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The Economic Imperative in Addressing Immigration & the Northern Triangle

Main Stage

Media Partner: República



  • The migration of tens of thousands of citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador every day to the U.S. is caused by problems with solutions, stated Rodrigo Arenas in his opening remarks. Those problems, added Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, come from the crisis in their home country, where nationals have no jobs or job prospects and are worried about security. Additionally, an average citizen of Guatemala is making $8,000 per year, while an average American makes $64,000. These factors contribute to individuals abandoning everything they have, leaving everyone they know, and risking their lives to try and cross the border into the U.S. It is such a large issue that it’s now grown into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

“Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are facing a humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of people are migrating to the U.S. in search of a better life, but this is all due to causes that are solvable,” Rodrigo Arenas

  • Over the past decade, the U.S. has given Guatemala around $200-250 million per year for the country to invest in solving this situation, but arguably the situation has become more acute. As highlighted by José Raúl Gonzalez, the U.S. is around eight times wealthier and has greater investment per capita than Guatemala, with huge investments in physical, human, intellectual, and technological capital resulting in the enhanced productivity of Americans. Studies show that in different municipalities of Guatemala, income per capita and formal jobs are reliable indicators of how many migrants the municipality will have.
  • Ileana Ros-Lehtinen turned the conversation to more practical matters, questioning how U.S. Congress could help with this crisis. In response, Gonzalez claimed a need for humility, arguing that there is no historical precedent for foreign aid, which has proven futile in Guatemala. To generate tangible change, economic investment in the country must be prioritized. The U.S. can’t bear sole responsibility for Guatemala’s improvement, but rather the Guatemalan government and its people must step up to the challenge—a challenge that seems to be far from easily achievable due to the standstill caused by the intense political ideological polarization in the country. There is a strong political movement that seems to be heading in the same direction as Venezuela and that’s directly opposed to economic development. However, the U.S. government has significant political sway in Guatemala, and by lobbying for economic and infrastructure investment, it can help counter the anti-development movement facing the country.

“The immigration problems we have are due to a crisis where people have no job prospects and are worried about violence. That’s why they leave for the U.S.,” Ileana Ros- Lehtinen

  • Arenas proposed two ideas. The first was a correct diagnosis: when Guatemala looks at the U.S. as a role model, the country should look at what the U.S. was doing 100 years ago, when income per capita was comparable to that of current-day Guatemala, as this will highlight the importance of investing in infrastructure. The second was the importance of generating adequate conditions for economic growth, particularly in terms of infrastructure. 
  • U.S. policy regarding Guatemala should be aimed toward creating a legal framework conducive to generating new business and investment. This would address the long-term goals of reducing corruption, drug trafficking, and illegal migration.



Key takeaways & next steps:


  • To decrease corruption, drug trafficking, and illegal migration, Guatemala must create a regulatory framework conducive to promoting new businesses and driving economic growth. 


  • A legal framework suitable for encouraging U.S. investment in Guatemala will boost economic growth and allow the country to increase economic, technological, human, and intellectual capital, ultimately creating more jobs within the country.


Session Speakers