Justice & Responsibility
The Plight of the Immigrants from Central America
By Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
“Migrant Caravans,” made up of large groups of children and adults from the Northern Triangle of Central America, heading to our border to seek safety and a better life is problematic, both for those coming and for those waiting for their arrival in the U.S. The influx of undocumented immigrants has reached a ten-year high, with 66,450 entering recently, according to the Customs and Border Patrol. The existing frenzied political debate and the false narratives it often generates make it difficult, if not impossible, to turn this crisis into an opportunity to better appreciate why so many continue to seek refuge here and to understand our own role, and that of our government, in sorting out the situation, responding in a humanitarian way to those coming and creating some viable solutions to our immigration policies going forward.
Although smaller caravans have headed towards our borders in the past, the growing influx of immigrants raised further challenges and complexities around the existing crisis. With eleven million undocumented workers in the country who contribute to society, but reap none of the benefits of full membership, it creates exploitation and a threat to our democracy. There are five factors worth scrutinizing to better understand the situation: who they are and what they want: what pushes people away from their homes; what pulls them towards the U.S.; what impact our government’s policies and those of their home country governments have on the process, and some of the lessons learned in dealing with the situation in a positive way.
So Who Are They?
The ongoing cable television coverage of the most recent “Caravan” has provided a window into the world of these people, most coming from Honduras, but some from Guatemala and El Salvador – including entire families and many young children making this arduous journey into the unknown. These are definitely not the highly trained hi-tech experts that corporate Silicon Valley executives are seeking. Guatemalan filmmaker Luis Argueta has spent the last ten years telling the stories of immigrants, and recently completed the third of his documentary series. He’s become an expert on the complex issues of immigration into the U.S, and has shown films at multiple college campuses and led discussions after the viewing. He has participated in various panels on the subject and been honored due to his expertise. He recently presented screenings of The U-Turn at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as well as Arizona State University in Tempe. In this movie Argueta tells the story of a group of immigrant women and children who broke the silence about the abuses committed against them at the Agriprocessors, Inc. in Postville, Iowa, and thanks to the solidarity of the community that accompanied them, and the U-Visa, their lives and the lives of those that walked along with them were transformed. Argueta shares some of his lessons learned on immigration during a radio interview on KGOU radio program, “World Views”:
People know the risks of sending their kids but, when the families live lives that are full of risks every day, when the risk of a child becoming a member of a gang, or maybe not reaching age 15 because he or she is killed, they’re … sending them north – at least they have some hope. And they also see the results of others that have succeeded in this trip. It’s a terrible situation on the issues that immigrants have to face on a daily basis and that’s something that I wish on nobody. And they don’t do it lightly. You know people don’t leave their homes because they want to go to Disneyland. They really leave because there’s no other choice.
This sense of desperation is best summed up in the last paragraph of Francisco Cantu’s, The Line Becomes a River, from an immigrant whose attempt to cross the border failed after he witnessed several of his group, including a small girl, left behind in the desert to die:
The judges in the Unites States, if they know the reality, they know they are sending people to their death. They are sending people to commit suicide. I will do anything to be on the other side. To be honest, I would rather be in a prison in the U.S. and see my boys once a week through the glass than to stay here and be separated from my family. At least I would be closer to them. So you see, there is nothing that can keep me from crossing. My boys are not dogs to be abandoned in the street. I will walk through the desert for five days, eight days, ten days, whatever it takes to be with them. I’ll eat grass, I’ll eat bushes, I’ll eat cactus, I’ll drink filthy cattle water, I’ll drink nothing at all. I’ll run and hide from “la migra.” I’ll pay the mafias whatever I have to. They can take my money, they can rob my family, they can lock me away, but I will keep coming back. I will keep crossing again and again until I make it, until I am together again with my family. “No, no me quedo aqui. Voy a seguir intentando pasar.”
The Push Factor
When I first arrived in an isolated area of the highlands of Guatemala in 1971 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I realized that something was seriously wrong when I noticed many small graves in a cemetery outside the village of Calapte. The graves were so tiny that I assumed that the villagers buried their dogs there. Then one weekend when the villagers were drinking and carrying on for some unknown reason, I asked the head teacher, Don Hector, what was being celebrated.
He explained that the villagers were celebrating the deaths of the “Angelitos,” babies who had died before their first birthday. He said that this was a happy time since they went directly to heaven because they hadn’t committed any sins. Happy time? Not in my book. Years later, Frank La Rue, a longtime human rights activist in Guatemala and former United National official, told the New York Times in 2010, “You can only explain that (50,000 unaccompanied children fleeing north to the U.S. in 2014) when you have a state that doesn’t work.”
