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People are leaving Guatemala because life is getting better. We can’t respond unless we understand that.

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Here’s the surprising truth behind the fact that 250,000 Guatemalan migrants have been apprehended at the southern U.S. border since October 2018: The mass exodus reflects the tremendous social and economic progress that the Central American country has made in the past half-century.

Life is still hard for most people there, much harder than it is in the United States, so it’s understandable that Guatemala’s poverty and violence figure prominently in the usual explanations for the northbound movement.

Yet the necessary condition for mass migration is sustained population growth, enough to produce a critical mass of youthful would-be emigrants. Guatemala’s 2018 population of 17.2 million represents a quadrupling since 1960, according to the World Bank. The current median age is 22.5, vs. 38.2 in the United States.

And this resulted from vastly improved public-health conditions, which continued to get slowly better over the past five decades despite bloody military rule, civil war and official corruption.

Guatemala is experiencing a transition first seen in 19th-century Britain — and superbly explained by Paul Morland in his book about demography and political development, “The Human Tide.”

For most of human history before 1800, high death rates offset high birth rates, leading to stagnant population growth. Thanks to rising food production, urbanization and better hygiene, England’s death rate fell and its population boomed. It generated working-age people to spare, many of whom migrated — to North America, Australia or elsewhere.

In due course, the demographic transition spread from England to........

© Washington Post