effectively change migration patterns. Teachers here say students at the Stay Here Center leave all the time, abruptly setting off for the United States.
“The odds are stacked against us,” said Silvia Quintana, who teaches English at the school. “Sometimes the kids just disappear.”
Still, the school serves as a tiny flicker of hope in Santa Maria Visitacion, where for decades migration was taken as a granted, the only way out of grinding poverty. Now teenagers have at least the impression of a choice. Maybe they could open a barber shop. Maybe they could repair computers or work with tourists.
Sometimes it works.
The students want to stay in Guatemala, if they can. In this village, like many in Central America, migration is a last resort. The Stay Here Center has in some cases tweaked the calculus of the teenagers of Santa Maria Visitacion, as they weigh the biggest decision they will ever make.
“Right now, I’m between the two things,” said Moises Ventura, 19. “Can I make money cutting hair here?
“If not, I’m gone.”
Signs of migration everywhere
Santa Maria Visitacion claims a population of 3,000, but many of those residents haven’t lived here for years. It lies high in the Sierra Madre range of Guatemala, atop a road that zigs and zags up from Lake Atitlan, one of Guatemala’s premier tourist attractions.
It’s a few square blocks, one restaurant, one taxi driver, one church. And it’s full of signs of migration.
Stores advertise ways to receive remittances. The local human smuggler tools around in a shiny pickup truck.
A four-story house, white, with marble floors, a towering incongruity here, belongs to two undocumented immigrants working construction jobs in Miami.
The conversations happen everywhere — in the town hall, in schools, on the ancient American school buses that carry Guatemalans from one village to the next.
Who just left for America? Who was deported? How much is the smuggler charging these days?
It’s a town where migration is part of the fabric of daily life — a journey most everyone has tried or at least considered.
The Stay Here Center is a block and a half from the central plaza.
“We know everyone wants to leave this place,” said Marcos Ixtamer, the school’s director. “That’s why we’re here.”
Ixtamer, 40, stands in the school’s entranceway. It’s Monday morning, and the week’s first classes have just begun. In one classroom, five boys are studying computer repair. Their instructor teaches them to enunciate the words “World Wide Web.” A few blocks away, 17 teenagers are learning to cut hair.
Ixtamer, like most of the staff at the Stay Here Center, is certain that the school’s goals are correct. Illegal migration is a bad idea for these kids, he says. It’s dangerous. It’s expensive. Smugglers are now charging as much as $12,000 per person for the journey from Santa Maria Visitacion to the U.S. border. And what’s so great about doing backbreaking work in the States, anyway?
He’s sure of his argument. But he’s not sure it will make a difference.
The minimum wage in Guatemala is about $12 per day. In Santa Maria Visitacion, many people earn far less.
The problem isn’t just wages — it’s the lack of jobs. So many people have left the village that the vendors at the weekly market now sell their vegetables, T-shirts and cheap electronics mostly to each other.
“The fact is, there’s nothing to do here,” Ixtamer said.
‘I know what we’re up against’
The idea of teaching vocational skills to keep would-be migrants from leaving is hardly unique to the Stay Here Center. Across the world, developed countries invest in programs aimed at addressing the root causes of migration. Spain opens a cashew processing plant in Mali. Italy funds vocational training centers in Ethiopia. Belgium tries to improve farming practices in Senegal.
Michael Clemens, a fellow at the Center for Global Development, says the approach “gets it backward.”
“Migration is a fundamental part of a country’s development process.”
In much of the developing world, money sent home by family and friends abroad provides a crucial economic foundation. In Guatemala, these remittances account for more than 11 percent of GDP.
Migration can also ease tight labor markets when demographic booms create surges of young people competing for limited numbers of jobs.
“The fact is that migration provides a remarkably good return on investment,” Clemens said.
The face of Guatemala’s migrant surge is youthful. Roughly 136,000 Guatemalans were apprehended at the U.S. border or turned themselves in from October through March, according to Customs and Border Patrol. That included 94,000 people arriving in families and 16,800 unaccompanied minors.
