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The great Guatemalan migration industry

By LORENA ARROYO and ANDREA PATIÑO CONTRERAS
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Despite the threats and the wall, in the last year a record number of Guatemalan families headed to the United States to turn themselves in to the Border Patrol with the hopes of starting a new life. A journey in search of the origin of Guatemalan migration examines the underlying causes in Central America.

When a child becomes a protective 'visa' against deportation

F grew up without the 'American Dream'. In his eastern Guatemalan village, he had a field of corn and beans to eat and coffee plantations to make a living on. Last April, at age 36, he packed his bags. After agreeing to pay 40,000 quetzales (just over $5,000) to a coyote, he headed to the United States with the eldest of his three children, K, aged 11. For fear of reprisals, the father and son asked that their names not be used.

Almudena Toral / Univision

“I didn’t want to emigrate, but necessity obligated it. I do not want my children to grow up in a place full of violence and poverty,” says F from the room where he lives in Texas with his son. In recent years, the collapse of coffee prices and the increased presence of gangs in his community, which were already threatening K, made him think that there he could not guarantee a future for his children. So he began to plan the trip. He and his wife were convinced that, even if they had to separate, migrating was the best option for the family.

Early in the morning of April 6, father and son said goodbye to the rest of the family and began the trip north: “On the way we ran out of water and had to walk a lot, but my son told me: ‘Don’t worry. I was born for this,” recalls the father deeply moved.

After a 17-day journey, they arrived at the US border with a clear idea: they would not try to dodge the Border Patrol, they would turn themselves in. “(The coyotes) took us across the river and at the border, less than 30 minutes later, we were surrounded by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents) and we surrendered,” he says.

He is one of the tens of thousands of Guatemalans who illegally crossed the U.S. southern border last year to seek asylum accompanied by a minor. The reason: migrating with a minor usually prevents immediate deportation.

60,000

Guatemala

50,401

Family units

detained at the border

Honduras

39,439

40,000

20,000

El Salvador

13,669

Mexico

2,261

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

In the last year, the arrival of Guatemalan families doubled.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border

Protection.

60,000

Guatemala

50,401

Family units

detained at the border

Honduras

40,000

20,000

El Salvador

Mexico

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

In the last year, the arrival of Guatemalan families doubled.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

60,000

Guatemala

50,401

Family units

detained at the border

40,000

Honduras

24,657

23,067

20,000

12,820

El Salvador

12,006

Mexico

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

In the last year, the arrival of Guatemalan families doubled.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

60,000

Guatemala

50,401

In the last year, the arrival of Guatemalan families doubled.

Family

units

detained

at the border

40,000

Honduras

24,657

23,067

20,000

12,820

El Salvador

12,006

Mexico

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

A 2008 law for the prevention of human trafficking (the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, or TVPRA) prohibits the immediate deportation of minors and requires that a U.S. judge decide their fate. Generally, if the accompanying parents have no criminal background, they wait with the minor for the resolution of their immigration case.

In addition, the 1997 Flores settlement agreement prevents the government from depriving minors of their liberty in detention centers, a legal tool that in many cases guarantees the release of the parent or guardian who accompanies them, at least until a hearing before a judge to determine their future.

Despite the increasing cases of Central American ‘family units’ (mainly from Guatemala and Honduras) entering the U.S. illegally, the number of undocumented migrants detained at the southern border has dropped significantly over the last decade.

Violence and political instability in Central America led to a massive exodus for the U.S. border during the 1980s and 1990s.

1

1.5 million

people

1 million

500,000

Detentions at

the US border

with Mexico

1960

70

80

90

00

10

2018

2

Only the end of the armed conflicts and the hardening of security at the U.S. borders after the 9/11 attacks succeeded in reducing the migratory flow.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border

Protection.

Violence and political instability in Central America led to a massive exodus for the U.S. border during the 1980s and 1990s.

1

1.5 million

people

1 million

500,000

Detentions at

the US border

with Mexico

1960

70

80

90

00

10

2018

2

Only the end of the armed conflicts and the hardening of security at the U.S. borders after the 9/11 attacks succeeded in reducing the migratory flow.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Violence and political instability in Central America led to a massive exodus for the U.S. border during the 1980s and 1990s.

