Yesterday marked a global day of recognition of the challenges faced by migrants around the world -- International Migrants Day. This year, Syrian refugees and mass migration in Central America has made migration a constant feature on the front pages of the world's newspapers. Facing increased pressure from migration, some countries have sought to close their borders or brand migrants as criminals. In September 2016, after nearly two months of debate, the Guatemalan Congress approved a new Migrant Code for the country. The Code is a compendium of laws that addresses the many issues faced by migrants who are in Guatemala as a point of origin, transit, final destination, or return. A major success of the Code is its focus on treating the migrant as a person with legal rights, breaking with the view of migrants as criminals.
The increased flow of immigrants from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, collectively known as the “Northern Triangle”, to the U.S. and other countries in the region has raised alarm in recent years. In the summer of 2014, a surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border prompted the U.S. government to characterize the influx as a humanitarian crisis. While the number of immigrants arriving at the U.S. border has since decreased slightly, Central American citizens continue to make the dangerous journey at high rates.
The root causes prompting people to flee their Central American homes -- namely high levels of violence and crime, economic insecurity and poverty, and the desire to reunite with family members -- remain factors driving the flow of migrants. Improving and carrying out policies that reduce violence and poverty, curb rampant corruption, and strengthen state institutions in the Northern Triangle countries is fundamental in reducing immigration.
Members of the Congressional Migrant Committee and civil society representatives publicly discuss the content of the Guatemalan Migrant Code
The recently passed Migrant Code demonstrates a commitment by the Guatemalan legislature to treating migrants as people with legal rights who can seek protection from the state. The Code is particularly important for returning migrants who require social services and legal protection.
According to Representative Paul Briere, President of the Congressional Committee on Migrants that drafted the Code, “the Code is important legislation for addressing the human rights of migrants, providing necessary protections to children migrants, and establishing a decentralized, independent immigration system.”
New provisions and changes within the Guatemalan Migrant Code include:
establishment of a comprehensive immigration system coordinated by various government institutions that includes the creation of a database of shared information which will provide more accurate and up-to-date information to authorities;
creation of a National Institute of Migration, a semi-autonomous, decentralized government agency that will replace the current General Directorate of Migration currently overseen by the Department of the Interior;
establishment of a network of consular services to help migrants currently in Guatemala and Guatemalans in other countries seeking assistance to return to their country;
construction of shelters for temporary protection of foreign and returning Guatemalan migrants;
design of a system to search for missing migrants; and
treatment of migrants who illegally enter the country as eligible for assistance, shelter and humanitarian aid rather than being criminally prosecuted and/or deported.
The process of developing and approving the Migrant Code included regular dialogue with civil society groups and government institutions. A national working group comprised of public institutions with a mandate for supporting migrants as well as civil society organizations, academic institutions and leaders from the business community with expertise and experience in migratory issues, participated in the process, including the University of the Valley of Guatemala (Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, UVG), Institute of Research and Forecasting of Global and Territorial Dynamics (Instituto de Investigación y Proyección sobre Dinámicas Globales y Territoriales, IDGT) at the Rafael Landívar University (Universidad Rafael Landívar, URL), Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Guatemala (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, FLACSO) and Civil Society Convening Group on Guatemalan Migration (Grupo Articulador de la Sociedad Civil en Materia Migratoria para Guatemala). The inclusive working group allowed for better oversight from Congress on the performance of the state institutions responsible for responding to migratory issues, such as the Ministry of Economy and Ministry of Labor, as well as in identifying aspects within national legislation that could be improved. The Committee on Migrants organized public forums and dialogues to discuss the content of the Code as it was being drafted and debated, which generated greater public support.
In the coming year, legislative and executive branches will need to take action to ensure the effective implementation of the Code. Related laws will need to be updated to be in line with the newly approved regulations in the Migrant Code. For example, the current Law on Migrants, which is a separate piece of legislation, still contains legislation that criminalizes immigrants.
Once the Constitutional Court approves the new laws, the executive branch will need to create the newly legislated government institutions included in the Code and then coordinate the development of new public policies. Given the issues on the table and importance of the issues to the wellbeing of many Guatemalans, numerous governmental and civic actors will likely be involved in putting provisions of the Migrant Code into practice. The multidimensional approach of the code is a step in the right direction, although it does result in the challenge of greater inter-institutional coordination.
Moreover, despite the advances represented by the new code, during the debate and approval process, certain topics were dropped from the final version including legislation that protects the rights of Guatemalans living abroad. Nor does the code address the issue of a stateless person residing in Guatemala. Representative Briere also shared that a priority for the Committee on Migrants in 2017 is to work on a legislative initiative that directly addresses reducing the flow of migrants from Guatemala to other countries.
Recent research suggests that steps to tackle political instability, corruption, repression and under-representation of segments of society directly contributes to lower immigration rates. Putting the Code into action will allow Guatemalan migrants to seek help in returning to the country and for Guatemalan authorities to assist migrants residing in Guatemala to return to their home countries. This, coupled with recent efforts to address corruption and reform key laws that regulate the political system, could lower the flow of migrants who reach the US border.
The drafting and approval of the Migrant Code began in 2014, a process which NDI supported through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project “More Inclusion, Less Violence.” NDI provided regular technical assistance to the Congressional Migrant Committee to develop the Code and as well as financial and technical support to bring together members of Congress, representatives of government institutions, and civil society organizations in public forums to discuss and advance the now-approved reforms.
Published Dec. 19, 2016