In light of the endless political discussion in the US on immigration policy, our current administration’s efforts to stem asylum seekers’ efforts, and the fact that tens of thousands of Guatemalans try to cross the border to the US every year, it is hard for me to not think about immigration on a near daily basis here. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know that what I’ve seen and heard in Guatemala has me wholly convinced that whatever our government is ostensibly doing to address immigration is hurting people, killing people, and certainly not solving a single problem. (For the record, I didn’t need to come to Guatemala to form this opinion…) I don’t want to write abstractly about the impact of US immigration policy on the lives of everyday Guatemalans. I want to share anecdotes of a few of the (many, many) interactions related to immigration I have had, and let these stories speak for themselves:
Some men here are able to make a living off driving, essentially a taxi service, often for gringos like myself. One such driver that I have gotten to know, Rodrigo, told me the story of how he got his start. When he was 15, his older brother went to the US and got a job at a restaurant in California, where he lived and worked for five years. He made enough money to give Rodrigo a small loan, and this loan allowed Rodrigo to buy a tuktuk (a small, rickshaw-like vehicle that is used as a close-destination taxi here). Rodrigo drove his tuktuk, paid off his loan to his brother, and saved enough money to sell his tuktuk and buy a pick-up. Following a similar trajectory, he drove his pick-up as a colectivo (a bus, essentially), and made enough money to trade it in for a car. He now runs a reliable and fairly profitable taxi business. Through the small initial loan from this brother, Rodrigo has made enough money to expand his home, and to support his wife and children. His brother is back in Guatemala, and has similarly built a home for his own family. I of course cannot verify these statements, but Rodrigo tells me that he could not have gotten such a loan in Guatemala for various reasons: 1) debilitating interest rates that he never would have been able to pay down, 2) denial of loan requests to anyone who does not already have a steady source of income and demonstrable assets, and 3) systemic discrimination against indigenous people accessing governmental services.
A nephew of my host mom’s, named Diego, approached me asking me to translate a phone call for him with a potential employer in the US. He didn’t know many details, but he had submitted paperwork and letters of recommendation almost a year ago to a storefront in Tecpan that offered work visas for Guatemalans looking to do contract work in the US. He hadn’t heard anything for 11 months (and the storefront had since disappeared, though this didn’t seem to bother him at all), but out of the blue received a phone call telling him to expect another phone call at a designated time. I immediately found the situation fishy, but agreed to mediate the call. What ensued was one of the strangest interactions I’ve ever had, with a voice on the other end that I truly could not decide if it was perhaps someone who spoke very poor English as a second language, or perhaps not a person at all, but an automated voice. This “person” told me that her name was Selina Murphy, that she lived in Los Angeles, and that she was offering Diego 6 months of work in LA, working in a factory that ships septic tanks overseas. Confusingly, she told me the company is called “Shell.” She said, “don’t worry! this is all legal!” which of course put me immediately at ease. She said she would be coming to Guatemala in the coming month to meet Diego in person (to which I thought, wow I can’t wait to see this robot woman arrive in Tecpan). She told me that they were taking one person from each department of Guatemala (what is this, a beauty pageant?!). We hung up, and I was alarmed by how well Diego felt the call had gone, and how confident he felt in its legitimacy. Eventually, “Selina” sent us a photo of her driver’s license (as all legitimate employers do), and my doctor-by-day-sleuth-by-night pal Lynne reverse imaged searched the license, which turned out to be for sale through Jamaica for fake ID production. I still don’t fully understand the point of this scam, but I am quite confident that Diego wired money somewhere in exchange for a promised visa. We have heard nothing but radio silence from our pal Selina since the drivers license. Diego has a young baby and is desperate for a well-paying job, and I think that sort of situation makes people less able to tell when they are being taken advantage of.
Leah and I recently found ourselves on a 4-hour camioneta (chicken bus) ride sitting right next to the driver, which we were thrilled about because we have had a LOT of questions about camioneta culture and have been waiting for the right moment to ask. What started as simple questions soon turned complex and heartbreaking. Our friend, I will call him Raul, told us that he drives every day from Guatemala City to San Marcos and back (probably a 12-14 hour trip in total). He sleeps in his camioneta in the capital every night. I was surprised at this, commenting, “wow that doesn’t leave you much time to see your family, does it?” He replied, “oh it doesn’t matter. My wife and 4 children are in New York. I got deported two years ago.” Crushing. He was very open about his story, and seemed happy to have some companionship for his long and monotonous daily grind. (I greatly enjoyed chatting with him, but I did wish for him not to turn his head a full 90 degrees to look at us every time he answered a question, all while barreling down the highway.) Anyway, Raul originally went to the US by himself about 7 years ago, finally making it to New York after four deportations from the Texas border. His wife and son followed one year later. Eventually, he flew back down to Guatemala to bring another daughter to the US; they crossed the border together and were separated and held in detention in Texas. He said he was told that “their papers were being processed,” but that absolutely nothing happened until he volunteered to be deported. At that point, his daughter was immediately sent to New York to reunite with her mom, and Raul was sent back to Guatemala. He eventually made it back to New York after several more deportations (keep in mind, each one of these trips costing thousands of dollars in smuggler fees). His next deportation came when his 14-year-old daughter crossed the border alone with a coyote (a smuggler), and was held in detention by herself for two months in Miami. She was eventually sent to New York to be reunited with her dad; however, just one week later, ICE agents came to Raul’s house and deported him yet again, as they had now figured out where he lived. Raul has been in Guatemala for two years now, unable to reunite with his family (including an 18 month old baby who is a US citizen). He speaks aspirationally of this son being able to get his dad citizenship someday, though he knows the US government will probably never grant him legal entry with 10 deportations on his record. He told us he will try to get to his family again someday, though he is terrified because he knows, with such a long record, he will likely end up in US federal prison if he is caught crossing the border again.
The husband of a neighbor of ours, Juan, has been in the US for 16 years. He left when his wife was pregnant with their youngest son, hoping to study and find work to support their soon-to-be family of 5. He has no papers, and as such, has not once been able to see his family in these 16 years. Juan and his wife talk on the phone or FaceTime every day; as far as I can tell, they are 100% committed to each other. His income in the US has changed the lives of his family here and the prospects of the children’s future. They live in a beautiful, comfortable house, one that you see walking down the street of Tecpan and know that there is a family member in the US sending remittances. The boys go to good private schools, and will attend university. There is healthy, fresh food at every meal, and enough of it. The house has TVs and wifi; they just bought a used car. The boys receive gifts from their dad from the US: soccer jerseys, sneakers, and iPhones. His wife has tried in the past to get a tourist visa to the US to visit; she was immediately rejected. As she puts it, “I don’t get it. All I want to do is go to the US and spend money in the economy, and then return to Guatemala. Why would I want to stay there?! I need my beans and tortillas!”
My heart breaks for my friends and acquaintances here. But I also know they don’t need my pity. They need to be treated like human beings, they need justice, they need equal opportunity. As Chata, my host mom, says to me every morning, “otro día, seguimos luchando.” (Another day, we keep fighting.)
Because I have no words of my own to conclude, I will end by retelling what a Guatemalan colleague earnestly told me a few weeks ago, “I hope you know that Guatemalans are hard workers. We like to work. It’s just that sometimes there isn’t enough work here. And I hope you come back to Guatemala someday. You are always welcome here. Everyone is welcome here.”