1

1.5 million

people

1 million

Detentions at

the US border

with Mexico

500,000

1960

70

80

90

00

10

2018

2

Only the end of the armed conflicts and the hardening of security at the U.S. borders after the 9/11 attacks succeeded in reducing the migratory flow.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Violence and political instability in Central America led to a massive exodus for the U.S. border during the 1980s and 1990s.

1

Detentions at

the US border

with Mexico

1.5 million

people

1 million

2

500,000

1960

70

80

90

00

10

2018

Only the end of the armed conflicts and the hardening of security at the U.S. borders after the 9/11 attacks succeeded in reducing the migratory flow.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The threats by the Trump administration over illegal immigration, peaked midway through the year. The administration had already began to separate children from their parents at the border, as part of its ‘zero tolerance’ policy, but this failed to stem the flow of groups with children and unaccompanied minors.

According to several sources in Guatemala contacted by Univision News, the coyotes had for months been offering journeys with children, even charging half price to those with minors, as they didn’t have to take the more dangerous journey through the desert to avoid detection.

Mario Juárez / Univision

In the case of F and K, after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol, both spent 52 hours in detention before being released. The father left with an ankle monitor that allows authorities to track his movements. He must also report to the authorities every 15 days. He already has two jobs in Texas that allow him to pay off the coyote and send money to his family while his son goes to school and learns English.

Despite the long shifts as a gardener during the day and in a fast food restaurant at night, the plan he made with his wife is starting to bear fruit. His future in the country now depends on an immigration court date in a few months. “Many times people criticize the president (Trump), but at least he gives us hope,” he said. “They put us in shackles, but they give us a chance to make a living.”

Almudena Toral / Univision

In fact, the reason F is not in a detention center is because he passed a credible fear interview and because the officer who arrested him at the border felt that F did not represent a threat to national security. That meant he could wait with his son in freedom until they get their day in court.

But, with immigration courts saturated by a backlog of more than 780,000 cases, that process can take months or even years. According to official data, in 2018 only 1.4% of the families detained at the border were repatriated to their countries of origin.

For the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the increasing number of migrants entering illegally with minors “is a clear indication that they are responding to gaps in our nation’s legal framework.”

And, while the Trump administration looks for a way to halt the illegal entry of those fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, in their countries of origin there is no indication that threats can stop the flow of people heading north.

“At the beginning of this century, it was considered that there were a million Guatemalans in the United States. Now, according to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are three million Guatemalans there,” according to lawyer and analyst, Pedro Pablo Solares. “In recent years there have been much larger migration numbers, which shows the fear the US government has tried to instill has not worked.”

The fault lies not only with the coyotes

A shiny red bus and a number of encouraging phrases stand out on a poster for ‘Diamond Travel,’ the promotional material of a coyote on social media in western Guatemala: “Here’s the journey you’ve always dreamed of; don’t miss this great opportunity!!; ask about our financed journeys, professional advice with many years of experience”, reads the poster that has a language similar to that of tourist agencies.

The coyotes promote their services on Facebook with ads like this one.

Their potential clients, indigenous Mayan families belonging to the Mam and Quiché people in the remote rural highlands Quetzaltenango province, know that this image has nothing to do with the dusty roads and overcrowded trucks that face those traveling north.

Their relatives and friends, who have been migrating for decades, have told them about the dangers of the desert, the extortion of the drug cartels, and the fear of not being able to pay their debts to the coyotes. They have also heard of the massacres of migrants in Mexico and of those who left and returned in a coffin or simply disappeared.

But, for many Guatemalans, reaching the United States remains the only hope of escaping poverty and offering their children a future.

“There are many people here who have emigrated, many young people and young women. The thought of every young person here, even if they are studying, they always say that one day they will migrate,” says Florida Mamecho López, a preschool teacher who complains that migration has left many families divided and broken in her community.

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

The parents of half of her students migrated and the children want to follow in their footsteps when they grow up. “They think they will change the family’s fortune by going to the United States,” reflects the teacher. “It’s true though, the houses that you can see here are products of the migration to the United States.”

In her municipality, Cajolá, a town of about 20,000 inhabitants in Quetzaltenango, a walk down its streets is all it takes to discover who has migrated: the houses built with remittance money sent back by relatives - larger, concrete-built and with a fresh coat of paint - stand out against the traditional adobe homes.

