Here's how a Bay Area nonprofit thinks it can stop illegal immigration with better farming

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Inside a local group's plan to stop illegal immigration with farming
A humanitarian agency that helped Afghanistan farmers looks to stem illegal immigration from Guatemala by helping farmers improve their lives.

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (KGO) -- A Bay Area-based nonprofit thinks it may have a way to stop the illegal immigration crisis overwhelming the southern border of the United States: create opportunities in the immigrants' own countries.

Their tool to do that? Farming.

"The root cause of migration to the U.S. border is that there are no jobs for young people. They make very little pay and the agricultural crops have not been properly cultivated," said Heidi Kuhn, Roots of Peace founder.

This past summer, a team from Roots of Peace, a humanitarian organization based in San Rafael, went to the Western Highlands of Guatemala to get a first-hand view of why so many people take the risk.

Despite its green, lush hills and fertile soil, this area makes up 45% of the Guatemalans who migrate out towards the U.S., according to deportation records from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"All of us here think about going to the United States to work and fulfill our dreams," Wilmer Ramírez Jiménez, a 20-year-old from Guatemala's Western Highlands.

Immigration from Guatemala to the United States has exploded in the last 15 years. In 2019, more than 54,000 Guatemalans were deported from the United States, the second highest total of any country.

In the past few years, several large caravans of migrants from Central American have made their way to border with Mexico. In 2018, former President Donald Trump denounced it as an invasion.

Another migrant caravan is headed to the U.S. southern border this week as President Joe Biden prepares to talk with his counterparts in Mexico and Canada about the crisis.

The 2,000 mile trek from Guatemala to the United States can be dangerous, violent and sometimes deadly for those who try it, but the financial reward makes it worthwhile for many.

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Roots of Peace, a Bay Area nonprofit working in Vietnam helping farmers improve their crops, has sold its first crop of black pepper from those farmers to one of the top spice companies in the country.

"Here we make 50 quetzales a day ($6.50 USD), while in the U.S. you can make up to $100 a day. So the money they send from the U.S. goes a lot farther and that's why they risk the trip to the United States, to maintain their family here," said Valentín Pablo Calmo, president of TXU Colmena, an association of honey producers in Todos Santos Cuchumatán.

This area is a community of villages about 8,000 feet above sea level, where the inhabitants still wear traditional Mayan outfits and speak Mam, one of the 22 Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala.

Wilmer is part of 52 families that cultivate honey in this area. Even though they have about 1,000 bee hives, their earnings are meager. Half the population of Todos Santos Cuchumatán lives in poverty.

"We want to have our own home. Even though it's difficult to get to the United States, we fight to get there," said Ramírez Jiménez.

Heidi Kuhn met with the farmers to look for ways to increase their earnings by finding export markets for their product.

It's a model Roots of Peace has used in other countries. The organization was founded by Kuhn and her husband, Gary, in 1997.

Initially, they raised money in Northern California Wine Country with the purpose of removing landmines in Croatia and restoring the land to vineyards.

In 2002, Roots of Peace expanded into Afghanistan to do similar work after the war.

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The situation in Kabul is growing more dire for Bay Area-based non-profit Roots of Peace, that's been helping Afghan farmers thrive for decades.

"After we removed the mines, Roots of Peace realized that was only half the problem. We needed to train the farmers how to grow the high value crops. It was really a way to heal the wounds of war, heal the earth. It became really a business model for peace," said Kuhn.

It's an approach they are trying in Guatemala, where 60% of the population is under age 30. They are young and eager to work but have few economic opportunities.

"Every year, 150,000 enter the workforce and compete for only 35,000 jobs. It is not surprising that surveys that we have conducted have demonstrated that over 80% of Guatemalans migrate for economic reasons," said Anupama Rajaraman, USAID Mission Director in Guatemala, which has been operating in the Central American country since the 1950s.

Over that time, it has supported programs to reduce poverty and create investment opportunities.

Rajamaran said even small fluctuations of corn and coffee can have devastating effects on families in the region who are largely dependent on agriculture for their earnings.

It was lack of opportunity that forced María Élida Pérez y Pérez to migrate to the U.S. when she was 19 years old.

"I left because there was no economic opportunity here. We didn't have any money. We didn't have a future," said Pérez y Pérez.

She made the trek alone, crossing the Rio Grande and walking through the Arizona desert to get to the United States.

She met her future husband there and, after eight years, the couple returned to San Marcos province, where they bought a small farm to cultivate coffee. She wants help now to grow her business.

"We need to find buyers for our coffee so that we can export it and it doesn't get wasted here because we can't sell it," she said.

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Coffee farmers like her in the area of Sipacapa take their beans to a processing center to get it tasted and graded so that it fetches better prices.

"It was such a rudimentary facility and if they could have the proper investment to make that a professional facility, then they could really accelerate the investment there and multiply those coffee fields. So there is so much potential. I just came away from Guatemala just so amazed and impressed and just to see the entrepreneurial spirit of the people there," said Kuhn.

The Kuhn's mission continues with the next generation. Heidi's son, Tucker, moved to Guatemala three years ago.

