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I flew to Guatemala to investigate the human side of America's 'immigration problem'

Reporter's notebook: Ayman Mohyeldin examines the complex factors that motivate people to travel to a country that doesn’t often welcome them.

If abject poverty had an address, the village of Florido Aceituno would probably be it. Nestled in the hills overlooking Guatemala’s sugarcane fields, about 90 miles outside of the capital Guatemala City, this is a village barely surviving. And it’s doing so basically on its own with little help from the government.

We arrived last Sunday after a nearly two-hour journey outside of the capital. The final stretch into the village is only accessible on foot as there are no roads.

We arrived last Sunday after a nearly two-hour journey outside of the capital. The final stretch into the village is only accessible on foot as there are no roads.

As we walked through the village, its challenges were immediately apparent: No running water, no electricity, no roads. With her 7-month-old son in one arm, a woman who told me her name was Nicolasa flipped tortillas. Will it be the only warm meal her family eats today? In a country of around 16.6 million people, much of the population struggles with food insecurity. Her children are malnourished. According to community leaders, Juan de Jesus is 11 pounds — several pounds lighter than what he should be at his age. These advocates routinely check on her and her children. When he was three months old, his weight had dropped so severely that they took custody of him to help get his weight up. Still today, the family appears to be struggling to the get the nutrition they need.

It’s communities like these that are seeing an exodus of their inhabitants — and communities like these we have come to Guatemala to try to understand. In America, our “immigration problem” is too often stripped of the many overlapping and complex factors that motivate people to flee their homes and risk a dangerous journey to a country that doesn’t often welcome them.

For 21-year-old Samuel, the choice is clear. There is no future for him in Guatemala, he told me. His dreams of starting a business after he graduated technical school were shattered, he says, when local gangs blackmailed him for an amount he could not pay. He is now trying to raise the money needed to pay the traffickers who can smuggle him across Mexico and then into the U.S.

On Monday, the Biden administration announced it had reached an agreement with three countries to increase border security patrols that could stem the flow of migrants like Samuel. But Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei says that’s not enough. He told me he wants to build a “wall of prosperity” that incentivizes migrants to stay at home rather than seeking opportunities abroad. But that would require foreign assistance and investments.

Guatemala has a history of bad governance. Presidents who promise reforms and transparency while running for office rarely deliver on both.

Guatemala has a history of bad governance. Presidents who promise reforms and transparency while running for office rarely deliver on both. The country is trapped between powerful cartels and criminal organizations that work to undermine security and the judiciary, and powerful business and elite political families who own farmlands, factories, businesses and access to credit. It’s one of the reasons the Biden administration is considering aiding specific organizations and programs rather than going through the government.

But Giammattei says he wouldn’t mind that, as long as the money is going to organizations with proven track records of helping people — and not phantom organizations. Those are long-term challenges that will take time for them to have a meaningful impact. With a record number of migrants crossing the U.S. border each month, the Biden administration is looking for quicker solutions to halt the surge happening now. Giammattei says Biden’s own comments created confusion in communities like Quiche, where Samuel comes from.

When I asked Samuel if he thought it would be easier to get to the U.S. now under Biden, he said he thought it might be. “I wanted to take my sister, because I heard you could pass the border if you had a minor with you,” he said. “I talked about that with a coyote and I showed him a notice. But the coyote explained that it only worked if the minor was only my daughter.”

What has been clear throughout this trip is that there are no easy choices. Juaquina Ramirez’s 79-year-old husband has been working in the U.S. and supporting her and the family for 35 years. He recently suffered a stroke and is lying in a Los Angeles hospital all alone. We met Juaquina at a church in Guatemala City, on the day she managed to speak to her bedridden husband for the first time since he fell ill. The stroke has left him with slurred speech. Wiping away her tears, she tells me her biggest fear is that she will not see her husband again, and that he will die all alone in the U.S. This is not worth the years he worked to keep her and their children afloat.

And she had a message for other young Guatemalan couples who are now thinking of separating their families in pursuit of economic opportunities in the United States. “Both should travel or no one should go. If the need is so great, then both travel so that there are no family separations.”

Mary Murray contributed.