There won’t be sources or statistics in this post. I’m going to write this from what I have learned after living 18 years in Guatemala, and covering this for over a year and a half online. If you need sources or statistics on Guatemalan migration I recommend this piece from the Migration Information Source.
My first impressions of Guatemalans migrants were formulated in the rural community on the South Pacific coast that I spent my early childhood in. There, Guatemalans would use their severance after years of hard work to pay for a smuggler, or coyote, to take them North. Human smuggling is a lot like the drug trade in that it is diffuse and impossible to generalize. You take out one coyote and several will rise up to take his place.
Coyotes take migrants through all manner of routes. Some are taken through the northern rainforests of Guatemala and up the Mexican Atlantic coast. Others hop on trains for legs of the trip. As far as I can tell, though, smugglers method of choice is to cram migrants in the back of vehicles for days on end, where many suffocate or die of thirst.
Almost all of the Guatemalans I knew that could pay for a coyote made it. A lot of them now live in the same town in the U.S. and send money back home to their family members. The joke is that the people that are best off are the ones that stay behind and receive money from their family in the U.S. I know a mother with all of her sons and daughters in the U.S. that has a two story house and two cars. She can’t drive. I also don’t think she’s better off. She’s lonely.
While the trip for these migrants was harrowing, they seemed to get ahead and carve out a living for themselves. It wasn’t until years later when I retraced the route of a migrant from Guatemala into the U.S. that I came a lot closer to understanding what it meant to be a migrant. People that can pay a coyote to suffocate them or abandon them in the desert are priviliged compared to most people.
It was in Arriaga, Mexico, that I first came in contact with average Central American migrants. There, people had traveled on foot for 12-16 days from their homes in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. They still had 3000 kilometers to go. During their two week walk it wasn’t a question of whether or not they would get assaulted, it was a question of how many times they would get assaulted by men with guns that would take everything they owned, even their shoes. Most of the people I spoke to had been assaulted three or four times.
They had been waiting by the tracks in Arriaga for a train that they would have to hang on to for days just to get to Veracruz, Mexico (still 2,239 kilometers away in a straight line). During that train ride, migrants can fall off by either scrambling to get on the train, by falling asleep after hanging on for days, by getting knocked off by a branch or something, or when they are escaping the many armed bands that raid the trains. When they do many lose their limbs or their lives when they fall off, severed as the train runs over them.
These were some of the many migrants that would not make it to the U.S. It would take months before they reached the border, if they were able to make it that far. Our simplistic minds like to categorize the people that leave and the ways in which they arrive but it is very difficult to generalize these massive human movements. It was only very recently that I discovered an entirely different segment of migrants.
Woman usually don’t have the disposable income that men do, so the only way for poor women from Central American and Mexico to get to the U.S. is to sell their bodies. Communities up and down Mexico and Central American are riddled with prostitutes from countries further South. Some are forced into the industry more brutally then others, but all are forced because it’s the only way for them to get ahead.
The U.S. “immigration debate” hasn’t even touched upon the negative affects that migration is having long before people reach the U.S. border. Those are the stories you don’t hear, from the migrants that didn’t make it. These are the migrants that are getting beat up on in the U.S. despite having faced some of the worst injustices that this world knows how to deal. Worst of all they are forced to leave due to policies engineered and supported by the U.S. government.
All over the world migrants are discriminated against, and the U.S. is no exception. When are we going to start discussing the root of the problems associated with migration? When are we going to tackle a global system that is forcing these migrants to leave. Progressives and conservatives in the U.S. have a long way to go.