Sunday, May 24, 2009

Illegal immigration and the economy of Guatemala

The immigration debate in the United States always seems to dwell around prevention, walls, and how to keep people out. It is rare to hear any discussion about why all of these people might be willing to risk life and limb to make their way through deserts and passed armed guards to work illegally in the U.S. Why is it that there with a population of around 13 million people in Guatemala, there are an estimated 2 million more or 13% working illegally in the U.S?

The official minimum wage in Guatemala varies a bit by type of work, but sits around roughly 55 Quetzales ($6.87) per day. Of course, with an unemployment rate of over 30% many people are desparate enough for a job that they'll accept less than the official minimum. Spanish teachers at the various language schools, many of them holding graduate degrees, can make a bit more. They end up getting paid around 350-400Q per week when teaching one student, or closer to 700-800Q per week with two. Students receive 5 hours a day of individual instruction. Doing the calculation, this means a fully employed professional teacher, with graduate degrees, is earning around 160Q a day, or $20 for 10 hours of work.

By contrast, working illegally in the States in manual labor such as construction or in a restaurant might pay between $5 and $10 an hour, or $40 to $80 for an 8 hour day. Working the 10 or 12 hours that is more common, this can mean up to $100 to $120 a day. Thus by going to the States and working in manual labor, a professional from Guatemala can double to sextuple their daily income. Someone with less of a leg up at home sees an even larger improvement. Is it any wonder that they come?

Visiting various towns, while some are filled with poverty and crumbling buildings, a few have many larger houses and new construction. Upon asking about them, the answer is always the same: There are many people from this village working in the U.S. Illegal immigration represents the dream of a better life. Despite all of the hardships and the risks, the benefits are real and visible everywhere.

The demands of importing

Adding to the poor incomes is the problem that Guatemala has to import almost everything. Foods that are grown here (corn, beans, tropical fruits) and labor are very inexpensive, but everything else has the cost of travel, fuel and the poor exchange rate added upon it. Even things that are made locally like much clothing and housing require imported materials, and thus while cheaper in absolute terms than in the U.S, chew up a far greater portion of monthly income than they do for most U.S. families. Some things such as gasoline and cars are even more expensive here than in the States.

All of this importing also demands a constant stream of foreign currency. The largest source of this is money sent back from the U.S. to the families of those working illegally there. The second largest is tourism, and then followed by the exportation of various forms of fruits, vegetables, and of course coffee. When we visited a coffee plantation this weekend, we were shown how they filter out the different grades of coffee, and how the first 4 grades out of 7 are all for exportation only. Despite growing some of the best coffee in the world, the coffee most Guatemalan's drink is of the lowest quality.

Implications for U.S. Policy

To me, seeing this reality has humongous implications for U.S. immigration policy. The entire reason why the United States exists is because people in our history were willing to risk everything for the dream of a better life. So long as such poverty exists in our neighbors, it does not matter how many fences we build, how many struggling people die in the desert, or how many people we throw into prison for the crime of being poor. They will continue to come, so long as there is vaguest chance that they will get through and that they and their families will be able to live a better life.

If we really want to reduce the problem of illegal immigration, we need to help create opportunities for Guatemalans and other Latin Americans to improve their lives at home. We need to provide sane and understandable channels for those who still wish to immigrate to do so. And we need to cease our self-interested manipulations and intimidations of the governments of other countries when they implement policies that help their citizens at the expense of foreign companies.

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