Sarah Bermeo

With expectations of another record-breaking increase of people attempting to cross the U.S.- Mexico border this spring, the Biden Administration finds itself once more developing strategies to effectively address the drivers of migration from Central America.

A new policy brief released by the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), the second in a series of briefs analyzing the root causes of migration from Central America, provides critical insights into the factors that drive migrants from Guatemala to the U.S. border. The first brief, published in March of 2021, examined migration from Honduras.

“Apprehensions of Guatemalans at the U.S. southern border averaged 61,000 people from 2012-2017, rising to 116,000 in 2018 and 264,000 in 2019, an increase of more than 400%,” writes Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy associate professor and Duke Center for International Development faculty affiliate Sarah Bermeo, along with Duke co-author Gabriela Nagle Alverio and University of Virginia professor David Leblang. “There is a strong link between being born in a rural area in Guatemala and migrating as part of a family unit to the United States.” The policy brief uses data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and links the department (state) of birth of 309,400 Guatemalans apprehended between 2012 and 2019 to department-level measures of agricultural stress, the percent of the population living in rural areas, homicide rates, and wealth.

In linking to her previous research on Honduras, Bermeo states, “The migration of families has increased significantly from both Honduras and Guatemala in recent years. From both countries, agricultural stress linked to climate change is worsening underlying conditions of rural poverty, driving increases in migration. Violence and lack of economic opportunity also contribute to migration and make internal relocation less viable. Significant investments are needed in rural development, including funding and training to improve agricultural productivity and resilience to climate change, to decrease the necessity of migration. In the longer-term, improved economic opportunities, reductions in violence, and better governance will be important for creating improved internal options for those needing to move.”

Bermeo has directed the Master of International Development Policy program for nearly two years. Duke Center for International Development (DCID), a unit within Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, hosts the MIDP graduate degree, a rigorous interdisciplinary program for mid-career and senior-level professionals who plan to dedicate their careers to policy-making and public service in and for developing, post-conflict, and transition countries. For more information or to apply, visit the MIDP website.


Written by: Zoé Murphy, DCID Communications Assistant

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