$

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) remittances are currently "one of the main means of financing for many Guatemalan families, especially in rural areas."

Foreign exchange income for

family remittances in Guatemala

10,000 million dollars

8,444

7,160

8,000 millions

5,544

6,000 millions

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Until November

In 2017, family remittances, which doubled in the last decade, totaled close to 10% of Guatemala’s national expenditure (Gross Domestic Product).

Source: Bank of Guatemala

$

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) remittances are currently "one of the main means of financing for many Guatemalan families, especially in rural areas."

Foreign exchange income for family

remittances in Guatemala

10,000 million dollars

8,444

7,160

8,000 millions

5,544

6,000 millions

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Until November

In 2017, family remittances, which doubled in the last decade, totaled close to 10% of Guatemala’s national expenditure (Gross Domestic Product).

Source: Bank of Guatemala

$

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) remittances are currently "one of the main means of financing for many Guatemalan families, especially in rural areas."

Foreign exchange income for family remittances in Guatemala

10,000 million dollars

8,444

7,160

8,000 millions

5,544

6,000 millions

4,783

4,127

2010

2012

2014

2016

2018

Until November

In 2017, family remittances, which doubled in the last decade, totaled close to 10% of Guatemala’s national expenditure (Gross Domestic Product).

Source: Bank of Guatemala

$

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) remittances are currently "one of the main means of financing for many Guatemalan families, especially in rural areas."

Foreign

exchange

income for family

remittances

in Guatemala

8,444

8,192

7,160

6,285

5,544

5,105

4,783

4,378

4,127

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

Until November

In 2017, family remittances, which doubled in the last decade, totaled close to 10% of Guatemala’s national expenditure (Gross Domestic Product).

Source: Bank of Guatemala

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

In one of the more modest houses lives Magdalena, a woman wearing colorful traditional hand-woven blouse and skirt and a headdress. The eldest of her four children, Héctor Humberto, aged 15, migrated to the United States this year. “I was sad when he left. I’d rather he was here, but he said: ‘There is no money or work here,’ she says.

Before leaving, the young man worked planting potatoes, earning only 50 quetzales a day (just over $6) and that was barely enough to live, so he had to incur a debt to migrate.

Coyotes in western Guatemala can demand up to 100,000 quetzales (almost $13,000) from migrants. In return, they promise to escort them to the border, and, occasionally, even offer them several opportunities to make it across, as well as payment installments.

Both U.S. and Guatemalan authorities blame the increasing number of families turning themselves in to the Border Patrol on a disinformation campaign spread by the coyotes.

“The infamous coyotes tell them that now they three chances to try to reach the United States, not just one” says Guatemalan Vice Foreign Minister Pablo García Sáenz. “But more critically, that they can get immediate residence if they go with minors. They tell them that, when they turn themselves in at the border, they will automatically have legal immigration status.”

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Therefore, in recent months the government has launched a campaign to counter them with posters and ads on radio and social media warning of the dangers on the journey and the crime of human trafficking.

However, coyotes are not viewed with suspicion in the communities migrants are seeking to leave, but rather as meeting the needs of many by guiding them on their journey north.

And as long as nothing is done to control the causes of migration, people will keep going north, many analysts say. Poverty and lack of employment opportunities are still the main factors driving Guatemalans north. There are also more specific factors such as violence, drought, climate change, natural phenomena or collapsing coffee prices.

For analyst Pedro Pablo Solares, the main reason why migrant are not deterred is because of the “culture of migration that is ingrained in the way of thinking of communities.”

“Many of the family groups consider migration as a family industry,” he explains. “The grandfather made enough money to buy his house in Los Angeles, the father made the money to build his house in Chicago and so they also hope the son and the grandchildren will do the same when they are old enough.”

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Creating the “Guatemalan dream”

If someone understands the reasons why Guatemalans leave, it is Eduardo Jiménez, a returned migrant from Cajolá.

He learned what it means to migrate when he was just seven years old and he began to travel seasonally with his family to the southern coast of Guatemala to harvest coffee and cardamom and plant corn, cotton and tobacco. At 12, he started working in construction. And at 16, after having worked for almost a decade without any hope of being able to fulfill his dreams at home, he left for the United States with a group of friends.

