Beyond the Wall: Stories from the other side of the immigration crisis

President Donald J. Trump’s journey to the White House began with a simple promise. “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border,” he announced in June 2015, when few took the hotel mogul’s presidential ambitions, or chances, too seriously. “And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Mr. Trump himself would temper those words shortly after his election—“for certain areas...there could be some fencing,” he said in an interview on “60 Minutes” on Nov. 13. But ultimately it does not matter whether it is a great wall or just a really long fence. If he builds it, they will still come.

They will come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where a deadly mix of poverty, violence and corruption leaves families with no other option but to flee north. They will pay a coyoteanywhere from $5,000 to $14,000 for three chances to roll the dice and make it across the border. They will risk extortion, kidnapping and rape on the 2,500-mile trek north, many riding atop la bestia, a train overflowing with other migrants, or fighting for air in the back of a crowded truck.

It does not matter whether it is a great wall or just a really long fence. If Trump builds it, they will still come.

When the road ends, they will walk for miles in the punishing desert heat of northern Mexico, dodging Border Patrol agents, cartels and American vigilantes until the lucky ones cross undetected into the United States. Some will not make it out of the desert alive. The rest will be detained and flown back to their country of origin at an average cost to U.S. taxpayers of $12,500 each.

The Revolving Door

I am standing in an empty deportation processing center in Guatemala City, where migrants returned from the U.S. border are welcomed, registered and sent on their way back into the country they had planned to leave behind. Cameras and recording devices are prohibited, and I am told not to initiate any conversations with the returnees, some of whom may be traumatized by their sudden reversal of fortune after traveling so far and coming so close to the finish line. The nondescript brick building is tucked into the corner of the national air force base at La Aurora International Airport. Inside, it feels like a high school cafeteria, complete with brown-bag lunches on white folding chairs. An elevated wooden counter and 12 aging computers at the front of the room suggest D.M.V.-level wait times ahead. Upbeat marimba music blares discordantly from above like a forced laugh.

A large sign behind the counter reads: “Ya estás en tu país and con tu gente”—“You are now in your country and with your people.” It is a bittersweet welcome for many of the returning migrants, who say they love their country and would have stayed in Guatemala if they could have.

A football field away the returnees start leaving the plane. First 10 or so women and girls, walking in threesomes and pairs. Then a much longer line of men, young and old, make their procession across the tarmac. As they enter the building, some flash a wide, confident grin or wear a sheepish smile. Many look stoically ahead; others, exhausted and visibly upset, study the floor. More than a few are still wearing the white T-shirts they were given at detention centers in the United States. For security reasons, shoelaces and belts are not allowed. The chains and shackles that had bound them on the plane have been removed.

One hundred sixty-two Guatemalans fill the white folding chairs. Three or four times a day, four or five days a week, flights carrying as many as 260 returnees arrive at the base. Those numbers bear witness to the scale of the migrant crisis, though the scene is not entirely somber. Once everyone is seated, there is an animated call-and-response between the peppy representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the returning migrants.

“Thanks be to God because we are all alive when so many do not make it,” she tells them. “Don’t think of yourself as losers. You took a risk.” Some roll their eyes, others cheer. It is clear that many of them have been through this routine before.

That includes Miguel, 30 years old with a sturdy build and quiet voice, who is eager to tell his story. He says he first left for the United States in 2000 at the age of 14 because there were no jobs in his small town in the north of Guatemala. He wound up in White Plains, N.Y., working as a landscaper for nine years. Six years ago, he returned to Guatemala to care for his ailing father. After his father died, he and his girlfriend, pregnant at the time, again made their way north. She made it across the border; he did not.

Two failed border crossings and a year and a half later, he still has not met his child. He says he will try his luck at the border again—maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few months.

A migration policy that begins and ends with fortifying the U.S. border is destined for expensive failure.

Mr. Trump has not detailed how he plans to stem the flow of this desperate exodus. But the revolving door of Guatemala’s deportation center makes one thing clear: A migration policy that begins and ends with fortifying the U.S. border is destined for expensive failure.

Migrant or Refugee?

Few see the futility of a U.S. policy of wall-building more clearly than Mauro Verzeletti, C.S. The Scalabrini missionary, known to migrants and officials here as Padre Mauro, runs La Casa del Migrante, which provides returnees with a temporary place to stay, humanitarian assistance and psychological counseling. Every day he receives a schedule of the flight arrivals at Guatemala City’s airport and dispatches a white van to pick up returning Guatemalans who have nowhere else to go.  Padre Mauro spends much of his time tending to the immediate needs of these new arrivals, a ministry that he considers essential but merely a Band-Aid in the face of a migration crisis. What the country needs, he says, is for its leaders and the international community to address the conditions that push thousands of people like Miguel north every month.

The plight of Central American migrants and refugees briefly made front page news in 2014, when a surge in families and unaccompanied children overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system. While the alarm-raising headlines have dropped off, the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol has not. In 2016, 18,914 Guatemalan youths were picked up—almost 2,000 more than the 17,057 apprehended two years prior.

