I was standing on a hill overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala in early March of 2020 when I first heard the word “remittances.” My guide and I were discussing the potential for the U.S. to invest money to help protect and restore the massive lake, a speculative idea in my mind, but one worth talking about. My guide then told me about remittances, and how the U.S. economy is already sending billions of dollars to Guatemala every year.
Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Surrounded by volcanoes, the massive lake’s high-altitude waters, and shores dotted with villages selling gorgeous authentic arts and crafts, make it an attraction beckoning tourists from across the planet.
Unfortunately, the lake is also facing massive pressure from population growth and pollution, making it one of the most threatened natural landscapes in the world. Public health in the watershed suffers greatly, with children suffering the most due to water pollution and numerous bacterial outbreaks. Local environmental activists believe an investment of $90 million is needed to protect the lake from pollution, a small amount of money compared to the $300 million from tourists the lake brings to the Guatemalan economy every year.
Investing U.S. money in Guatemala is now the talk of the U.S. political apparatus as the immigration crisis at the U.S. southern border escalates. Making Guatemala more livable, more economically sustainable, and less polluted and corrupt, is one of the main goals of President Joe Biden’s policies intended to stem the tide of people immigrating to the U.S. from Guatemala.
Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico this week to address the “root causes” driving migration from the region to the United States, and she recently met with executives from companies like Mastercard and Microsoft about promoting economic opportunity in Latin America.
In the short term, Biden is proposing to give three countries — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — $4 billion over four years to aid the economies of those countries. He still states on his campaign website and in official policy statements that his goal is “Developing a comprehensive four-year, $4 billion regional strategy to address factors driving migration from Central America.”
Four billion dollars may seem like a lot of money, but the deeper you dig into how U.S. immigration policy impacts Central America — and the more you learn about remittances — the more complex the problem gets.
Remittances are monies that are sent back to families in home countries by foreign people currently working and living in the U.S. In 2019 alone, Guatemalans living in the U.S. sent back around $10 billion to family members in Guatemala — this is a huge amount of money, bigger than the GDP of all agricultural products sold by Guatemala yearly.
Pew Research estimates that at least 1.4 million people of Guatemalan origin live in the U.S., either temporarily or permanently, which is about 10% of the entire population of the country of Guatemala. Pew estimates that 27% of those people are U.S. citizens.
Guatemala is not alone in this phenomenon. Remittances are a massive economic issue across Central America and in Mexico. In 2018 alone, citizens from Central America and Mexico living in the U.S. sent back slightly over $63 billion to families in their home countries.
Importantly in 2018, citizens living in three countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which are the focus of Biden’s Central American immigration policy — received $21.6 billion from family members working and living in the U.S.
If you averaged that over four years, that’s $85 billion sent from the U.S. economy to those same three countries. Biden is proposing to give those same countries $4 billion over four years ($1 billion a year).
A reasonable person might ask, “If we’re already sending those countries $85 billion over four years, how is $4 billion more going to make a difference?” A reasonable person might also point out that the Obama administration, with Biden as vice president, sent Central American countries around $3.7 billion between 2013 and 2018 as a piece of the “U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America” to try to address the same issue. That money also didn’t appear to help.
From my perspective, as a person who has traveled widely as an environmental activist in some of the poorer, more corrupt, and more polluted places on the planet, Biden’s proposed $4 billion is the proverbial drop in the bucket. What pushes people out of Central America is poverty; what pulls those people to the U.S. is the promise of jobs and money. Biden’s $1 billion a year won’t stop the push, and as long as Biden allows people to illegally immigrate and work in the U.S., he’s not stopping the pull.
An immigration policy that is “humane,” as Biden likes to say, and also addresses the root causes in Central America, would need to ramp up slowly and include dramatically more money in aid to Central America, as well as slowly ramp down the financial incentive for Central Americans to migrate to, and work illegally, in the U.S.
There are no quick or easy solutions to the Central American immigration problem and the massive poverty and political corruption in these countries. In the slow ramp-up and ramp-down, the beautiful Lake Atitlan in Guatemala watershed would be a perfect test case. I wish Harris would have visited Lake Atitlan when she was in Guatemala. She said she wanted to “restore hope” to Guatemala — protecting the Lake would definitely make the region more livable and sustainable, and the ecological restoration programs themselves would provide jobs as well as boost the economy.