|Guatemalan families deported from Mesa, Arizona in the United States cover their faces as they wait to be processed for re-entry at an air force base.|
© Jorge Dan Lopez ; Reuters Images
Monday, December 8, 2014
By: Amanda DePerro
Produced & edited by: Olivia Harlow
Hugo Chinchilla was starving. After paying huge sums of money, crossing the border between Mexico and Guatemala, swimming through rivers and running through the night, then-24-year-old Hugo and his 16-year-old cousin had been left in Mexico City by their coyote. Stranded without food, money or a way to contact family, the two slept in a fruit stand owned by a stranger they’d befriended. Before taking refuge in the market, Hugo and his cousin hadn’t eaten for three days.
“I had family in the United States. I could have called them but I didn’t have a penny,” said Chinchilla.
They had no other choice: They had to return home to Guatemala.
Chinchilla’s story from 2000 is not unusual or unique to Guatemalans. UNICEF estimates that 44,000 people from Guatemala are successful in leaving the country each year, many of whom are undocumented.
It is common for Latin Americans looking to leave their home countries to pay coyotes, or people who are paid to smuggle Latin Americans across borders, close to $3,500 each. Journeys across borders usually require multiple coyotes, and it is not unheard of for coyotes to kidnap and ransom the smuggled once they reach their destination for even more money—money that impoverished people and their families simply do not have.
Chinchilla attempted twice in 2000 to cross the border into the United States. During his first attempt, Mexican police caught him at the U.S.-Mexico border.
For Juan Manuel de León, a Guatemalan farmer, the trip was more successful. Like Chinchilla, he took buses and taxis, shepherded by coyotes, to get to the United States. Along the journey, both Chinchilla and de León were forced to swim across the Rio Suchiate, which marks a section of the border between Guatemala and Mexico.
For de León, the trip took eight days. Running through the night from town to town, through the desert and swimming across the river were just the beginning. Once he reached his destination, a milk farm in Dallas, he faced other hardships.
“I felt marginalized because I did not speak English. I didn’t understand what was happening around me,” said de León.
After paying for false documents and working for a year in Dallas, de León returned to Guatemala. He does not plan to go back to the United States, he said, unless he is able to go back legally. Both of his sons attempted to cross the border; one was successful and has lived in Indianapolis for 11 years, the other was unsuccessful and still lives in Guatemala.
“Most people aren’t coming here because they want to live in California,” said Richard L. Johnson, a Ph.D. student at Arizona who lived in rural Guatemala for two years with the Peace Corps, and is studying immigration from Guatemala. “They’re looking for a way to escape the poverty they’ve been in—when you deport someone like that, you’re deporting them into economic hardships that they’re here to escape.”
More than 5,000 people have died attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, according to the ACLU. Many of those crossing are children; according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, nearly 45,000 unaccompanied, undocumented children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador combined have been apprehended in attempt to cross the U.S. border in 2014 alone.
“To me it’s incredible that kids do this travel,” said Javier Ronquillo, an international graduate student from Guatemala studying mathematics at Ohio University. “It’s so hard. They get exposed to so many dangerous things; they get raped, they get harassed, they even get sometimes killed.”
However, for many who want to leave Guatemala, obtaining a visa rather than migrating without documents is unrealistic. A visa can get up to 10,000-12,000 Guatemalan quetzals (around $1,300-$1,500), but it is not a certainty that one’s visa will be granted after one’s money is paid. A coyote may be more expensive, but it is often seen as a guaranteed success.
“Immigration laws are closing the door for immigrants,” said de León. He had been convinced not to try the journey again without documents, however, after hearing a story of Guatemalans who were locked in a cold, dark room for three days without food by the U.S. border police after being caught.
“There’s forced labor at the border, kidnappings, other forms of violence that people experience,” said Johnson. “It’s a fracaso more often than it’s a success.”
However, the U.S. government has had little victory in quelling the flow of undocumented migrants into the country.
“The idea that we can just deport this problem away is totally false and an illusion that needs to be countered,” said Johnson.
“It’s clear that deportation doesn’t work, because they are going to come back again,” said Ronquillo. “It’s incredible because they face so many risks coming back; getting killed, getting kidnapped, getting raped, getting—a million of things.”
On November 20, President Obama gave a speech on immigration and the steps the U.S. government has taken to lower the number of crossings at the border.
“Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future?” said President Obama in the speech.
Chinchilla’s brother, who came to the United States successfully and is working in Stanford as a gardener, told Chinchilla not to come back to the United States. “This is not as good as it seems,” he said. Chinchilla’s brother’s wife and children still live in Guatemala. He hopes to be able to save enough to start sending money back to them, but is barely making enough in the United States to support even himself.
“I wanted to change my life, because in Guatemala you are condemned to poverty,” said Chinchilla. “Ir en los Estados Unidos es un sueño.”“To live in the United States is a dream.”