Traveling Between Americas: Children with passports, without parents

Jocelyn Tojh, 14, longs to join her 7-year-old brother Antony in the U.S.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories focused on a community in Guatemala with strong ties to the United States. With President Obama poised to take action on immigration reform, Seattle writer Jill Hodges reports 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.

San José Calderas – On July 4, Debora Pastoy put her 7-year-old son Edwin on a plane in Guatemala bound for the United States. She paid a minder to get him safely to his grandfather, who works at a pig farm in Iowa.

Edwin was born in Iowa and has a US Passport. Debora, her husband, and their four year-old-daughter do not.

Jobless and facing threats of extortion from those who believe the family has resources remaining from their time in the US, Debora and her husband eventually decided that the best choice for their son was to send him back to the US.

The family, from the farming village of San José Calderas, is one of many fragmented by the intensifying forces of poverty and crime that have led families in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to send their children north.

In Edwin’s case, it was not a matter of paying a coyote, but of purchasing a plane ticket. His is among the families with children born in the US, who are therefore US citizens, to mothers who are not—families that have to weigh whether their kids are better off weathering life in Guatemala with their parents, or life in the US without them.

Debora Pastoy and her daughter

Debora Pastoy and her daughter

“I often feel like I’m a bad mother for sending him away,” Debora said, scrubbing tears from face. “But it was an opportunity I couldn’t deny him.”

The fracture is a repeat of Debora’s experience growing up. Ten years ago, when she was 15, her parents left her and her 8-year-old brother in Calderas and made their way with her two other brothers to join friends and family working at a slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa.

Back in Guatemala, word spread that the two children were living alone in an aunt’s house, and they became targets for robbers. The family decided that Debora and her brother should join them in Iowa, and raised the money to pay a coyote to help them cross the border.

On the trip north through Mexico, they vied with fellow migrants for food and other provisions. When they reached the border, the group broke into smaller units to make it across the Rio Grande into Texas. Despite her desperate pleas to stay with her brother, as she had promised her parents, the coyote separated Debora and her brother. She convinced a man to pretend her brother was his son and to look out for him. Once she received a call that her brother had arrived safely in Texas, Debora crossed the border with her group.

They both eventually made it to Postville, the small town in Iowa where her family was living. “We were happy because we were all together again,” Debora said. “We had jobs and a good place to live.” A couple years later, she met a man from a neighboring village in Guatemala who would become her husband, and they had Edwin.

In May 2008, U.S. immigration raided the plant where the family worked along with hundreds of other immigrants. Debora and her father, who had been part of a recent layoff, were not at the factory during the sweep. But her mother and older brother were among those arrested and deported. After a month of sheltering in churches, Debora, her son, and her remaining brothers returned home to Calderas with the help of a church.

Three months ago, increasingly worried about reports of robberies and kidnapping on the roads outside their village, Debora decided to send her son back up to her father, the one family member still in the United States. She talks to Edwin every day, and takes comfort in the fact that he enjoys school and learning English and he’s making new friends.

“My husband would like to go back to the United States because our son is there. And every night, my daughter says that she misses her brother. I tell her to have patience and maybe someday God will give you an opportunity. We are going to try to get a visa for her so she can go see him.”

Echos of this story reverberate through the region.

In the nearby village of El Rosario, 14-year-old Jocelyn Tojh longs to return to the United States, where she, too, has a brother. Her family recently sent 7-year-old Antony back because he was losing weight and was constantly sick. Antony was born in the United States and has citizenship.

In 2004, when she was 5 years old, Jocelyn’s family raised nearly $13,000 to hire a coyote to bring her, her mother and sister into the United States so they could join their father, who was working at the processing plant in Postville. At the time, she didn’t want to go; the trip was a series of terrifying nights navigating barbed wire and cactus patches, heat, cold and hunger.

When she arrived, she missed her grandmothers and friends. In school, she was reduced to tears because she couldn’t understand English. Gradually, she adjusted. She made girlfriends, and a teacher took a special interest in her, bringing her books and dolls.

Then on May 12, 2008, her father came to get her at school. He told her that her mother was among those who had been arrested in the immigration raid at the food processing plant. She remembers watching the news that night, seeing men and women shuffled along in handcuffs and chains. Her mother, who was nursing her newborn brother Antony at the time, was released with an ankle bracelet in exchange for signing an agreement to return to Guatemala in three months.

That August, Jocelyn, her sister and brother went back to Guatemala with their mother. Their father came back a short time later. Again, Jocelyn found herself at a school with no friends and difficulties with the language. Classes were in Spanish, but she wrote in English.

After returning, the family continued to struggle to afford food, school and health care. Jocelyn’s father found work as a bus driver, but facing constant danger of being robbed on the job, he quit and left again for the United States. For a while, the family didn’t hear anything except rumors that he had died during the trip.

“I would often come out here in the middle of the night praying for a miracle that my father hadn’t died,” said Jocelyn, perched on a wall at the edge of her family’s patio.

Antony became thin and weak after returning to Guatemala. His family finally decided to send him back to the United States to be with his father. Jocelyn would like to return as well, but right now, she doesn’t dare make the trip.


Jill HodgesJill 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.  

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