North of the border, political debate has centered on whether these families and children should be considered economic migrants, who are subject to deportation, or refugees, who can claim a legitimate right to asylum. But such neat categories are not reflected in the lives of most Guatemalans, says Padre Mauro. Poverty and violence, past and present, are deeply intertwined in the country.

Like other countries in the region, Guatemala experienced a devastating, decades-long civil war between U.S.-backed military authoritarians and leftist rebels who drew their support from the indigenous Mayan community and the rural poor. The war ended in 1996, but patterns of exclusion and discrimination persist.

In 1993, Virginia Searing, S.C., came to Quiché, a region devastated by the government’s scorched-earth policy, to establish a mental health program for victimized communities. She says parents and grandparents in the area “saw their loved ones burned alive, macheted, tortured, raped…. They pass that on. How does a person live having experienced that?”

This unaddressed trauma, as well as impotent rage toward an economic system that still rewards the rich and the corrupt, Sister Searing says, is all too often expressed in the form of sexual violence, family abandonment and domestic and child abuse. Is a mother fleeing with children that she cannot feed, from a husband who abuses her, truly a migrant? Or is it more accurate to call her a refugee?

Is a mother fleeing with children that she cannot feed, from a husband who abuses her, truly a migrant? Or is it more accurate to call her a refugee?

For decades, the United States has promoted neoliberal policies as the best economic response to this deadly mix of poverty and violence. Meanwhile, they have directed foreign assistance to state security forces with shaky human rights records. The Central American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2004, promised to bring jobs to the region and reduce migration to the United States. Instead, Padre Mauro says, Cafta enriched the oligarchs and multinational corporations and displaced small farmers. A decade later, Guatemala has a booming biofuels export industry—and the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. Fifty percent of children under 5 are malnourished, and the rate is even higher for indigenous populations. 

Padre Mauro believes the U.S. response to the 2014 border crisis will bring more of the same.

The Obama administration threw its support behind the Alliance for Prosperity, a five-year, $22 billion plan drawn up by the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that aims to reduce incentives for migration by spurring private sector growth, strengthening the rule of law and combating gang- and cartel-driven violence. Roughly 60 percent of the funds are earmarked for policing and border security measures, and much of the development aid is focused on attracting foreign companies rather than investing in health, education and social security. These public services have been crippled by a culture of tax evasion among the country’s businesses and elite.

What the 60 percent of Guatemalans living in poverty need, Padre Mauro insists, is access to “las tres T’s: trabajo, techo, tierra”(“the three L’s: labor, lodging, land”). It is the formulation used by Pope Francis in a forceful address to the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, a gathering of grassroots organizations of the poor and marginalized, in July 2015: “I wish to join my voice to yours in calling for land, lodging and labor for all our brothers and sisters. I said it and I repeat it: These are sacred rights.”

A Future With Dignity

The small farm holders of Nuevo Eden, a coffee cooperative in San Marcos, a lush, mountainous district in Guatemala’s western highlands, have been fighting for these rights for decades.

At the height of the civil war, families in the area fled to Mexico to escape atrocities perpetrated against indigenous Maya by military and paramilitary groups. Whole villages were razed, women were raped, families were gathered into churches and burned in a brutal campaign considered by many here a genocide. The community was in exile for 16 years, and when the war ended, it took another two years of organizing and strikes to force the Guatemalan government to hand over the money to buy back land promised in the peace accords.

That was not the end of their trials. Large dealers set the price for coffee beans. Turning a profit is difficult even in a good year. Then in 2012, roya—a fungus that because of climate change is reaching trees at altitudes once considered immune to the coffee leaf rust epidemic—wiped out 70 percent to 80 percent of their crop.

Production has bounced back, thanks in part to a partnership with Catholic Relief Services, which in 2014 invested seed capital for rust-resilient coffee plants and introduced a community savings and lending program that helped farmers diversify their crops and improve cultivation techniques. But warming temperatures continue to push farmers in the area farther up the mountain. At some point, they will reach an altitude where even the most resilient seeds cannot take root.

What concerns these farmers most, however, is what the future will bring for young people in the region.

Young people like Angelita. At just 18 years of age, she is a volunteer firefighter, her community’s de facto E.M.T. and a midwife—she has managed four deliveries so far. She is also a trained smokejumper, those fearless types who parachute into wildfires. She has studied literature and computers in high school, helps out her dad in the fields and her mom in the kitchen and plays soccer in her free time. She has a résumé and ambition that would make aspiring Ivy Leaguers look over their shoulders.

But, like most people under 30 here, she has no job and few prospects for further schooling. When her friends ask her why she does so much for no pay, she has a simple answer: “Es mi vocación”—to support her family, to strengthen her community, to build up her country is her vocation. And to listen to her talk is to know that if she had even the smallest opportunity, she would do all that and more.

Last summer, Angelita and some 20 other young people from surrounding communities were given the chance, with the support of C.R.S. and Caritas Internationalis, to travel to Guatemala City for a week-long training in cupping, a process to evaluate the aroma, flavor and body of coffee. These young people graduated from high school with degrees in teaching, business and computers, but they take pride in this new skill and want to share it with the cooperatives so that farmers can command a higher price for their harvest. But while a more competitive coffee product may benefit the community, it is not enough to provide the kind of formal employment young people desperately need if they are to stay in the region.

