By Amanda Martin
GHRC has just returned from a unique and powerful delegation to Guatemala. The focus this time was on migration: its causes and its impact on Mayan villages in Quetzaltenango. In this extraordinary experience, we travelled with a group of US-Americans from Arlington, Virginia to the very villages that their Guatemalan neighbors in Virginia were forced to leave behind. It was a trip that drove home the reality of our interconnectedness.
Guatemalan men and women were generous with us in sharing stories of their decision to leave their homes; the treacherous journey north; the constant fear of being caught as they worked and lived in the US: their eventual arrest by ICE agents; the months they spent in detention centers; and their deportation back to Guatemala. Our delegation traveled to several remote villages to hear this testimony. We learned about the root causes of migration, saw the impact of remittances on the communities, and witnessed the devastating impact of the separation of families.
Many Guatemalans see emigration to the US as the only option for their families’ survival. Job opportunities are scarce in Guatemala, and this year’s natural disasters took an additional toll on already precarious family farms. There is little government assistance in Guatemala, and only 10% of children graduate from middle school. Between 75-80% of the working population is employed in the informal sector, with no job security or benefits, earning an average of $6 a day.
Guatemalans have been coming to the US in large numbers since the first wave of war refugees in the 1980s, but immigration has increased over the past decade as the economic situation in Guatemala has grown more dire. Today, the estimated 1.5 million Guatemalans living in the US are supporting more than 4 million family members in Guatemala (30% of the population).
The average immigrant sends $200 a month home, and families depend on this income to survive. This adds up to a total of nearly $4 billion a year in remittances – a full 10% of Guatemala’s GDP.
But as desperate as this situation is, it gets worse for the 540 or so Guatemalans who are deported each week back to their home country— roughly 28,000 each year in recent years. Most of those deported are separated from their families and held in detention centers for months. They live in fear, as they are unable to pay back the $5,000-$6,000 they owe the smugglers who brought them to the US.
Each day, a plane full of deportees arrives at the Guatemalan Air Force base in Guatemala City. Last week, I met the plane on the tarmac and watched as 90 dejected men, women, and children deplaned and walked, ashamed, into the reception center, hiding their faces from a news camera.
Six deported children sat in a corner of the room, anxiously awaiting their turn to be interviewed by the Guatemalan Ministry of Migration. A 15-year-old boy from Nebaj, Q'uiche, asked me if I knew what would happen to him; he has a debt to pay for his trip north, and no income or savings.
A 50 year-old Mayan woman from Uspantan, Q'uiche, waited in line to visit the physician; he handed her a list of ailments scrawled on a piece of paper in Spanish, asking if she suffered from any of them. She glanced at the paper, then at her shoes (with no shoelaces, as they were taken away by security agents before boarding the plane), and muttered "no." She cannot read or write, and thus had no idea what the paper said.
A 14-year-old girl stood in line to make her three minute phone call to contact a family member in San Marcos so they could make the seven hour drive to the capital to pick her up. She dialed the numbers but no one answered. Distraught, she asked the officials for bus fare, but they informed her that the Red Cross transportation fund had run dry.
A man who lived in Boston for 28 years with his wife and children also waited in line. He was caught in a raid and sent to a detention center in New York for six months. He had left Guatemala at age 15, in 1982, at the height of the war. He told me, "I will hit the road tomorrow to head back north and get back to my family."
The truth is that even as 540 a week are deported, almost twice that number still risk their life each week to go north. In this tragic context, GHRC continues to work for comprehensive immigration reform that would allow Guatemalans working in the US to obtain legal status. The present system, which criminalizes immigrants, treats them inhumanely, separates families, and fosters detention in profit-driven privatized immigration centers, is ineffective and costly, and it violates human rights.
Returning delegation members from Arlington are planning how to best support their local Guatemalan neighbors, including a trip to an immigrant detention center to observe detention conditions and speak with inmates, meetings with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to advocate for Temporary Protective Status for Guatemalans, volunteering with outreach programs for Guatemalan immigrants, and lobbying to defeat oppressive legislation proposals in Virginia that deny basic rights to immigrants.
GHRC will be drawing on lessons from this delegation to educate thousands of other US-Americans about the causes of migration and the need for immigration reform.