Guatemalan immigrants

Significance: Civil war, natural disasters, and economic hardships combined to cause Guatemalan immigration to the United States to begin a rise during the 1960’s that has continued to grow into the twenty-first century. Guatemalans have become the second-largest Central American immigrant community after Salvadorans.

Before 1930, the U.S. Census did not break down Central American immigration by countries, but in any case, overall immigration from that region was small. According to the U.S. Census, only 423 Guatemalans were formally admitted into the United States during the 1930’s. The number of Guatemalan immigrants remained low until the 1960’s, when a significant increase began to occur. The majority of Guatemalan immigrants have arrived in the United States since the mid-1980’s.

During the 1980’s, the number of Guatemalans granted legal permanent resident status reached almost 60,000, continuing a growth pattern that started during the 1960’s. The numbers of immigrants have continued to rise, with 145,111 Guatemalans granted legal permanent resident status between 2000 and 2008. The 2000 U.S. Census listed the total number of Guatemalan immigrants living in the United States as 480,665. Of that number, 111,375 were naturalized U.S. citizens and 369,290 were listed as “not a U.S. citizen.” However, these numbers tell only a part of the story, as the majority of Guatemalan immigrants are undocumented aliens. The number of actual Guatemalan immigrants in the United States in 2008 was estimated to be as high as 1.3 million people.

Profile of Guatemalan immigrants

Country of origin Guatemala
Primary language Spanish
Primary regions of U.S. settlement California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, Washington, D.C.
Earliest significant arrivals Early twentieth century
Peak immigration period 1980’s-2008
Twenty-first century legal residents* 138,021 (17,253 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Push-Pull Factors

Factors that have contributed to Guatemalan immigration into the United States have included Central American civil unrest, natural disasters, and economic problems. A thirty-six-year civil war began in Guatemala in 1960, when the right-wing military rose up against the increasingly liberal government. The war left thousands dead and drove tens of thousands to flee to Mexico and the United States. During the 1980’s, Guatemala’s indigenous communities endured the worst of the war’s violence, as they were suspected by the military of aiding the rebel forces. Because the U.S. government backed the right-wing Guatemalan leaders, it denied personal petitions for political asylum from Guatemalans during that period. The refusal to grant protected status prompted some religious groups in the United States to form the Sanctuary movement, an activist movement that aided undocumented immigrants fromGuatemala and El Salvador.

A series of natural disasters in Guatemala left thousands of families without homes, land, or work, driving many of them to emigrate. In 1976, an earthquake destroyed much of Guatemala City and its environs, leaving 26,000 dead, 76,000 injured, and thousands more homeless. In 2005, Hurricane Stan caused torrential rain and mudslides that killed as many as 2,000 people in Guatemala and devastated entire villages.

A low standard of living, poor health care, and unfair land distribution have all contributed to Guatemalan immigration to the United States. Guatemala has the highest infant and child mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy, and the worst malnutrition problem in Central America. During the early twenty-first century, more than 60 percent of Guatemala’s people were living in poverty. The majority of the adult working population were engaged in migrant farm labor for the coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations.

For Guatemalans attempting to emigrate to the United States, the journey north is difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Fees for guides facilitating illegal entry into the United States can be as high as fifteen hundred U.S. dollars. Rape, robbery, injury, and death are some of the dangers in migrating north.

Immigration from Guatemala, 1930-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

Transnational Guatemalan Immigrant Communities

The largest Guatemalan immigrant community in the United States is in Los Angeles; it is estimated at more than 100,000 people. Other large Guatemalan immigrant communities have arisen in Houston, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., southern Florida, San Francisco, Miami, New Orleans, and the Phoenix-Tucson area in Arizona. These communities tend to be transnational; as their members work to create new lives for themselves in the United States, they continued to maintain ties with their home communities. Many Guatemalan immigrants send financial remittances to relatives in their Guatemalan hometowns that constitute a substantial portion of the latters’ incomes. In 2005, immigrants sent more than $3 billion to relatives in Guatemala.

A special problem arising from Guatemalan immigration has been the spread of gang culture from the United States to Guatemala. Beginning during the 1990’s the U.S. government began targeting undocumented immigrants in the penal system for deportation. Many of these deportees have been in the United States so long that they have no memory of having lived in Guatemala. After they return to their original homeland, they tend to continue their criminal activities.

Elizabeth Ellen Cramer

Further Reading

  • Bacon, David. Communities Without Borders: Images and Voices from theWorld of Migration. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 2006. Through candid photos and oral histories, this book tells the story of transnational communities made up of Guatemalan and Mexican migrants and of their struggles for better working conditions, improved health care, and the retention of their cultures. 
  • Fink, Leon, and Alvis E. Dunn. The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Study of how indigenous Guatemalan Mayans have battled unfair labor practices in the poultry plants of their new home in North Carolina. 
  • Foxen, Patricia. In Search of Providence: Transnational Mayan Identities. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 2007. Tells the story of a community of the K’iche Mayan Indians—members of the largest indigenous group in Guatemala—who have settled in Providence, Rhode Island. 
  • Hamilton, Nora. Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Drawing on her twenty years of work with the Central American community in Los Angeles, Hamilton tells of the immigrants’ experiences with war and poverty in their homelands and of the creation of their new home in the United States. 
  • Stolen, Kristi Anne. Guatemalans in the Aftermath of Violence: The Refugees’ Return. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. Looks at Guatemalan immigration patterns in the aftermath of the Civil War. 

See also: El Rescate; History of immigration after 1891; Honduran immigrants; Immigration lawyers; Latin American immigrants; Push-pull factors; Refugees; Salvadoran immigrants; Sanctuary movement.

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Ana0 answers 18 April 2016 17:10 Quote

the whole artical is very persuasive
has a lot of info and is useful for kids to learn about the history of Guatemala immigrants

The whole artical is very persuasive
has a lot of info and is useful for kids to learn about the history of Guatemala immigrants[/quote]

Estella Petitclerc0 answers 23 May 2016 08:01 Quote

Yes hello there's these ppl well the parents are illegal here in Las Vegas right ....my question is their children was born here right..I did nothing to them but to be nice towards them buy them food ....clothes n tablet for Xmas...I even took the mom to the doctor one time ...they don't appreciate what my husband n I did for them n here she likes to talk shit behind my back....so my question is how can u take them back without hurting there kids ...sometimes in the summertime they let the little girls without no shirt running around the house like really...but anyways my question is what can u do about this please let me know. Thanks these ppl don't appreciate anything what we have done for them

lanisha mena0 answers 1 December 2016 21:55 Quote

me gusta mucho estas cosas de inmigracion de guatemal

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