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In a mountain village where every week people leave for the United States, the school broadcasts its message in its name: el Centro Quédate — the Stay Here Center.
It’s a low-slung white building in which teenagers gain skills that ostensibly will help them find jobs here, instead of the United States. They learn to cut hair and to fix computers. They sharpen their English so they can work in call centers or as tour guides.
They get lectures on the dangers of migrating. A poster shows stick figures drowning in rivers, falling off trains and being held at gunpoint.
What the students don’t know is that they’re subjects in a quiet experiment to deter migration.
The Stay Here Center is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Guatemalan government in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants from Guatemala, now the biggest source of people attempting to migrate to the United States. About one in 100 Guatemalans has reached the U.S. border in the last year alone.
The United States spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on programs such as the Stay Here Center, aimed at improving the lives of would-be migrants in their own communities so they don’t leave home in the first place. It’s the softer side of migration enforcement: rehabilitation programs for prisoners in El Salvador, business training for young Hondurans, funding for the corn and bean farmers of Guatemala.
The idea of teaching vocational skills to keep would-be migrants from leaving is hardly unique to the Stay Here Center. Across the world, developed countries invest in programs aimed at addressing the root causes of migration. Spain opens a cashew processing plant in Mali. Italy funds vocational training centers in Ethiopia. Belgium tries to improve farming practices in Senegal.
Michael Clemens, a fellow at the Center for Global Development, says the approach “gets it backward.”
“Migration is a fundamental part of a country’s development process.”
In much of the developing world, money sent home by family and friends abroad provides a crucial economic foundation. In Guatemala, these remittances account for more than 11 percent of GDP.
Migration can also ease tight labor markets when demographic booms create surges of young people competing for limited numbers of jobs.
“The fact is that migration provides a remarkably good return on investment,” Clemens said.
The face of Guatemala’s migrant surge is youthful. Roughly 136,000 Guatemalans were apprehended at the U.S. border or turned themselves in from October through March, according to Customs and Border Patrol. That included 94,000 people arriving in families and 16,800 unaccompanied minors.
The Stay Here Center serves young people mostly ages 12 to 19. Unlike many public schools in Guatemala, it’s free. As a result, the center is the only school that some of its poorest students attend.
No one tracking results
Quintana estimates that 1 in 10 of her former students have migrated.
It’s difficult to know whether this represents failure, or success. The Center for Global Development estimates that roughly 8 percent of all 17-year-olds in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras migrated to the United States between 2011 and 2016.
The Stay Here Center in Santa Maria Visitacion is a tiny part of the U.S. government’s development package in Central America. It has received just over $20,000 per year in U.S. funds over the last two years, distributed by the International Organization for Migration.
USAID says it does not keep track of the center’s results — the federal agency relies on the International Organization for Migration for oversight. IOM says it has not tracked the school’s impact on local migration trends.