He created an action plan similar to what Roots of Peace has done in Afghanistan and Vietnam to reduce property, with an added goal in Guatemala to lessen migration.

"We've proven to transform their incomes from going from low-value crops to high-value crops, connecting them into the supply chains that get their crops into high-paying markets. And making the traders incentivize to pay better prices to get the better quality. These are systems we've developed and it's shown an impact," said Tucker Kuhn.

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But it is going to take more than spirit to lift the Western Highlands out of poverty.

Roots of Peace is seeking $50 million in funding from USAID to implement its program in the region. The five-year plan would benefit 100,000 farmers and workers.

"The people who are leaving are not the people who have the steady jobs. The majority of them are young men who are stuck with no opportunities and they are forced to go north. This will create jobs for the farmers and so it'll create jobs within their communities," explained Tucker Kuhn.

For those still looking to emigrate for work, the program would facilitate the use of H-2A agricultural worker visas.

In 2020, nearly 200,000 Mexican immigrants used it to work legally in the U.S. for short periods of time. Just 2,000 Guatemalans were part of the program.

At the same time, nearly 30,000 Guatemalans were deported from the U.S.

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In June, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala to talk about immigration with President Alejandro Giammattei. Afterwards, Harris spoke directly to would-be migrants.

"Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border," said Harris, who was given the task of developing a new White House strategy on immigration.

Initially, the Biden administration handed out $310 million in humanitarian aid in hopes of slowing down mass migration. The White House is asking Congress for another $4 billion to address the root causes of migration. It also promised to investigate corruption in the region.

"The root cause is very complicated. We have many things wrong in Guatemala," said Eli Orozco, a certified tour guide in Guatemala. "

Orozco blames corruption as the main cause of migration.

"Corruption won't let the economy develop. We can't get proper education, health care, or jobs in the highlands," said Orozco, who lived in the U.S. for 16 years as an immigrant before returning to Guatemala.

Orozco said he regularly sees migrants at the main bus terminal in Antigua, looking to begin the treacherous journey north.

"They have to go begging for money to take the bus to the border and they don't even have food for that. So they have to ask people to buy them food. And that is within their country. Imagine how much more difficult it is when they get to Mexico and they have to go across for multiple days through Mexico," said Orozco.

"They are risking their lives but they see no other choice. It is more difficult to remain here. There is no hope. There is no alternatives for them here. And they also have dreams," he added.

It's a Devil's bargain. It can cost up to $10,000 to hire someone to guide Guatemalans to the U.S.

"It deepens their poverty because in many cases they sell the only thing they have of value, which is a piece of land to pay the trafficker," said María Leticia Garcia Ajucum, from the Barbara Ford Peace Center.

If they are caught entering illegally and get deported, they lose their money and return to Guatemala in deeper poverty. However, the payoff can be big.

In 2019, Guatemalans living in the U.S. sent back about $10 billion to their families, an amount bigger than the gross domestic product of Guatemala's entire agriculture industry.

It's that money that pays for new, lavish homes in the Western Highlands.

"We call it remittances architecture. People work very hard in the USA and they send it to their families so they can build these beautiful houses. It's a giant billboard saying 'emigrate to the U.S., you can find your fortune.' It really is like a gold rush for them," said Tucker Kuhn.

It is estimates Guatemalans need just $7,000 a year to live comfortably so getting money from remittances can dramatically change their lives.

U.S. AID is offering a counter message. The agency began producing videos urging Guatemalans to stay home. The "Quédate Aquí" campaign highlights the beauty of Western Highland towns and what is being done to generate jobs.

Despite these efforts, it seems everyone has a story about emigrating to the United States. Roberto Castañón Bautista was 22 when he made the dangerous journey.

"We traveled alone in the desert. It was risky with a lot of snakes around. There were a lot of people dead along the way," said Castañón Bautista.

He found work in the U.S., saved his money and returned home to buy a small farm.

Now, he runs ACAS in Sipacapa, a center that teaches farmers how to produce better coffee.

"My goal is to create more, to cultivate more coffee to prevent more people from risking their lives by going to the United States," said Castañón Bautista, who regretted making the journey.

Many Guatemalan agencies are working on the same goal.

The Barbara Ford Peace Center in Santa Cruz del Quiché teaches entrepreneurial skills to residents in the Western Highlands.

"Many young people have lands but they don't know how to use them. There are forest areas here that are good for beekeeping and other flatter areas that are good for agriculture," said administrative director Luciano Lainez.

The center is located in an area where tens of thousands of Mayans were tortured and killed during the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996.

It was founded by Sisters of Charity of New York and named after Sister Barbara Ann Ford, a nurse who helped exposed the genocide of Mayans in the Western Highlands and who was later assassinated.

"Guatemala was war torn and people suffered from the war, the aftermath of war. It devastates an economy and the knowledge on how to work their land is lost," said Heidi Kuhn.

She hopes that teaching farmers modern agricultural techniques will help lift the area economically and reduce migration.

Orozco said even a little improvement in earnings can have an impact.

"Family ties in the Highlands are very strong. They only leave because there are no economic opportunities over here. They want simple things - farmland where they can cultivate their coffee or their corn. With some basic investment, we can provide those things here."

See more stories about Roots of Peace here.