Angelita is one of 10 siblings; three of her four brothers are already living in the United States. Others in her community have also migrated or resorted to criminal activity to support themselves and their families. Susana, another participant in the coffee cupping program, graduated with a teaching degree three years ago and still cannot find work. The few coveted teaching posts are given to the family members of government officials, she says.

Susana has told her parents that she plans to leave for the United States to help support her younger sisters. She says she will take whatever work she can get up north: “Harvesting tomatoes, washing, cooking. I’m willing to do that.”

Angelita has also been tempted to leave. But she cannot imagine leaving her family. She wants their strength and unity to be a model for their neighbors. “I’ve had obstacles in my life,” she says. But her father, a strong and loving influence, told her that whenever she encounters an obstacle, it means there is something good waiting beyond it.

The Way Out

In his address in Bolivia, Pope Francis told the grassroots organizers that there is no simple solution, no single social program that will tear down the many obstacles—corruption, inequality, environmental degradation, war—holding back bright, ambitious young people all over the developing world: “Don’t expect a recipe from this pope.”

Much less from the president of the United States. “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites,” the pope said. “It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize.”

Guatemalans know this. The two phrases one hears most from those contemplating a way out of the country’s intractable cycle of corruption and poverty are “civil society” and “middle class”—neither of which can be built up with foreign aid alone.

But neither can the United States ignore the fate of the hundreds of thousands of people living with constant hunger, violence and economic despair beyond its border. Addressing another Meeting of Popular Movements, this time at the Vaticanjust days before the election of Mr. Trump, the pope offered a warning to those who would respond to the desperation of migrants and refugees by building walls: “There are so many cemeteries alongside the walls, walls drenched in innocent blood.”

Mr. Trump can build his wall. But they will keeping coming. Until deported mothers and fathers like Miguel are reunited with their children in the United States, they will keep coming. Until aspiring teachers like Susana are able to use and pass on their education, until someone like Angelita is able to support herself and her family, they will keep coming.

Eventually, as Pope Francis observes, “All walls collapse—all of them.”

Tom Fields
3 months 1 week ago
Hello, Your article is moving and well written but leaves me wondering. With the devastation you describe---how many people from how many countries for how long---should we take? Can Trump do better with policies to support people in their own countries---that Obama's disasters? We took in people from Russia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War---but they were supported by organizations like the Tolstoy Foundation---and quickly became productive citizens. Now there are many more potential refugees from Eastern Europe. We took in refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. They were supported by relatives and foundations and became productive quickly. What you describe seems like decades of millions of people---many unproductive---not speaking English and lacking support here except for American government money and programs. Why would their countries of origin ever improve if we simply become the escape valve? Have you done any estimate at all---as to the billions in long term costs associated with your thinking? Who pays? How long? What needs go unmet? Can we bring the UN into these Countries to provide food, medicine, job training,, protection---etc? Can the Catholic Church do more? Can the Pope provide massive funds and support personnel to the Churches in these Countries? There are literally millions of displaced people--from all over the world. Is there a limit to our capacity?
Henry George
3 months ago

Having been in Berlin during the building of the Wall, I can say
unequivocally that Walls can stop people from crossing borders,
especially if they are built to keep people out.

We need to stabilise the border.
If there are Seasonal Workers who wish to come to America,
let them registered, given Identification Cards and the legal right
to be paid a Minimum Wage and the right to work in a safe work
environment. Then once their Seasonal Work is finished, travel back
to their native country or sign up for another Seasonal Job.

Surely this is better than asking someone to slip over the borders
again and again at the mercy of Coyotes and the Deserts and the
possibility of being arrested by the Border Patrol.

If it takes a Wall to stabilise the border then build it.

Meanwhile declare Amnesty for all non-violent immigrants
but for the sake of all - stabilise and regulate Immigration.

Gabriel Marcella
4 weeks 1 day ago

This is a superb article. It challenges us to think beyond the sloganeering and simplifications. A wall offers the illusion of security. Needed is a comprehensive strategy of border security based on deterring and apprehending undocumented entry. This means more resources for the Border Patrol: the best technology, the best intelligence, and enough personnel. In addition, the wall would not catch the estimated 417,000 visitors from all over the world that overstay their visas each year. Our nation must also address the difficult question of the drivers that cause desperate people to leave the enormous violence raging in Central America and risk everything to come to this country. Border security must address the large number of guns bought on the US side and reach Mexican and Central American criminals, especially in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. 70% of guns seized in Mexico come from the United States, 40% is the figure in Central Mexico. Moreover, the consumption of cocaine by Americans feeds criminal gangs and corrupts institutions in those countries. Americans consume narcotics at the cost of peace and security in the countries immediately to the south. Border security should work both ways. Unfortunately, the bombast coming out of political leaders does not allow for nuance and taking responsibility.

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