Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories focused on Guatemala’s immigrant community’s strong ties to the United States. With President Obama poised to take action on immigration reform, Seattle writer Jill Hodges reported from the farming community of San José Calderas, Guatemala, on the circumstances that prompt families to take the risk of migrating north – or even sending their children on this perilous journey.
ANTIGUA, Guatemala – Clara de Reyes is a regional representative for Conamigua, the National Council for Migrants from Guatemala, which helps coordinate services and provide representation for migrants living abroad and their families at home. Serving as many as 10 different families daily in Conamigua’s Region V, which includes the departments of Suchitepéquez and Chimaltenango, she offers an on-the-ground perspective on the recent surge of child migrations from Guatemala.
Q What are the main forces driving the increase in child migrations from Guatemala?
The number one reason is poverty, including lack of access to food and education. Many people I work with have an average income of $1 a day; just enough to get tortillas.
The second factor is the desire of families to be reunified.
The third is bad information from coyotes. For example, many people mistakenly believe that if a woman gives birth in the United States, both the mother and child will get citizenship. This is a lie; it’s not possible. But this belief has increased the number of girls who intentionally get pregnant before migrating. We surveyed people on the “immigration trains” (freight trains that kids hop to get into the United States) and found 16 of 2,000 were pregnant teenagers.
The fourth reason is insecurity, or violence, and pressure to join gangs.
Q What factors have led to this situation?
The biggest factors contributing to poverty are poor educational opportunities and limited work opportunities for those who do receive education. Another significant factor is lack of access to health care and medicine; if someone in your family is sick, you have to use what little money you have for doctors and medicine. It’s complicated; it’s not easy to surmount poverty. The national and municipal governments do not do enough to provide basic services.
Q Have U.S. policies in the past or now contributed to this problem?
If the question is do I think the U.S. has made us poor? No: the opposite. Because of course 10 percent of our GDP is thanks to remittances (money that Guatemalans earn working the United States and send home). And the major part, 90 percent, comes from the U.S.
The U.S. does not have an obligation to receive us or give anything to us. I have never blamed the U.S. for our problems. But at the same time, there should be a balance; one needs to acknowledge all that the immigrants give to the U.S., because they give a lot. All of the work that people in the U.S. cannot or do not want to do, the immigrants do.
Q What happens when Guatemalans who have been living in the United States return home?
They’re met at airport with welcome speech and a little snack, but then they’re left on their own. Most don’t have money or access to public transport and don’t know how to get back to their Departments; they’re stranded.
Some have spent 20 to 25 years away and don’t have the certifications or qualifications they need to find a job in Guatemala; even though they have work experience, they can’t prove it. Employers see them as criminals and discriminate against them. Their families don’t always receive them well because they’re no longer sending money or nice shoes from the U.S., and they can’t find jobs.
They have a very difficult hill to climb. Very few manage.
Q What would you like to see happen? What are some of the most promising options for addressing the problems migrants face?
I would like to see fewer people deported. The country has to take them back, it’s their country, and we at Conamigua receive them with open arms, because we are working for them. But Guatemala can’t handle more deportations; we can’t do anything for them – there are no jobs or services available.
But the other part is prevention (of undocumented migration). Because we don’t want to see any more deaths or disappearances. We know how many people have just disappeared. We look for them everywhere – in hospitals, in jails, in every place possible, and we don’t know what has become of them. Especially the little boys, the little girls and women are suffering in migration.
We need more communication about what happens when a child goes to the U.S. Rumors are that when they are held in the “refrigerators” (detention cells) they are fed and treated well, but it’s the opposite. (Note: The ACLU and other organizations have registered complaints about the conditions under which the children are being held, but recent federal investigations did not substantiate all of these claims.)
Jill Hodges is a Seattle-based writer who focuses on the effects of globalization on individuals, with an emphasis on health and children’s issues. Jill is a co-editor and a contributing author to Risks and Challenges in Medical Tourism: Understanding the Global Market for Health Services.