Classroom Resource:
Reflecting on Guatemala,
Migration and Asylum

by Aakanksha Gupta & Adam Strom 

Migration has been a part of our history for as long as human beings have walked the planet. We are in a moment in which attitudes about migration (both forced and voluntary) are polarized all over the globe, with negative rhetoric being reflected in the attitudes and policies of nations. Particularly in recent years, many migrants from all over the world have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge for a number of reasons including (but not limited to): environmental disasters, poverty, violence, civil unrest, war, and political persecution. Based on research from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced globally by the end of 2018. This includes: “25.9 million refugees in the world—the highest ever seen; 41.3 million internally displaced people; and 3.5 million asylum-seekers.” 

In the United States, polls show us that nearly twice as many Americans support immigrants, who they believe strengthen the country due to their hard work and talents (Pew Research Center). While a spirit of welcoming persists, we are seeing hardening attitudes on immigration enforcement. According to the Migration Policy Institute, President Trump has been steadily tightening policies around admitting refugees – the number of refugees the US accepts annually was reduced from 110,000 (FY 2017) to a record low of 30,000 (FY 2019). 

In the US, debates around enforcement have increasingly focused on the Mexico-US border, with the President declaring migration to the southwestern US border a crisis. While some see asylum seekers forced to flee, the President has questioned our responsibility to provide shelter to migrants with ambiguous status. PRI reports demonstrate that the number of migrants waiting to seek asylum in border cities has increased from approximately 6,000 in November 2018 (with the arrival of the migrant caravan) to 19,000 in May 2019. According to the New York Times, tens of thousands of migrants from Latin America and other parts of the world have been making efforts to migrate to the U.S. and seek asylum, through Central America every month (these numbers have decreased in recent months). 

On Friday, July 26, 2019, President Trump announced steps to curtail the number of migrants from arriving at the US-Mexico border and from legally applying for asylum to the U.S. President Trump signed an agreement with President Jimmy Morales, thus establishing Guatemala as a “safe third country”, a buffer zone for migrants who are trying to reach the U.S., meaning that asylum seekers will be required to first pursue asylum in Guatemala. The asylum agreement was preceded by threats to Guatemala: possible tariffs on goods and taxes on remittances sent home by Guatemalans, along with a possible travel ban. Concerns have been raised about this agreement due to its impact on migration flows; and due to the limited legal asylum structure in Guatemala. Concerns also focus on issues faced by communities within the country: violence, joblessness, poverty, hunger, and environmental conflict. 

These stories raise questions central to our Learning Arc, which you might share if you discuss this issue in classrooms:

  1. What are the rights of people on the move with ambiguous status (not clearly recognized by the State)?
  2. Who is responsible for people on the move with an ambiguous status?
  3. How should nations decide who can settle and who cannot?
  4. What are our ethical, moral and legal responsibilities to migrants? 


For background on Guatemala: 

  1. NatGeo: How this quiet region in Guatemala became the epicenter of migration
  2. Univision: The Great Guatemalan Migration Industry
  3. NPR: ‘There Is Nothing For Us Here’: Why People Keep Leaving Guatemala
  4. Migration Policy Institute: Country Resources – Guatemala

The above four articles address the following questions from our Learning Arc, which you might consider as you discuss this issue: 

  • What was life like before migration?

  • In what ways do societal and environmental push and pull forces and more intimate personal contexts motivate people‘s decisions to leave their homes?
  • What happens to those who stay and how do they relate to those who leave?
  • In what ways are people’s migration journeys similar and different from one another?
  • How much control do migrants have over their journey and what are the choices and dilemmas people face during their journey?
  • What do these journeys reveal about human nature?

For more information about the asylum agreement:

  1. NY Times: The U.S. and Guatemala Reached an Asylum Deal: Here’s What It Means
  2. Reuters: Guatemala’s shortcomings raise doubts about U.S. migration deal
  3. NPR: Trump Signs Agreement With Guatemala To Limit Asylum Seekers
  4. Fox News: Trump announces ‘landmark agreement’ with Guatemala to restrict asylum claims
  5. The Washington Examiner: Democrats: Trump asylum agreement with Guatemala is illegal
  6. The White House: Remarks by President Trump at Signing of Safe Third Country Agreement with Guatemala

Resources on asylum and ambiguous status: 

  1. National Immigration Forum: Fact Sheet: U.S. Asylum Process
  2. PBS: How Does the U.S. Asylum Process Work? – Re-imagining Migration website
  3. Facing History and Ourselves: What is Our Obligation to Asylum Seekers?
  4. WBUR: What Is Asylum? Who Is Eligible? Why Do Recent Changes Matter?
  5. USCIS: U.S. Asylum Process
  6. Talking and Teaching about Walls and Borders – Re-imagining Migration
  7. Talking and Teaching about the Fall 2018 Migrant Caravan – Re-imagining Migration
  8. Blog: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Turns 70 – Re-imagining Migration 

Photographs taken by Boston photographer Lindsey Michelle Williams in Chajul, Guatemala.
Thank you for allowing us to feature your photos.