US policy and the roots of the migration crisis

De Guatemala a los Estados Unidos – Foto Uli Stelzner
Migrants board the train La Bestia in Mexico. Photo by Uli Stelzner.
By Sara Van Horn

Migration to the US has risen steadily since Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict created hundreds of thousands of refugees. In 2015, a total of 928,000 Guatemalans completed the journey to the Unites States. The most common route of travel is by freight train; beginning in southern Mexico, migrants hitch rides aboard a train known colloquially as La Bestia (The Beast), which travels north toward the US border.

There are many dangers facing Guatemalans who attempt the journey. The train itself is dangerous; there is risk of amputation or death if migrants fall and of gang violence, extortion, and kidnapping. Rape is so common that many women take contraceptive pills as preparation for the journey.

At the US-Mexico border, migrants must find a way into the US undetected by US Border Patrol. This usually involves walking many hours in the desert, often without adequate food, water, or shelter, but with the constant fear of discovery.

“The journey from Central America through Mexico to Arizona (specifically the Sonoran Desert) is highly dangerous,” says Melanie Gleason, an Immigration Rights lawyer working on the US-Mexican border.  “People do not migrate and leave their homes unless there are urgent circumstances which render it necessary.”

So, what is pushing Guatemalans to migrate?

Willy Barreno, the co-founder of Café Red Kat in Xela, cites globalization and the implementation of Free Trade Agreements. Barreno, who lived in the US for 14 years, described himself as an economic refugee, who sought employment in the US because of the lack of jobs back home.

Willy Barreno, co-founder of Café Red Kat in Xela.

Past US intervention in Guatemala has dramatic consequences today. From the bombing of Guatemala City and the overthrow of a democratic government in 1954 to the military and political support for dictatorships ordering genocide in the 80s, the US shares responsibility for the 36 years of internal armed conflict that forced so many Guatemalans to flee their homeland. The recent Free Trade Agreements pushed by the US have spurred yet more migration. These agreements generally allow large corporations to flood countries like Guatemala with enormous quantities of cheap, industrially-produced goods, in many cases food products that put local farmers who can’t compete with the low prices out of business.

There have been varied responses by the US government to the dramatic increase of Central Americans migrating to the US. In the early 1990s, US Border Patrol implemented a program called Prevention through Deterrence. The program’s main strategy is still to redirect immigrants through the harshest sections of the US-Mexican border in the hopes that increased risk will dissuade desperate migrants.

In 2014, the Mexican government worked with the United States to implement a program called Programa Frontera Sur to strengthen and militarize Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. And the US, under the Obama Administration, increased the number of deportations, forcibly removing more than three million immigrants in Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency.

There are, however, many organizations working to make the trip easier and deaths less frequent. And, just as importantly, there are organizations working to create the local employment that Guatemalans need, so that migrating does not feel like the only option.

In 2010, Barreno created Café Red Kat with the intention of teaching young Guatemalans to cook and of providing employment for returned migrants who had cooking experience in the US. The focus, he believes, should be on Guatemalan pride and on creating a Guatemalan dream instead of pursuing a foreign one.

Migrants board the train “La Bestia” in Mexico. Photo by Uli Stelzner.

Sara Van Horn is a writer from the US who lives in New York City. She studies Spanish and the history of Guatemala in Rhode Island.