New survey highlights the unique challenges that Guatemalan deportees face with economic integration back home

Demographic Economics - Migration

In a typical week during the Trump administration, 10 to 15 planes of Guatemalan deportees landed in La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City. These deportees face deeply complex challenges back home, ranging from social stigmatization to gang violence to enormous debt, and many immediately consider remigrating North. As the Biden administration seeks to address the root causes of migration in Central America, deportees may be a particularly important group to assist. And yet, scholars and policy experts know surprisingly little about what happens to this elusive and vulnerable population.

A new survey by  Devlab@Duke, in partnership with RTI International and Guatemalan NGO Te Conecta, interviewed 1,357 deportees as they exited the chaotic scene outside La Aurora Airport. 340 of them agreed to multiple follow-up interviews over the following months. The survey sheds light on the factors that drive deportees to remigrate. These factors include gang violence and family left-behind in the U.S., but one factor stands out above all others – the incredible difficulty of finding work back home. The survey results outline the unique barriers that deportees face to economic reintegration, as well as the skills and expertise acquired abroad that could be applied to foster economic growth in Guatemala.

The barriers to employment

First, most returnees do not have connections to Guatemalan employers, who rely heavily on personal networks in the country’s largely informal economy. Those who have been outside of Guatemala for a long time have lost many of their social ties, and some left behind most of their family in the U.S. When asked 3-6 months after arrival to indicate the barriers to finding work, over 80 percent indicate a lack of connections to employers.

Second, over 65 percent of respondents report having no way to demonstrate their skills or expertise to employers as a major barrier to employment. While many have gained valuable skills and experience in the U.S., the deportation process precludes gathering reference letters from U.S.-based employers, and most have no proof of skill certification.

Deportees also face stigmas by employers. This includes fears that they will remigrate, that they are lazy, that they have COVID, or that they are criminals. This is despite the fact that our direct and experimental questions show that only 12 percent have committed a non-migratory crime in the U.S. Many employers simply refuse to hire deportees. 32 percent of those surveyed in the follow-up highlight employer discrimination against deportees as a barrier to finding and maintaining a job.

Finally, the vast majority of returnees are not from Guatemala City, where there is the most work opportunity. Without family in the capital city, many find themselves in immediate situations of poverty, without shelter or income. As a result,  a month after arrival over 90 percent of deportees have moved home, and just as many report a lack of job opportunities near where they live.

The result of these barriers is an astoundingly high unemployment rate among deportees – 50 percent one month after arrival, and 53 percent six months after arrival, further exacerbated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This unemployment fuels remigration. Right after deportation, nearly 40 percent state an intent to remigrate, and the true number may be much higher. The most common reason, reported by 28 percent of the sample, is the poor economic situation endured since their return. Many of them say they would prefer to stay in Guatemala if they could, primarily to be with family.

A lost opportunity for Guatemala

When asked to report the skills they acquired while working in the U.S., deportees list a wide range of professional and technical skills. Almost 20 percent developed experience in construction-related skills such as carpentry, masonry, and painting. Cooking, gardening, machine operations, and electrical and plumbing experience were also popular responses. Over 30 percent also indicated having improved their English skills, highly valued in call centers and the tourism industry.

Notably, almost 5 percent gained skills related to leadership, business and organization, indicating a subset of deportees who are potential entrepreneurs. However, deportees often leave properties, savings, and other assets behind in the U.S., limiting their ability to self-finance business ventures. Of those with assets in the U.S., an astounding 74% of deportees are unable to access any of these assets six months after deportation.

Paths forward

A small network of organizations is helping deportees to find work. The non-profit Te Conecta provides services such as interview and resume prep and directly connects migrants with employers in sectors such as construction, hotels, restaurants, and call centers. In 2019 they began to offer skill certification programs for cooking and drywall construction. Te Conecta now forms a part of a larger effort titled Guate te Incluye that coordinates private-sector, public-sector and civil society organizations to promote returnee reintegration. This includes, among various projects, seed funding for prospective entrepreneurs who want to open small businesses such as restaurants and farms.

Unfortunately, these efforts are small and have not yet reached the majority of deportees. Over 90 percent of respondents have not received any help from these organizations, either because they did not know they existed or because they are outside of Guatemala City where most of the services are provided. Conversations with these organizations indicate that, while there has been momentum to increase coordination across groups in recent years, their ability to provide services is severely constrained by both a lack of funds and a difficulty in tracking down deportees after they leave the airport.

Our survey presents one of the first systematic efforts to better understand the barriers to labor market integration for a forcibly returned migrant population. The results highlight the unique challenges that deportees face with economic reintegration, as well as the new skills and expertise that they could apply to promote economic growth. So long as deportations continue, helping deportees to find work back home is therefore essential. Not only would it put a stop to the relentless poverty-migration cycle, but it would allow them to apply their newly acquired experience to promote economic growth in Guatemala.

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