Guatemalan immigration

2011-02-14 12:42:57

Guatemalan immigration to North America was largely the product of the civil unrest in Guatemala during the 1980s and 1990s. As in the case of most Central American immigrants, those from Guatemala tended to be young and possessing few job skills. In the U.S. census of 2000 and the Canadian census of 2001, 372,487 Americans and 9,550 Canadians claimed Guatemalan descent. The actual number in the United States was considerably higher, however, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 2000 estimated that 144,000 unauthorized Guatemalans were living in the country. The largest concentrations of Guatemalans in the United States are in Los Angeles; Houston, Texas; Chicago; and New York City. In Canada, the largest groups are in Toronto and Montreal.
Guatemala occupies 41,800 square miles in Central America and is the most populous country in Central America. In 2002, the population was estimated at 12,974,361. Guatemala is bordered by Mexico on the north and west, El Salvador on the south, and Honduras and Belize on the east. The people are 56 percent mestizo and 44 percent Amerindian. The majority of Guatemalans are Roman Catholic, though many practice a syncretic Catholicism incorporating Mayan religious rites. About 30 percent are Evangelical Pentecostal Protestants. The old Mayan Empire flourished in what is today Guatemala for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1523, and most of the native Indians today are Maya. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala endured political disorder for most of its history. It was briefly a part of Mexico and then of the Central American Federation before becoming a republic in 1839. After 1945, when a liberal government was elected to replace long-term dictator Jorge Ubico, the country was caught up in cold war politics that led to an ongoing civil war. When the Communist Party in Guatemala was implicated in the radical agrarian reform program of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, he was overthrown by a U.S.-supported right-wing coup. As opposition to military leadership developed, it has been estimated that government “death squads” executed 20,000 civilians between 1966 and 1976. Dissident army officers seized power in 1982, denouncing the presidential election as fraudulent and pledging to restore “authentic democracy” to the nation. Political violence caused large numbers of Guatemalans to seek refuge in Mexico. Another military coup occurred in October 1983 before the nation returned to civilian rule in 1986. During more than 35 years of armed conflict, some 200,000 people were killed, most the victims of right-wing governments and their paramilitary allies. U.S. president Bill Clinton, on a visit to Guatemala in 1999, apologized for aid the United States had given to forces that had “engaged in violence and widespread repression.”
It is impossible to say how many Guatemalans immigrated to the United States before 1960, as statistics for separate Central American countries were not recorded, but the numbers were small, probably around 6,000. A significant number of Guatemalans came north after 1917 following a devastating earthquake of that year. Prior to 1980, most Guatemalan immigrants were white (ladino) politicians and other members of the middle class who had resisted the right-wing government. After 1980, Guatemalan immigrants to the United States were largely Amerindians (Maya) and mestizos fleeing government counterinsurgency campaigns and grinding poverty. The United States, supporting the right-wing government as a cold war bulwark in Central America, recognized few Guatemalans as political refugees. As a result, many entered the country illegally, often with the aid of Christian or other humanitarian groups. Estimates place the number of illegal immigrants at more than 300,000 between 1980 and 2000. In May 1999, the INS relaxed application rules for permanent resident status for Guatemalans who had fled repressive governments during the Guatemalan civil unrest (1980–96). As a result, they were allowed to remain in the United States during their application process and were not required to prove that they would suffer extreme hardship if returned to Guatemala. Between 1992 and 2002, about 120,000 Guatemalans immigrated legally to the United States.
There was almost no Guatemalan immigration to Canada prior to 1979. Of 13,680 immigrants in the country in 2001, only about 1,100 came before 1980. As political violence spilled over from the civil war in El Salvador, thousands of peasants were driven from their lands and many insurgents fled as refugees. Between 1974 and 1994, it has been estimated that about 13,700 Guatemalans settled in Canada, about half admitted as refugees.