The Stay Here Center serves young people mostly ages 12 to 19. Unlike many public schools in Guatemala, it’s free. As a result, the center is the only school that some of its poorest students attend.
The school focuses on teenagers at risk of migrating. Teachers talk to parents and community leaders to find out which children are planning trips. Those who have relatives already in the United States are considered particularly likely candidates.
“These are small towns,” Ixtamer said. “It’s not hard for us to find kids who are getting ready to leave or who are thinking about it.”
He tries to imagine how Santa Maria Visitacion would look with a new generation of barbers or computer shops or tour guides to lead visitors around the lake. Could the village — one of several much like it around Atitlan — support those jobs?
He knows most of the kids don’t have enough money for scissors or their own laptops.
Late Monday morning, a student named Elmer walks by Ixtamer’s office.
“He was deported a few months ago,” Ixtamer said. “Every day he says, ‘I’m going to go back, I’m going to try again.’
“We try to convince him to please stay here, to give this class a chance.”
“I don’t know how much longer we can keep him.”
Quintana, the English teacher, is familiar with that fight. She says roughly 10 percent of the thousand or so children she has taught have migrated.
“I don’t blame myself,” she said. “I know what we’re up against.”
More likely to migrate
Timoteo Pérez climbs into the hills around Santa Maria Visitacion each week in search of more teenagers who are planning to migrate. Pérez is the Stay Here Center’s social worker. He has taught himself four indigenous languages because many families in the region’s isolated communities don’t speak enough Spanish to understand his pitch.
On a recent Tuesday, he walked along a highway in a tiny village called Patzij, a smattering of small homes connected by a narrow dirt path. Subsistence farming is pretty much the only job here.
Pérez carried a handwritten list of names to track down. He passed a hulking three-story home with a terrace.
“Those houses were built by people in the United States,” he said. “The only way you can afford something like that is by sending money from America.”
From the highway, he made a left turn and walked up a dirt path toward the house of Pascuala Marroquín and her 12-year-old daughter Milvia.
Pérez pulled out a photocopy of the Stay Here Center’s recruitment survey. Marroquín sat on the floor.
Pérez asked about the girl.
“She hasn’t tried to go to the United States, but she wants to, right?” he asked.
Marroquín cast her glance downward.
“Yes,” she said. “Her father is in the U.S.”
“She knows where her dad is?”
“We’ve heard he’s in Los Angeles.”
Pérez took notes. He knew that a child with a father in the United States is more likely to try to migrate at some point.
“We’re here to help you,” Pérez said. “We’re going to teach her to cut hair.”
“She says she going to go,” Marroquín said. “I tell her no.”
Pérez thanked her and left. Milvia’s hair-cutting classes would begin later that week — if she showed up.
The next family lived on a different hill, in a smaller house. Elena spoke no Spanish, only Quiché, a Mayan language. One of her sons was already in the United States.
Pérez was trying to persuade her to send another son, Isaías, to the Stay Here Center. He repeated the questions he had asked Marroquín.
Elena said Isaías was thinking about heading north.
“His brother is pushing him,” she said.
Did Elena think the Stay Here Center would help keep Isaías here?
She started to cry.
“My son wants to stay here, but the situation is forcing him to leave,” she said. “He wants to learn to cut hair, but to do that he’s going to need materials. We don’t have the resources to buy them.”
Pérez completed his form and walked back down the hill. He took a bus back to Santa Maria Visitacion.
“This is not an easy job,” he said.
No one tracking results
Quintana estimates that 1 in 10 of her former students have migrated.
It’s difficult to know whether this represents failure, or success. The Center for Global Development estimates that roughly 8 percent of all 17-year-olds in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras migrated to the United States between 2011 and 2016.
The Stay Here Center in Santa Maria Visitacion is a tiny part of the U.S. government’s development package in Central America. It has received just over $20,000 per year in U.S. funds over the last two years, distributed by the International Organization for Migration.
