Home Town Fixer Uppers Are a Big Deal in Guatemala

Most Americans have never heard of Huehuetenango, but Huehuetenangoans have heard of the America, and they’ve been coming here in droves to bring the American dream to their homeland.

National Geographic last year published a lengthy article describing that remote province in Guatemala as an “epicenter of migration” from Central America. The report noted that of the 300,000 Guatemalans who crossed into the U.S. during 2018 and 2019, a majority came from rural redoubts like Huehuetenango.

But NatGeo half-stepped the story by skirting a primary reason for the exodus. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) went to the mountain province for answers, and found them in new, expansive houses being built in Yalambojoch and other towns around the region.

“A drive though Huehuetenango reveals brightly colored, multistory modern homes popping up like mushrooms in village after village,” CIS reported this month. “Housing greed is a driving force behind U.S. immigration.”

Half-emptied towns sporting palatial new residences rebut popular narrative that asylum-claiming Guatemalans are fleeing government persecution and imminent danger.

Yalambojoch Mayor Francisco Pais, Vice Mayor Pedro Garcia, and every villager interviewed told CIS that violent crime there is nonexistent. They maintained that government persecution hasn’t occurred since the country’s civil war ended in the 1990s, an assertion generally corroborated in a 2016 Washington Post article.

Here’s what is happening: Rural Guatemalans, typically with children to gain easier entry to the U.S., are headed north to earn money to send back south. “People see other people building the pretty houses here, so they want to go, too. They work for four or five years and then they come back and live in them,” Mayor Pais relates.

CIS cites the family of Phillippe Marcos Domingo as one example. “An American dream of sorts is going up on his children’s $2,000 monthly remittance money in the form of two multistory concrete houses of eight and nine rooms each that the families will live in when they return,” researcher Todd Bensman wrote.

Domingo, a 50-year-old subsistence corn and bean farmer, said he was inspired by a neighbor, whose son in the U.S. bankrolled a gleaming new home next door, equipped with indoor plumbing, tile floors and faux-gold trimmed windows.

The Arizona Daily Star confirmed such scenarios. “Families in Yalambojoch started to hear from men in neighboring towns that kids could be their tickets to a new life in the United States. Now nearly everyone is leaving, planning to send money home so family members left behind can build the coveted concrete houses that are the primary status symbol here,” the newspaper reported.

If bigger domiciles are, in fact, a prime motivator for Guatemalans migrating to the U.S., then “probabilities of large-scale asylum fraud increase by magnitudes,” CIS concludes. It’s a concern worth noting, especially since Guatemalans annually rank among the top asylum seekers.