Rural poverty, climate change, and family migration from Guatemala

Immigration from Guatemala
David Leblang, Director of the Batten School’s Global Policy Center, along with co-authors, researches the root causes of migration from Guatemala.

Annual apprehensions of people from Guatemala arriving in family units at the U.S. southern border grew exponentially between 2012 and 2019—from just 340 to a whopping 185,134 (Figure 1). As a proportion of total Guatemalan apprehensions, those apprehended as family units grew from less than 5 percent to 70 percent in the same period. This increase happened before the pandemic, before the 2020 hurricanes that devastated parts of Central America, and before President Biden was elected. The underlying conditions driving migration predate these events and still exist today and—without an adequate policy response—seem set to continue.

Family migration from Guatemala to the U.S. is associated with rural poverty and agricultural stress linked to climate change, as we show in our new policy brief. Using data on apprehensions at the U.S. border, we explore the subnational areas of greatest out-migration from Guatemala. Increasing agricultural resilience to climate change, tackling rural poverty, and improving internal migration options will be the main components for providing viable domestic alternatives for Guatemalans who currently view migration as a necessity.


Almost half of all people in Guatemala live in poverty and, the poverty rate rises to nearly 80 percent for indigenous people, who make up more than 40 percent of the country’s population. Guatemala has the highest levels of childhood stunting in Latin America and the sixth highest in the world, with rates in rural and indigenous communities more than 50 percent higher than national averages. Frequent droughts linked to climate change in the Dry Corridor have significantly affected the agriculture sector, which employs one-third of Guatemalan workers.

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