Actually, the State does work, but for a very few – 2% of the population who owned 84% of the land after the armed conflict in 1995. Most Guatemalans, especially the Maya population, have small, unproductive plots of land that force them to the South Coast to harvest cash crops such as coffee or look for a job in the capital city. This exploitation goes back to Spanish Colonial rule when some Mayan communities were forced to supply a “reparto,” which involved a third of their male residents laboring on Spanish-owned plantations in nine-month shifts. This form of forced labor was promoted by future Guatemalan regimes through the 19th century. And this situation has been exacerbated over the years due to an incredible population increase from three million Guatemalans in 1950 to an estimated seventeen million today.
Eventually these egregious inequities, combined with the population explosion, resulted in a period of violence lasting from 1960 to the “Peace Accord” in 1996, which cost the lives of over 200,000 people, mostly from the Mayan population in the highlands. In 1995, when I was leading a donor tour to the Province of Quiche with Food for the Hungry, I came across some pictures drawn by the children, depicting planes dropping bombs (and sometimes napalm) on their homes.
Quiche would be the province suffering more assassinations and murders than any others in Latin America. In “The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” respected Guatemalan/American author, Francisco Goldman, presents some of the testimony from the “REMHI” report put together by the Catholic church on government/army abuses in places like Santa Maria Tzeja, Quiche: The señora was pregnant. With a knife, they cut open her belly to pull out her little baby boy. And they killed them both. And the muchachitas (little girls) playing in the trees near the house, they cut off their little heads with machetes.
Those who were able to escape often wandered for years in the forests before they felt safe enough to return to their homes. Although the army and their para-military groups were responsible for most of the recorded massacres, some were attributed to the local guerrilla groups, and in 1995 a truce was made – a “peace” declared. Of course, the children wouldn’t be the only target of this State-run violence; often those who reported it, like Bishop Juan Gerardi, would be assassinated by military thugs long after the “peace accord” had been signed.
I recently interviewed two Guatemalan immigrants while volunteering at a shelter in a local church in downtown Phoenix. Hector and Felix had brought their wives and several children from the Guatemala highlands. Both were small farmers forced to leave due to a protracted drought in which the annual dry season, or “canicula,” lasted much longer than usual, killing most of their crops, their basic source of food. Despite the risks, they believed it was worth it, compared to the seemingly hopeless situation they faced back home in Guatemala.
In one of three recent articles on Guatemalan immigrants in “The New Yorker”, the authors confirmed that over 65% of the children suffer from malnutrition, one of the highest rates in the Western Hemisphere. The communities Hector and Felix come from are part of the expanding swath of Central America known as the “dry corridor.” It begins in Panama and snakes northwest through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and parts of southern Mexico. As one Guatemalan climate scientist at the Universidad del Valle said, “Extreme poverty may be the primary reason people leave….but climate change is intensifying all the existing factors.” This phenomenon is underscored in a series of articles in the Guatemalan daily, La Prensa Libre, which report that farmers just don’t know when to even plant crops to avoid these dry periods, with possible total loss of their harvests.
At the Phoenix shelter, Felix also mentioned he had no other option but to leave his home, as he’d opted to mortgage the land where the family grew its food, “I’ll pay it off with the money I earn here.”
The Pull Factor
The magnet bringing families to the north would include something they lack at home, a “living wage.” The money, or “remittances”, sent by those who have successfully crossed the border are the first or second key income generator of most Central American countries, right up there with tourism. According to the International Organization for Immigration, remittances to Guatemala had exceeded $8.5 billion. Some U.S. based businesses take advantage of the “illegal” status of their workers, as was recently revealed by “Univision” TV, which reported on two illegal workers at one of President Donald Trump’s golf courses in New Jersey. After a New York Times report, two Trump properties, which included the Trump National Golf Club, fired two dozen undocumented workers. About eight million undocumented workers are part of the U.S. labor force and it’s an open secret that they use fake documents to get hired.
In his movie, “AbUSed: The Postville Raid,” filmmaker Luis Argueta depicted this phenomenon in the case of the largest immigration raid carried out in the history of the U.S. 900 Federal agents, supported by helicopters and State police, arrested almost 400 workers from Agriprocessors, Inc., the largest kosher meat packing plant in the country. Of the 389 arrested, 293 were Guatemalans.
Although the employees were charged with aggravated identity theft, several employers would be convicted on charges of conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants, and child labor law violations, among other offences. The film graphically depicted the appalling living conditions. Historically, a number of industries depend on cheap labor, especially in the agricultural sector, a reality reflected in one of the four U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s, “Common Sense Reforms” for immigration, Green Card reform and implementation of temporary worker programs for highly skilled and lesser skilled workers, including those in the agricultural industry.
