HUEHUETENANGO, Guatemala — When Lesly Cano Gómez was 15, she wrote out her plan to migrate to America.
“My dream is to go to the United States,” she wrote, followed by three discussion sections: “How Am I Going to Pay for It,” “Who’s Going to Take Me” and “Who’s Going to Meet Me When I Get to the United States.”
There were extensive family talks about the trip, which Cano Gómez would have undertaken with her cousin, Enilda, who is four years younger than her.
“There wasn’t anything here,” Cano Gómez explained. “That’s why I wanted to migrate.”
She knew that along the way she could be murdered or trafficked to a brothel, or else die of thirst in the desert. “But I felt I needed to go,” she added. “The people I went to school with had migrated, a ton of them.”
Yet today, four years later, Cano Gómez is still here in her village of Chichalum in the rugged Huehuetenango district. She now has a reason to stay.
I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey with my student winner, Mia Armstrong of Arizona State University. We’ve been bouncing over rough roads — occasionally, just rumors of roads — in the western highlands of Guatemala. It’s a tough neighborhood, slammed by climate change and crop failures, and we were stopped once by soldiers in armored vehicles trying to figure out what we were trying to smuggle: drugs, people or money.
To stop the flow of migrants, Trump has called for a wall at the Mexico border that would cost billions of dollars, has separated children from parents for months, has cut off aid to Central America and, most recently, has threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico.
The result? The torrent keeps getting bigger, with twice as many migrants seized at the border in each of the last few months as a year earlier. Trump’s strategy so far seems counterproductive.
People here say that this is partly because Trump is providing free advertising for the coyotes who take people north. When he thunders about migrants, he isn’t scaring people away, but rather is sparking more discussion about migration.
Then there’s Trump’s cutoff of financial assistance in March. This reversed an Obama administration effort that enjoyed some success in using aid to improve conditions in Central America and reduce migration. El Salvador is the best example: Aid helped improve governance and reduce gang violence, and the number of its migrants to the U.S. fell by 56% over the last two full years.
In contrast, Guatemala is becoming more corrupt and messy, yet the Trump White House is ignoring the deteriorating conditions. Pushing for credible elections and effective, clean governance would do more to reduce emigration than a wall, and would be far cheaper, but Trump doesn’t think like that.
That is a broader problem with Trump. He inclines toward the dramatic, visual and simplistic — a modern version of Persian King Xerxes lashing the sea for damaging his bridge — rather than grasp the difficult, complicated and imperfect policy tools that don’t quite “solve” problems but do mitigate them.
Yet even in a troubled country like this, aid can help by giving ordinary Guatemalans some sense that they might have a future where they are.
Do you want to know why Lesly Cano Gómez tossed out her written plans to migrate to the U.S.? Because of an aid project.
Mercy Corps has a program to support young farmers, and Cano Gómez joined it at 16. She and others learned to adapt to climate change and produce high-quality tomatoes and other produce for export, at up to twice the local price.
“I don’t need to emigrate now because there’s a place for me here now,” Cano Gómez told me. “This program opened doors for me. It gave me opportunity.”
“It may not look like much,” she acknowledged. “But we have a bit more hope, and something to aim for in the future.”
Let’s just acknowledge that aid is no silver bullet. In truth, while poverty is a reason people travel to the U.S., it’s also a reason people don’t migrate: They can’t afford to. So there’s even some risk that enriching people will allow more to migrate. But on balance, the evidence suggests that aid reduces emigration.
“The U.S. government has long supported effective programs to address the root causes of migration,” noted Carrie Hessler-Radelet, president of Project Concern International, whose programs Mia and I visited in Guatemala. “These programs reduce the incentives to migrate and create the conditions for families to stay.”
That’s about right. There are no easy solutions to migration — not a wall, not tariffs, not diatribes, not family separation and not aid. But let’s remember that migrants are simply fellow humans like Cano Gómez scrambling to do the best they can for themselves or their children, and that the most effective approach seems to be not a higher wall or meaner policies, but smart aid offered with a dose of humanity.