Emigration: A View from Guatemala
In November 2014, a group of nine people from First Presbyterian Church in West Chester, PA, along with the Rev. Hector Casteneda, a translator from the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA), visited Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City. Carlos Lopez, the director of the shelter for the last eight of its 21 years, met with the group in a classroom notable for the posters covering every inch of wall space. The posters were difficult to ignore since they conveyed information on the dangers of emigration in bold print, primary colors, and arresting images.
Casa del Migrante is a shelter for emigrants and deportees, one of five Scalabrinian Roman Catholic missions in Mexico and Guatemala. It has capacity for up to 60 residents. The mission provides residents with three meals a day, a bed, shower, phone access, and counsel. As the problem of emigration has increased over the years, other Roman Catholic orders are establishing places to care for emigrants and deportees, six having been opened within two weeks of our arrival in Guatemala City.
Lopez serves three different categories of people: emigrants on their way to another Central or South American country, those coming to the capital city from the Guatemalan countryside, and emigrants to the US who have been deported. Guatemala has become a point of destination for Central and South American emigrants due to the help available to them. The deportees come to Guatemala by bus from Mexico or by special flights arriving from the United States. Three flights of deportees arrive daily from the US, according to Lopez—about 400 people. Casa del Migrante personnel meet the planes and offer aid to those who have no resources.
Casa sees its role as educational, hoping to dissuade emigrants by describing the kind of suffering they will find on the journey. Residents hear about the perilous journey through Mexico experienced by those who have tried before. Lopez believes that Mexican authorities and police are corrupt and are sometimes linked with the Mexican cartels. He says that emigrants will avoid the police stationed on one migratory route only to encounter traffickers or cartels on the alternative route. The women, especially, are taken and enslaved, and many are forced into prostitution in Mexico or Guatemala.
One emigrant woman who had been captured by a Mexican cartel told Lopez that her job as their captive was to wash their clothes. Cartel members bragged in her presence that they were given emigrants (captured by police) whom they then killed, cut up, and buried in graves.
The primary reason Guatemalans emigrate is poverty. Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas* describes the economic and social stratification of the population using the a metaphor of a five-level building. In this model, two strata of the population—68%—live below ground in two basement levels; they live in extreme poverty and have difficulty accessing services such as health and education. These socially marginalized people have almost no education, have a high illiteracy rate, and are preoccupied with basic survival. A full two-thirds of the population live at subsistence level and are vulnerable to drugs, gangs, and anti-social behavior.
Ironically, the gang problem is a consequence of the current US deportation policy. Those who have made it to the US live in fear of deportation, causing them to self-isolate in communities of those in similar circumstances. They learn about gang life in the US and imitate it. Gang members who are deported take gang life back to Guatemala. Extremely violent, they recruit young, impoverished Guatemalans by threatening them with death. These vulnerable young people reason, "If I'm going to be killed anyway for refusing to join a drug gang, I might as well take the risk of emigrating. Even if I die on the way, at least I gave it a try."
Facing either death at the hands of drug gangs or a life on the margins, many decide to emigrate. Given the many dangers of emigrating, including the rise of kidnapping for ransom, many Guatemalans find themselves in a no-win situation.
Lopez estimates that 99% of those staying at Casa del Migrante, after being presented with this information, say they would rather die trying than not try at all. Sixty to 70% of those deported try emigrating again, especially those who have already lived more than five years in the US. Most are young people between the ages of 15 and 30.**
It should be noted that neither the Guatemalan government nor any other agency in Guatemala is addressing this crisis. It is not in the interest of the top strata of society—the 1.5% of the population—to support resolution of the issue. Since this group, represented by a mere 25 established families, has primary influence over all that occurs in the country, it is not likely that any attention will be paid to this crisis without considerable international pressure.
As we were leaving Casa del Migrante, we took one look back at the building. In the window beside the front door hung a poster that read: "Please, Mr. President, take the power of the pen and halt deportations NOW!"
Rev. Elizabeth Congdon-Martin is the recently retired Director of Supervised Ministries at Palmer Theological Seminary, formerly Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. The delegation from First Presbyterian Church that she was a part of traveled to Guatemala for its biennial visit with their partner church, Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani in Villa Nueva. The partnership was developed with the help of CEDEPCA and has enjoyed a growing relationship of respect and mutual support for more than a decade. For this visit to Guatemala, the delegation had requested help in understanding the immigration issue.
* Edelberto Torres-Rivas is a prolific academic and a prime interpreter of Central America economically, sociologically, and culturally. His article "Guatemala: A Building of Five Levels" was published in www.albedrio.org, July 18, 2004. Torres-Rivas uses the metaphor of a five-level building to describe the five strata of the Guatemalan population, where the vast majority live in extreme poverty and a tiny percentage control the country's considerable financial resources. The article also describes the neglect of the country to address any change in the situation and the hopelessness of the two subsistence level populations.
** Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, Director Nery Rodenas