The Impact of Government Policies
U.S. economic and foreign policies impact our ability to deal with this immigration crisis. So far, the Trump administration has referred to immigrants as freeloaders, criminals and terrorists or, conversely, always poor and vulnerable, which has led to an inaccurate narrative at best. Separating children from their parents without a plan to reunite them as part of a “deterrent” was a miscalculation, with no appreciation or respect for the families involved, not to mention the considerable trauma caused. Stirring up fear as a way to justify the construction of a larger wall is also less than productive. Most recently, the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE have been dropping large groups of families at local churches in Phoenix because they are unable to absorb all of them. The churches are left to care for and eventually place them with family members until their trial for asylum, which can take up to a year.
The hate, misunderstandings and trauma caused by these policies pale in comparison to the unstated strategy of using the Arizona desert to channel illegal immigrants to their demise. Francisco Cantu, the author of “The Line Becomes a River,” shared the Arizona Death Map, which uses dots to represent 3,244 migrant deaths in the desert between Nogales and Yuma between 1999 and 2018. Some of the dots represent multiple deaths. An organization called “Humane Borders” accumulated the data to help visualize the number of people whose deaths go unknown or unappreciated. Since the most effective border control tends to focus close to border towns, this large stretch of desert covers so much space that someone must walk up to 100 miles through the desolation and brutal heat before finding a road that can take them anywhere without being detected – a sad example of how violence is normalized in our society.
Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy has been instrumental in creating many of the conditions that push those from some of the most isolated parts of their country to the north. The U.S. has consistently intervened throughout Latin America and has supported the most repressive regimes. In the early 1950s, the U.S. based United Fruit Company, or “La Frutera,” exacerbated the poor land distribution in Guatemala, as the company owned over half a million acres of the country’s richest land, but left eighty-five percent of it uncultivated. La Frutera employed almost 50,000 workers in Central America (most were Central Americans, except for management by U.S. citizens), including 15,000 on just two of its many plantations in Guatemala. It owned the only railroad and controlled the key port of Puerto Barrios.
The interests of United Fruit were considered to be the same interests as those of the U.S. (what’s good for the Frutera is good for the U.S.). Their interests were considered the same as those of the U.S Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, and his brother, Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, both partners in the United Fruit law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. The “secret” history of these two powerful siblings was brilliantly divulged in Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers.
In 1950, Jacobo Arbenz was elected President of Guatemala and began promoting social reform policies and land reform, which was a problem for the country’s largest landowner, United Fruit, which carried out a propaganda campaign that turned the U.S. government against the new regime. American newspaper headlines included such inflammatory leads as, “Red Front Tightens Grip on Guatemala.” This led to a coup d’état in 1954, and a new president, Carlos Castillo Armas, took dictatorial powers, banning all political parties, torturing and imprisoning political opponents and reversing the social reforms of the Guatemala revolutions, in effect, dealt a death blow to Guatemalan democracy and reinforced the structural land tenure system that was keeping the majority of Guatemalans on the margin of the larger economy.
The U.S.’s inability, and lack of political will, to control the proliferation of drugs within its borders has also impacted the region by allowing the drug cartels to gain ever-growing financial and political influence. Some 70% of the U.S. cocaine supply has been channeled through Honduras, resulting in one of the highest murder rates in the world. According to David Grann’s article in the New Yorker magazine, “A Murder Foretold,”
“Overwhelmed by drug gangs, grinding poverty, social injustice, and an abundance of guns, it’s no wonder that violent crime rates have been sky-high. In 2009, fewer civilians were reported killed in the war zone of Iraq than were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death in Guatemala” and a staggering majority of homicides—97% — go unsolved .stated that “The incredible power and influence of the drug cartels is now being revealed by the trial of the “Chapo,” which demonstrates how his bribes went to the highest level of Mexican government officials.”
A recent proliferation of “maras,” or gangs, began with the mass deportation of Los Angeles criminals to Central America, particularly El Salvador, in the mid-1990s. The MS-13, for example, became an international gang that spread through the continental U.S. and Central America. Most members are Salvadorans and its history is closely tied to the U.S. – El Salvador relationship, especially in regard to U.S. interventions in the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. In 2011, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that El Salvador had the highest number of gang members in Central America, with 32,000.
So, one can see how centuries of political abuse, violence and a depleted infrastructure – schoolhouses with no books and hospitals and clinics with no medication and often a lack of doctors, has created despair, which is why families continue to leave their homes looking for a safe haven and an opportunity to educate their children. And why so many are seeking asylum, as opposed to simply looking for work.