USAID says it does not keep track of the center’s results — the federal agency relies on the International Organization for Migration for oversight. IOM says it has not tracked the school’s impact on local migration trends.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year that there were “multiple external factors that may influence an individual’s decision to migrate again, some of which cannot be addressed through reintegration assistance programs. For example, the desire to reunify with family may affect an individual’s decision, as well as the country’s economic conditions and levels of violence and insecurity.”
Much of the U.S. funding aimed at deterring migration focuses on longer-term problems in the region.
In El Salvador, for example, USAID says its programs have contributed to a reduction in the homicide rate, which has in turn led to decreased migration. But in Guatemala, where USAID says a program called Increased Incomes in High Migration Areas has helped create tens of thousands of agricultural jobs, migration has surged.
Development experts say it’s notoriously difficult to reduce migration by increasing economic opportunity. First, investments don’t always lead to immediate jobs. Second, if the project does lead to better jobs, workers often use their new earnings to pay a smuggler to take them to the United States.
At the Stay Here Center, the students are aware that the skills they’re acquiring will be particularly useful if they migrate.
“I always ask them why they want to learn English and what use do they have for it,” Quintana said. “They say if I go to the United States, I would like to communicate.”
At a recent class, Quintana asked, “Is there anyone here who would like to go to the States?”
Every hand went up.
“But who wants to go in a truck so that they deport you?” she asked.
“If that’s the only option, then that’s fine,” Abdiel Dionisio said.
Quintana shook her head and laughed. She didn’t know at the time that Dionisio was the mayor’s son.
Small fix for a big problem
Moises Ventura was trying his best to learn how to cut hair.
His teacher had told him he was good at it, that he can make money doing it here. He’s 19. He wants to believe her. He has cousins in the United States, and he knows how much they’re making on construction jobs — more than $10 per hour, an impossible sum.
But he knew it was getting harder and more expensive to cross into the United States. That’s why, when Ixtamer confronted his father at the local market, he agreed to attend the Stay Here Center.
Halfway into the course, he converted a tiny room in his family’s home into a makeshift barber shop. He charges 12 quetzales — about $1.50 — per haircut. He gets about four or five clients a week.
“I want to try to make this work,” he said.
He’s giving himself a trial run. If the barber shop doesn’t work, he knows where to find the smuggler.
His father, Alberto, shares his ambivalence.
“We look at other neighbors who have arrived in the United States, and within a month, you can see the difference. You see the houses they’re building,” he said. “So, yes, there are times when I want to give my son the opportunity to leave.”
Moises is weighing the same calculus that graduates of the center have considered for years.
Sometimes the decision is made for them.
Quintana remembers the 14-year-old boy who suddenly stopped showing up at her class. She went to the boy’s home to ask what happened. It turned out his father, the family breadwinner, had died. The mother’s solution was to send her son to the United States to make money in his absence.
“The father died on a Wednesday,” Quintana said. “The boy left for the U.S. on a Friday.”
Quintana understands. She herself was once undocumented in the United States, cleaning houses in Los Angeles. She eventually married a man who was a U.S. citizen and gained permanent residence herself.
She chose to return to Guatemala. But she remembers the luster that migration once held for her — the way it seemed the only option.
She thinks about her own experience when her students disappear.
But she also has plenty of counterexamples — the boy who is now a tour guide on Lake Atitlan, the girl she sees selling handmade skirts in town, the boy who managed to secure a scholarship to attend a university in Guatemala City.
Quintana has come to the same conclusion as many development experts: Programs such as the Stay Here Center can work on some of the few people they serve. They can influence their calculations in indiscernible but perhaps decisive ways.
But they are a small attempt to fix a large problem.
With the Stay Here Center’s funding stream now under threat, Quintana watches students like Ventura enter the school, knowing that they might not finish the semester. Officials at IOM say that without U.S. funds, the school will likely have to downsize or possibly even close.
If the school were to shutter, it’s impossible to know how much more likely they would be to migrate — or whether migration would be good or bad for them.
Those are not her judgments to make.
“If I can convince some of them — not all of them but some of them — I’ll feel happy,” she said.