That was 1996. Guatemala was about to sign the final peace agreements that brought about the end of the country’s long-running civil war. The streets of Cajolá were beginning to show the effects of remittances from the war exiles. “Those who had settled in the United States were already beginning to thrive,” recalls Jiménez, a sturdy man with a thin mustache and an easy smile. “It was already seen as a factor for economic stability for the family and that was the origin of the desire to migrate.”

Jiménez got what he set out for. First in Los Angeles and then in New Jersey he worked nonstop doing whatever job he could find; paid his debt to the coyote; sent money to help his family and also built a house in Guatemala.

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Aged 26, after ten years away, he returned. He hoped he could help bring about a change in Guatemala, but he encountered a far harder situation than he expected: “It is a painful reality because after having learned in the United States that dogs have doctors, they have schools, and benefits, our children (are) here with their intestinal worms walking barefoot, without education, malnourished,” he laments.

The frustration did not make him lose focus and, with the help of a friend in the United States, he created Grupo Cajolá, an organization that seeks to offer work and a decent life to his neighbors so that they don’t feel obliged to leave. So far, they have already employed 50 people, mostly women, mainly in a textile company, Tejedoras Mayaman.

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

The group also has a chicken farm, a carpentry shop, a beekeeping project and a school with four teachers to educate the children of the workers. Without the project, Jiménez believes that at least half of his workers would be in the United States, especially the younger ones.

That is the case of Blanca Huinil, who is in charge of quality control of the Mayamam weavers. If she did not have this job, the 22-year-old is sure that she would be in the United States, like her brother, her brother-in-law, several uncles and cousins, as well as her father when he was young, trying to earn money and build the house where they live now.

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Before getting the job in the association three years ago, Huinil was desperate. She was only 19 years old and had just divorced. With two daughters, one and three years old, and without a quetzal in her pocket, the three survived thanks to the help of her mother.

When her older sister Rosmeri, who is the cook in the school, told her that Grupo Cajolá was looking for an ironer, she did not hesitate. “When they paid me for the first time, I started crying,” says the woman in a soft and robust voice. “I had the opportunity to buy something for my girls and myself and now I feel very happy.”

Andrea Patiño Contreras / Univision

Now she earns between 1,000 and 1,500 quetzales per month (between $130 and $195). Rosmeri, another of her sisters, Sofía, also got a job as a seamstress in the association.

The founder of the association says he is aware that his project is not going to put an end to migration in his municipality, but he is convinced that with decent jobs for his neighbors he can reduce it considerably. It’s the “Guatemalan dream,” he says. “It’s not a lot to ask to have access to education, health, employment, for your family, your land, your community, that's all. We do not ask for more,” he adds.

To break this cycle of migration that recent generations have been forced to endure, lawyer Pedro Pablo Solares thinks that it is necessary to create greater more equal living standards in the “most remote populations that have been abandoned by the state for centuries so that they can begin to emerge”. He means an investment in education, food safety and job creation that allows Guatemalans to remain in their homeland.

Despite the $216 million in economic assistance that the Trump administration gave in 2017 and the Guatemalan government’s own social programs to curb migration, residents in several remote rural communities visited by Univision News said they don’t see any of the results.

U.S. funding for aid programs to combat violence and corruption in Guatemala was reduced by 19% between 2016 and 2017.

U.S. economic assistance

to Guatemala

95.3 million dollars

Borders and drug control

85.9

Economic growth, food security and development

78.7

Good governance, transparency and human rights

48.2

38.2

28.9

Security, justice and violence prevention

34.1

22.1

2016

2017

Source: WOLA (Advocacy for Human Rights in The Americas).

U.S. funding for aid programs to combat violence and corruption in Guatemala was reduced by 19% between 2016 and 2017.

U.S. economic assistance to Guatemala

95.3 million dollars

Borders and drug control

85.9

Economic growth, food security and development

78.7

48.2

Good governance, transparency and human rights

38.2

28.9

Security, justice and violence prevention

34.1

22.1

2016

2017

Source: WOLA (Advocacy for Human Rights in The Americas).

U.S. funding for aid programs to combat violence and corruption in Guatemala was reduced by 19% between 2016 and 2017.

