Alma was laboring quietly and in her own world as we sat with her, waiting for the labor to do its work. Ofelia, the midwife on duty, was very chatty that evening and began telling me about her son in the U.S. “He’s 25 and he’s going to school and working in construction, “ she said. I gathered she was proud of him. The story was that he went to the U.S. when he was 16 years old. A friend basically said to him, “let’s go.” Ofelia was scared for his safety and did not want him to go. The journey north, including crossing the Mexican and U.S. borders illegally, is a dangerous one. Especially for someone 16 years old. “And he made it,” I said. “Yes, he did. Gracias a Dios. (Thank God.) A lot of them don’t make it.”
Last summer, when I was preparing to return to Guatemala I received several unsolicited warnings (by concerned people who care about me) about the worsening situation here, as exemplified by the news coverage of a growing crisis in the U.S. around child migration. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are currently crossing the the U.S. boarder illegally every week from the northern triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
A couple of weeks ago I was talking with my mother and told her that I had organized a visit to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission to get a briefing on the human rights situation here for women. My mom was born and spent her childhood in El Salvador and has always maintained certain ties to Central America. I am grateful that she asked me to do her a favor, which was to ask about what is happening on this end of the child migration crisis. Why were so many children leaving? She said the news media was not covering the story adequately and she and many people in her Quaker meeting in Minnesota were deeply concerned about the conditions of the detention centers (prisons) where the children were being held. They wanted to understand what was going on and figure out a way to help.
“What specifically do you want to know,?” I asked.
“Anything,” she said.
I decided to take it on and see what I could find out. I went to the human rights commission (ghrc-usa.org) with two other women and we sat and listened for 2 hours to a woman with over three decades of experience working in the human rights field in Guatemala. I was not surprised when she told me she was planning on writing a book. She was a gold mine of insight and information.
I asked her many things (mostly about women) and one of them was about the Guatemala side of the child migration story. She didn’t miss a beat. What I understand from all she told us is this:
There are three big factors effecting shifts in migration. One is that there has been a cycle starting in the 70’s of migration that started with men going north, then their wives, and the children staying in Guatemala to be raised by the grandparents, with the parents going back and forth. When the children get old enough they migrate for work, their parents stay behind to raise the next generation of children and the cycle continues. This has been going on for the last 40 years. But things shifted when the policy of deportation became more strict in the U.S. and many of these people were getting deported and the underground migration systems they had come to rely on no longer held.
The story of the migration cycle was confirmed by Antonina, the leader and visionary behind the ACAM birth center project, where I am currently working. Somehow, without my even asking her, she launched into a lament about how so many people are going to the U.S. to make money. And the “pobre abuelitas” (poor grandmas) are left behind to take care of their children by themselves. She said that sometimes, if they are focused, they can make money and bring it back to their families. But so many of them get lost, “perdidos,” in the vices of drugs and alcohol and they forget why they are there. She said it is contributing a lot to the disintegration of family.
The second factor affecting shifts in migration is that between 2004-2007 there were a whole series of entire communities that were displaced to make room for large plantations of teak, sugar, and palm oil trees. This created a desperate situation for these families. She estimated about 424 communities, around 22,000 families were forcibly removed from their land. This is a direct result of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allows companies to do this kind of thing, legally.
And the third is about the business of human trafficking, which has become big business. Families pay $8-10,000 US to “coyotes” who will bring their children north. I was talking with one of the midwives at the other birth center where we were for a couple of weeks and she confirmed that this is indeed a huge issue in Guatemala. “Where do people get that kind of money?” I asked. She said sometimes they borrow it, or sometimes they will sell their land. There is a certain desperation. Families are sold on the idea that the children will be cared for and will have better opportunities to make money in the U.S. Families also believe that the children are being protected by U.S. minor laws because the U.S. is not allowed to deport minors by themselves. This, for now, is true. What the families do not understand is that the children are being held in detention centers under horrible conditions. All they know is that the children do not come back and parents are convinced that they have been successful in their migration. Because of this, they keep sending more children with these coyotes, who are the agents of the human trafficking business. Of course along the journey through Mexico, many children do not make it. They get raped, robbed by extortion, or killed or they get kidnapped for drug trafficking or sex trafficking if they are the right sex and age.
The woman we spoke with explained that since 2008 there has been a steady increase in child migration to the U.S. and that in 2011 some of the children started to be deported by Mexico, only to return to the same dire conditions which they left, after their families had spent thousands in the coyote’s fees. The number of children migrating rose in 2013 and the the U.S. was no longer capable of sustaining the phenomena and began to threaten to deport the children alone. Currently, there is an active involvement of the U.S. state department to create safe houses for children in Guatemala and Honduras so deportation of minors can start.
She explained that people send their children because of a naive belief in magic solutions to their economic problems, which she attributes to a shift to individualism from communal values. This she ties directly back to the huge rise in evangelism, which promotes fear and the disintegration of communal interdependence through the concepts of individual salvation or damnation. And parents believe the children will migrate successfully, because of U.S. child protection laws whereas the adults have a high chance of being deported. She said something really profound about this that I really appreciated. She said that you cannot get out of poverty by yourself. You need the support of social and systemic structures to change the conditions of poverty. I think this applies just as much to the U.S.
So all of these factors combine to create something that is quite a giant mess of a human situation. The U.S. bears responsibility in some of this for CAFTA, which makes it legal for profit-seeking foreign businesses to enter the country and displace communities from their homes at will, for our heavy-handed immigration and deportation policies, for our double-standard of deportation and using the same people as cheap labor to keep the economic machine running, and for the exportation of evangelism (not a government thing, obviously, but it comes from our country) which promotes individualism, fear, and mysogyny, which keeps women oppressed and without a voice and that in turn prevents human progress overall.
In response to the question of what concerned citizens can do in the U.S. she gave this response:
COMPREHENSIVE MIGRATION LAW AND PRESSURE TO THE GOVERNMENTS OF GUATEMALA, EL SALVADOR AND HONDURAS TO CHANGE AND DEVELOP INSTITUTIONS (TOO MUCH TO ASK?
To learn more, go to the GHRC website: