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