U.S. economic assistance to Guatemala

95.3 million dollars

Borders and drug control

85.9

Economic growth, food security and development

78.7

48.2

Good governance, transparency and human rights

38.2

28.9

Security, justice and violence prevention

34.1

22.1

2016

2017

Source: WOLA (Advocacy for Human Rights in The Americas).

U.S. funding for aid programs to combat violence and corruption in Guatemala was reduced by 19% between 2016 and 2017.

95.3 million dollars

Borders and drug control

U.S. economic

assistance

to Guatemala

Economic growth, food security and development

78.7

85.9

48.2

Good governance, transparency and human rights

38.2

28.9

Security, justice and violence prevention

34.1

22.1

2016

2017

Source: WOLA (Advocacy for Human Rights in The Americas).

“The United States says: ‘We are going to cut the economic aid to Central America’ and that doesn’t harm our people anyway because the aid doesn’t make it to them. They get a bag of coriander and a plastic cup with some strange pasta. And that’s all the aid they get. Everything is spent in wage increases, in stipends. We are screwed,” laments F, the coffee grower from eastern Guatemala who migrated to Texas. “It hurts me so much that our Guatemala is so beautiful and it is being destroyed by corruption.”

Almudena Toral / Univision

He says that if he were to be deported, he wants to leave his son in the United States in the care of some friends. “Ultimately, I can fight one way or another down there but I don’t want my children to suffer,” he explains.

Blanca, on the other hand, thanks to her work in the textile company, has begun to imagine that her daughters have a future in her country: “My dream is for my girls to study. I do not want them to go to the United States, I’d rather keep fighting, keep working for my girls.”

In pictures A drought and collapse in coffee prices were driving forces behind latest migrant wave from eastern Guatemala

Historically, most Guatemalan immigrants to the United States have come from rural areas in western Guatemala, but in recent years the number of people leaving the eastern part of country has increased as well. Drought and low coffee prices are the main factors driving people out of areas like this, in the mountains of Zacapa department, bordering Honduras.
Luis, a coffee grower from the town of La Unión (Zacapa), says the crop is no longer profitable due to low prices. "The coffee is 40 quetzales per quintal and we pay 50 to the worker. We would rather let the business fail before we cut wages. And, what are we going to live on?" His 17-year-old son, his second oldest, migrated to the United States this year.
The price of coffee is dictated by the New York Stock Exchange. In recent years, growth in the global production of coffee has led to considerable drops in price, which is affecting many small growers in Guatemala.
In 2012, Guatemalan coffee farmers were affected by a rust (roya) epidemic. Many sought loans to replant their plots. Now they’re unsure how to pay their debts. The NGO Catholic Relief Services (CRS) says at least seven of the 200 producers it works with have migrated in recent months, according to the organization’s agriculture manager, Dan McQuillan.
"Everything you buy is expensive, what you sell is cheap. That's the situation," explains Juan, a 69-year-old farmer who has spent his entire life working in coffee. In addition to the low price of coffee, this area has also been hit by drought, leaving families without their subsistence crops of corn and beans.
Most of Juan's 14 children have left to seek work in other areas of Guatemala, so he hired day laborers to help him harvest his coffee. One of his daughters and a grandson also migrated to the United States this year. "It is an effort, a sacrifice that the family makes to be able to help us," he says.
Migration affects the entire social fabric of a community. According to Dan McQuillan of CRS, when one producer leaves he also stops hiring day laborers to tend to the land. CRS promotes the diversification of crops to make communities more resilient.

CREDITS

PRODUCTION: Andrea Patiño Contreras, Lorena Arroyo & Willy Barreno
EXECUTIVE PRODUCTION: Selymar Colón
TEXTS: Lorena Arroyo
VIDEO AND PHOTOS: Andrea Patiño Contreras
ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Almudena Toral & Mario Juárez
ILLUSTRATIONS AND ANIMATION: Mauricio R. Pons
EDITING: Jorge Cancino, Almudena Toral & José López
WEB DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT: Juanje Gómez
INFOGRAPHICS: Mariano Zafra
SPECIAL PROJECTS EDITOR: José López
SOCIAL MEDIA: María Carolina Hurtado
TRANSLATIONS: Carlos Sánchez, David Adams, Jessica Weiss & Saqbech Pérez.