Girls run down a street on the outskirts of Cajola in the western highlands of Guatemala. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Homeland Security officials have for the first time offered an explanation for a puzzling increase in the number of Guatemalan families showing up at the U.S. border this year seeking asylum.

Rather than a spike in violence, the families appear to be fleeing a hunger crisis in Guatemala’s western highlands, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, citing U.N. and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) food insecurity data as well as the agency’s own intelligence assessments.

Years of meager harvests, drought and the devastating effects of “coffee rust” fungus on an industry that employs large numbers of rural Guatemalans is speeding up an exodus of families from villages bereft of food, CBP officials say.

It also explains why large numbers of indigenous villagers who speak little or no Spanish have arrived with their children to turn themselves in to U.S. border agents, creating communication challenges for enforcement officials and immigration courts.

The CBP assessment posits more traditional “push” factors — poverty and lack of opportunity — as a major driving force behind the latest migration trend, rather than an uptick in crime. Such an analysis challenges the claims of advocacy groups and lawmakers that Central American asylum seekers are primarily fleeing violence, but it also suggests the root causes of emigration could be alleviated by reducing hunger and creating jobs.

“Food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in the migration flow this year,” CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan, the top U.S. border security official, said in an interview.


Per capital murder rates in Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — remain among the world’s highest, but they have trended downward in recent years. Guatemala’s homicide rate fell to its lowest level last year since 2000, crime statistics show.

Border arrests of family members from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were at similar levels in 2017, but Guatemala’s numbers have soared this year as El Salvador’s have fallen. U.S. agents have apprehended more than 42,000 Guatemalan family members in the past 11 months who crossed the border illegally, nearly double last year’s amount, in addition to 20,000 underage minors, according to the l atest CBP data.

The highest percentage of those migrants are from Guatemala’s Huehuetenango department, whose isolated and traditional mountain villages have malnutrition rates near 70 percent. High levels of food insecurity and emigration also correspond in other subregions of Guatemala and Honduras, according to the unpublished CBP analysis.

“While we work to increase our border security and ask Congress to strengthen our legal framework at home, it is equally important to support prosperity and economic development in Central America,” McAleenan said in a statement. “Current migration flows are a complex regional phenomenon and require multifaceted responses. Migrants are not leaving for one reason.”

Five years ago, single adults from Mexico traveling to the United States for seasonal work accounted for nearly 80 percent of border arrests, according to McAleenan. They are being rapidly replaced by families and children from Central America “migrating permanently,” he said.

McAleenan arrives in the region on Sunday for six days of meetings in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with diplomats, immigration officials, business executives and indigenous leaders, a trip he said is meant to gather information and refocus attention on the factors fueling emigration.

His trip comes at a fraught moment for U.S. diplomacy in Central America. The United States recalled its ambassador from El Salvador earlier this month when the country severed relations with Taiwan in an overture to China. And many U.S. lawmakers were outraged when the Guatemalan government refused to allow the return of a U.N. anticorruption body whose inquiries began to threaten President Jimmy Morales.

A major security conference in Washington with the Northern Triangle countries this month was abruptly postponed amid the tensions. McAleenan is proceeding with his trip anyway, calling the surging number of Central American families arriving at the border a “crisis” that needs immediate attention.

From July to August, the number of family members apprehended by U.S. agents soared 38 percent, and border officials have been posting photos nearly every day depicting large groups of Central American families and teens in custody along the Rio Grande in South Texas.

On several occasions in recent weeks, Mexican authorities have intercepted semi trucks packed with Central Americans in perilous conditions. On Thursday, police stopped a truck barreling down the highway with 146 migrants, including 55 children riding in a refrigerator car.

Asked about the CBP assessment of food insecurity, several migration experts in Guatemala said they do not believe this year’s surge is the result of an acute crisis. Rather, they say, it’s the product of years of grinding poverty, crime and increasingly well-developed smuggling networks seeking out new customers.

According to Julia Gonzales Deras, the executive director of the National Roundtable on Guatemalan Migration, the causes in the country’s western highlands remain the same as they have for years: poverty, unemployment and insecurity tied to criminal groups.

“We haven’t observed any change in the trend of migrants going to the United States. People continue to leave because the conditions of their lives here are not improving,” Deras said.

The economy of the western highlands is heavily dependent on coffee farming, an industry that has suffered in recent years because of low global coffee prices and poor harvests linked to below-average rainfall. The industry is still recovering from coffee rust outbreaks that began in 2013. A growing number of Guatemalans have lost hope that the industry might soon rebound, experts say, leaving them more inclined to look abroad.

“Hunger, food insecurity, limited work opportunities and abandonment by the state are unfortunately the status quo in much of rural Guatemala, which has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Richard Johnson, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona who is studying migration in the western highlands. “This scale of food insecurity is certainly abhorrent, but we can’t really call it a sudden crisis if it’s already an entrenched condition.”

In his research, Johnson said he’s found that for most Guatemalans in the region, the decision to migrate is considered over several years, rather than a response to an acute problem.

“Perhaps with the exception of immediate threats of violence, it’s also pretty clear that most migrants don’t make the decision to head north based on just one bad year. Given the tremendous risks and costs — ranging from $9,000 to $12,000 to hire a coyote, often marshaled through informal high-interest mortgages of homes and agricultural land — it’s not a decision many make on the spot, or even a means to alleviate short-term crises,” he said.

The decline in illegal migration from El Salvador this year has also puzzled CBP analysts — and McAleenan said he wants a firsthand look.

“Understanding why families and children are choosing to leave Guatemala and Honduras in increasing numbers, while migration from El Salvador is down significantly, is critical to developing effective responses,” he said. “I want to understand from the experts on the ground why the decision to leave is being made, and what CBP and our government partners can do to help.”