Immigration from Guatemala to the United States has been fueled by a variety of factors.  In the last three decades political unrest, violence from war, economic hardship, and natural disaster have all contributed to Guatemalan migration to the United States.  The majority of immigrants classified as “refugees” came to the U.S. during the 1980’s when a civil war erupted in Guatemala that lasted until 1996. (Central Intelligence Agency, Factbook, 2006.)

The war was fueled by a variety of factors.  Ethnic divisions, unequal class stratification, and political ideals as well as distribution of agricultural land and international business interests all precipitated violence. (Mazurana, 2005) In the end, a peace accord was signed and a democratically elected president instated.  The war, however, accounts for the first major wave of Guatemalan immigration to the United States.  Some came with refugee status in light of the war while others came fleeing the conflict, arriving to the U.S. undocumented.  With over a million Guatemalans currently living in the United States, it is clear that immigrants have continued to come in the last decade, mostly fueled by economic hardship in Guatemala. (UNHCR World Report, 2005.)

Indigenous Guatemalan women carry coffins Photograph by WOG.  Creative Commons License (Attribution, noncommercial, no Derivative).

The country, just smaller in area than the state of Tennessee, shares its eastern border with El Salvador, Honduras and Belize while its northern and western borders divide it from Mexico. (CIA Factbook.) The country is populated by an estimated thirteen million people.  About 60% of the population is Ladino (in English, “Mestizo” - a mix of Amerindian and Spanish ancestry) and European while most of the remaining population identify as one of twenty-three distinct Mayan groups.  The Ladino population speaks Spanish and the Mayan population speaks any one of a number of Amerindian Languages, the most common is Quiche.  Over 75% of Guatemala’s population lives below the poverty line.  With almost 30% of the population illiterate and very little opportunity for economic advancement, 50% of the country’s population works in agriculture. (CIA Factbook.) With the majority working such labor intensive, low wage jobs it's no wonder that more and more Guatamaltecos are making their way through Mexico, trying to reach a new life of economic opportunity in the United States.  The lack of opportunity for economic advancement in Guatemala accounts for the majority of the post-war immigration to the United States.

Map of Guatemala Image by Wikipedia  

Few Guatemalans have come to the United States as legally defined refugees.  Instead, many applied for asylum after arriving in the United States.  The first significant wave of Guatemalans to the United States came in the late 1970’s, when issues like political chaos, violence, and unemployment erupted in Guatemala.  By 1980, there were reported to be over 62,000 Guatemalans living in the States. In only ten years, this number grew to more than 268,000, with only 1/5 being U.S. born. (Hong, Maria, Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America) Though technically never considered refugees, many of these people fit the definition because of the persecution that they faced in Guatemala.

The status of Guatemalan asylum seekers changed after the signing of the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord, ending thirty-six years of civil war.  After this agreement, even under the loosest definition of “political refugee”, few Guatemalans would qualify. (Honorary Consul of Guatemala of Minnesota, September 28, 2006.) However, in the late 1990’s, Guatemalans who had already migrated to the United States had a 96% chance of approval for permanent residence or asylum. (U.S. Committee For Refugees and Immigrants, “Country Report: Guatemala.”) Guatemalans continued to arrive, despite the seemingly peaceful status of post-war Guatemala. 

            Although the civil war had ended, widespread poverty, low wages and violence continued to encourage mass emigration, 95% of this to the States. (Migration Policy Institute, “Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees.”) In 1999, emigration from Guatemala accelerated greatly, and the pattern continues through the present day. (Migration Policy Institute, “Guatemala.”) In 1990, there were 226,000 Guatemalans living in the United States.  Because of the rise in emigration, the International Organization for Migration reported that through 2004, over one million Guatemalans resided in the United States. (Migration Policy Institute, “Guatemala.”)

            Of the Guatemalans who live in the United States, the largest concentrations of Guatemalan immigrants are in Los Angeles, New York and Miami. (Migration Policy Institute, “Guatemala.”) A small group of between 3,000 and 5,000 Guatemalans reside in Minnesota. ( Guatemalan Society of Minnesota, “Home.”) According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there have been only three registered Guatemalan refugees who have been resettled in Minnesota since 1979. (Minnesota Department Of Health, “Cumulative Arrivals: 1979-2005.”) There may have been more refugees who moved to Minnesota from another state, but these statistics are unavailable.  Although exact years and numbers of the immigrant arrivals to Minnesota are not known, they most likely follow the same trend as the general migration to the United States as a whole. 

According to Minnesota Immigration reports, the Latino community is growing the fastest out of all of Minnesota’s ethnic groups. (University Of Minnesota, “Improving Health Care Access for Minnesota’s Growing Latino Community.”) According to the Honorary Consul of Guatemala of Minnesota; many Guatemalans fit into similar roles in society and business as other Hispanic groups.  This includes doing jobs such as food service, cleaning and other service sector work. (Honorary Consul of Guatemala of Minnesota.)

            Because of undocumented immigration and pending asylum cases, information about some Guatemalans living in the United States is unknowable.  According to the Pew Hispanic Center, current estimations project a population of 320,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States. (Migration Policy Institute, “Guatemala.”) A group this large can have a profound effect on the results of surveys, censuses and other documentation means, leaving uncertainty in many of the statistics about the Guatemalan population in the United States.

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