Traveling Between Americas: The cost of opportunity in immigration

About 300 families live in the farming community of San José Calderas, 40 miles west of Guatemala City. Many of them with strong ties to the U.S.

Editor’s note: This is the first 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.

Part One: A Tale of Two Cities – by Jill Hodges

SAN JOSE CALDERAS, GuatemalaIn this five-road indigenous farming village in Guatemala’s Central Highlands, just about everyone has a connection to the United States.

San Jose Calderas mapResidents say 85 percent or more of the 300 families here have had at least one family member living in the U.S. at one point or another – specifically, in Postville, Iowa (pop. 2,186), the site of one of the largest immigration raids at a single employer.

In May 2008, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 400 immigrant workers, including nearly 300 Guatemalans, at the Agriprocessors Inc. slaughterhouse and packing plant for using fake documents and related charges.

In a controversial “fast-track” process, most of those who were arrested pleaded guilty and were promptly sentenced to five months in prison and deported. More than a few were from Calderas. The plant eventually went bankrupt and a new processing facility opened in its place.

Since the raid, some residents of Calderas have mustered the 45,000 to 70,000 quetzales ($5,800 to $9,000) required to hire a coyote to guide them back over the border to find work or to reunite with family in Postville.

Others who can’t raise the funds or don’t want to face another risky trip across the Rio Bravo (a.k.a. Rio Grande) make the case for a guest worker program that would make it legal for them work for short periods in the United States and then return to Calderas. Because everyone agrees: the money coming from relatives working in the U.S. has been critical to sustaining the village and its families.

As in many rural regions of Guatemala, in Calderas, paltry job prospects, sadly under-resourced schools and inadequate health services drive people to the United States.

More than half of the population in Guatemala lives in poverty, a rate that rises to 80 percent in rural areas, according to the World Bank, and Guatemala’s levels of inequality and malnutrition are among the highest in the region. Escalating violence seeping from drug trafficking routes, and this year’s epic drought, which hit Guatemala especially hard, are forcing those who have remained in Calderas to consider making the trip north again.

A personal observation by the author:

While I was in Guatemala reporting on children migrating from Central America to the United States, I asked just about everyone I met how, if at all, they think that United States’ actions and policies might have contributed to the conditions that are driving kids north.

The question elicited universal bewilderment.

I received comments like Olvidio’s where those I interviewed talk about how grateful they are for opportunity and how remittances (wonk speak for money migrant workers send home) are crucial to their family’s well-being.

In other words, the people I spoke with generally don’t view the United States as a source of their problems, but as a source of potential opportunities to resolve them — that is, jobs to help provide food, education and housing for their families.

Here’s why I was asking: Two of the reasons commonly offered for the recent migrations are poverty and violence, and it could be argued that the United States has helped lay the groundwork for both. The semi-feudal system that persists in rural Guatemala, with a small number of rich landowners holding most of the land worked by poor, primarily Mayan farmers, is, in part, a legacy of the right-wing governments that the United States supported during the 36-year civil war.

And some have argued that rising violence in Central America is due in part to United States’ deportations of criminals, including gang members who have honed their skills stateside, and to our war on drugs, which has pushed drug trafficking and the attendant crimes into Guatemala and other Central American countries.

But the people I met don’t see it that way.

In their assessment, the root of Guatemala’s problems is Guatemala: the favoritism that governs the allocation of land, jobs and resources; the capricious law enforcement that leaves the country with the fifth-highest homicide rate in the world; the uneven and lagging educational system; the conflicts over mining, hydro-electric and other multinational development projects that are ripping apart communities and costing lives.

So really it’s difficult to say how any thread of United States actions or policies may run through the complex weave of factors driving some Guatemalans to conclude their kids are better off braving the risks to migrate north. When it comes to U.S. involvement, the people I spoke with were more focused on solutions.

One farmer in San Jose Calderas said he would like to see international aid go directly to communities rather than to the central government so that there’s an opportunity to more purposefully target community needs. His neighbor wants to see a guest worker program that would allow Guatemalans to come to the United States for limited visits to work jobs that U.S. workers can’t or won’t take. Or as he put it: “We would like to see permission to come legally so that we’re not risking our lives.”

Ultimately, when you’re struggling to keep your family safe and fed, you don’t necessarily contemplate the historical roots of your country’s problems; you go where hope lies.

Tomorrow: An interview with an advocate for Guatemalan migrants Clara de Reyes and Kids With Passports But No Parents


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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