So what are the Northern Triangle Central American administrations doing to stem the flow of immigrants? Let’s look at Guatemala. To begin with, although the United States encouraged civilian rule and elections in Guatemala in 1985, the subsequent elections were deficient in terms of substantive democratic reforms. Historian Suzanne Jones wrote: “For the most part, from 1986 through 1995, civilian presidents allowed the army to rule from behind the scenes.” After an initial decline, death squad violence and other abuses by the army had actually increased significantly in the late 1980s. Subsequent regimes have been hampered by excessive influence from the military, human rights abuses and corruption.
One program that both the U.S. and Central American governmental agencies are developing is the “Alliance for Prosperity Northern Triangle.” The program is designed to promote local economic, health and infrastructural support to the poorest provinces, which export the majority of the refugees. According to the local newspaper, “Prensa Libre,” some $27 million from the U.S. will be focused on the most vulnerable towns and provinces. The program reflects a realization that, under existing conditions with limited employment opportunities, the outflow of rural indigenous groups will continue.
Although a step in the right direction, the impact of this initiative will be limited by corruption, as Guatemala has one of the highest rates of pilferage in the world. I experienced this first-hand in 2001. After a TV appearance with the MAP International (Medical Assistance Programs) CEO on local TV with Guatemala’s First Lady, Evelyn Morataya, our cabdriver told us he had seen us on TV with la primera dama de la corrupcion (the first Lady of Corruption). So even the humblest Guatemalan knew what was going on. Her husband, President Alfonso Portillo, would eventually be extradited to the U.S. and charged with laundering $70 million in Guatemalan funds through U.S. bank accounts.
More recently, both the President, Otto Perez Molina, and former Vice President, Roxana Baldetti, were imprisoned for corruption, thanks to the efforts of the UN anticorruption commission, CICIG (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala). Although the campaign slogan of the existing President, Jimmy Morales, was “Neither Corrupt, Nor A Thief,” in January of 2017, his older brother and close adviser and the adviser’s son were arrested on corruption and money laundering charges. Eight months later, Morales ordered the expulsion of Colombian Ivan Velasquez, Commissioner of the CICIG, after it not only began investigating claims that his party took illegal donations, including from drug-traffickers, but also asked The Guatemalan Congress to strip him of immunity from prosecution, which the Congress would refuse to do, thus assuring that the impunity of Guatemala’s ruling class will continue unchecked.
The Guatemalan Congress is actually considering a law that offers total amnesty to those involved in the abuses and massacres during the civil conflict, effectively eliminating any level of accountability. Other abuses include death threats and killings of elected officials, witnesses, members of the judiciary, and others involved in investigations of government corruption and human rights crimes, as well as violent evictions, labor rights violations and other human rights violations in the context of agrarian disputes involving thousands of rural families, according to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.
At this point in our country’s history, we can choose to be part of the problem, or begin to work towards effective solutions to the immigration issues, challenging us as well as Mexico and the countries in Central America. As U.S. citizens, we must appreciate that we are connected culturally, economically, and politically to the people in Central America. According to a recent NPR report, remittances from Guatemalans working in the U.S is one of the most important income sources for the country.
Also, our country’s foreign policy, which favored a small oligarchy supported by a strong military, has created much of the injustice described above. And the U.S.’s inability to limit the use of illegal drugs has much to do with the poverty and violence pushing people out of Central America to the U.S. at this time. And I agree with filmmaker Luis Argueta’s comments at his presentation at Arizona State University (ASU), that those who ignore this reality and support the existing government’s policies are “complicit” in perpetuating the ongoing influx of undocumented family members.
Those escaping violence and abject poverty in Central America will continue to seek asylum and work in the United States, especially those with family ties here, and with eleven million undocumented people, that represents a lot of family members trying to reconnect with them. No wall, no matter how big, tall or wide will stop the ongoing influx of immigrants.
Instead of creating fear about “invading” insurgents, we must learn about and appreciate who these people are and treat them in a more humane manner when they arrive here, as well as support the development efforts in the sending provinces in Central America in order to motivate young people to stay and raise their families in their home countries.
“Justice & Responsibility: The Plight of Immigrants from Central America” is the fourth of a five-part series on the growing number of people fleeing Central America written by Mark Walker. The focus is the Mayan population in Guatemala and deals with some of the causes behind out migration such as the high rate of child mortality, land tenure and climate change. He writes from his experiences in Guatemala as well as interviews with Guatemalan migrants in Phoenix. This theme will also be the focus of the documentary being produced by several RPCVs including Hal Rifken and Alana DeJoseph.
Mark D. Walker (Guatemala 1971-73) is the author of Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala and reside in the Phoenix area. You can learn more at MillionMileWalker.com and follow him on Facebook.
This essay first appeared in Quail Bell Magazine.