Guatemala trip. Photo by Michael Marsh.

Jun 18, 2024
USAID panel participation leads to Guatemalan trip

I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on “Legal Labor Pathways” for U.S. agricultural jobs. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hosted the panel that took place in early May.

Unlike many of the opportunities we receive to discuss important ag labor issues, this panel was not in Washington, D.C. It was in the capital of Guatemala, Guatemala City.

NCAE has been engaging with the Ministries of Labor for the countries of northern Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — for the last several years, and we have also been working with USAID.

Quote from Michael Marsh about a trip with USAID to Guatemala to speak about ag labor.Part of the USAID mission in this area, and which we have supported, is a strategy to stem the flow of irregular migration at the U.S. southern border by creating opportunities for legal migration for temporary or seasonal work in the U.S. on farms and ranches.

America’s farm and ranch families need workers as fewer domestic workers apply for jobs in rural America and as the population of U.S. farmworkers ages out of the workforce. The notion is relatively simple with a lot of positive attributes.

U.S. farmers and ranchers get needed workers that are ready, willing and available at the times and locations required around the country. Temporary or seasonal workers get a chance, provided they can pass the interview and the legal vetting process, to come into the U.S. legally and work and then return home. Irregular migration at the U.S. southern border of migrants from these “Labor Neighbor” countries diminishes and our national security is enhanced.

Win-win-win.

I must admit I felt some trepidation as the airplane’s wheels lifted away from the runway at Reagan National Airport. I had never traveled to Central America and when the panel organizers had told me that our hotel was going to be in the “safe zone” of the city, it raised my concern as to what was outside.

I landed in twilight and collected my checked bag. Not being a Spanish speaker, I slowly navigated the maze to get to Guatemalan Customs and filled out the declaration form. After that process, I was met by two representatives of the Ministry of Labor and our driver whisked us off to the hotel. The country is beautiful, and the people are very warm and friendly. The Ministry had set up several agricultural tours for our small group ahead of our meetings, and the next morning we drove outside the city to visit several farms.

Guatemalan farms visited during the trip. Photo by Michael Marsh.
Guatemalan farms visited during the trip.

The highway was clogged with hundreds of motorcycles and cars of all sorts. Refurbished and custom designed BlueBird school buses seemed to be a ride of choice for many Guatemalans. The narrow highway shoulders carried pedestrian traffic and appeared to be transit for several stray brownish-yellow dogs. I hoped none of them would get hit … the pedestrians or the pups.

I was surprised by the frenetic commerce that crowded the thoroughfare. Auto and motorcycle mechanics advertised their shops, next door to Shell stations, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. When traffic crawled, street vendors wandered out into the traffic hawking bottles of water and bags of chips. Chaos.

 

I had the opportunity to sit through interviews of Guatemalans interested in a 90-day contract to pick apples in Washington. The workers were well-scrubbed, excited, but their apprehension was palpable.

The interviewees, none of whom had ever been into the U.S. and had already been interviewed by the Ministry of Labor, explained they would be able to make more in their 90-day job in Washington than they would be able to make in 5 years in Guatemala.

They shared that they had dreams.

One prospect stated when he came home, he wanted to start building a house and someday add a wood floor. Another interviewee said he wanted to grow coffee when he returned. One other individual wanted to open a small bodega.

Guatemalan farms visited during the trip. Photo by Michael Marsh.

The aspirations of these potential workers were on display and touched me.

As my flight took off for the return trip leaving Guatemala, I couldn’t help but feel humbled and that was okay. Feeling humility from time to time is not a bad thing.

Michael Marsh
Michael Marsh

By Michael Marsh, who has led the National Council of Agricultural Employers since 2017. A Wyoming native and certified public accountant, Marsh worked for a CPA firm with farm and ranch clients investigating fraud. He was director of finance for the Almond Board of California for 7 years and for 15 years was CEO of the largest U.S. dairy producer trade association.




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