Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: The Journal’s border reporter, Angela Kocherga, recently visited Guatemala to try to discover what is driving a large number of citizens of the Central American nation to the United States, with many now winding up in New Mexico’s remote Bootheel.
CIENEGA GRANDE, Guatemala – Martina Alvarez sat at a wooden table in her small tortilla shop and lamented the exodus of families from Guatemala headed for the United States, including some of her own relatives.
“They left eight days ago,” Alvarez said. “They said they are going to turn themselves in to immigration authorities there, to ask for help.”
One of those asking for asylum is a young mother who departed with her 5-year-old boy.
Deep poverty and violence – including extortion by street gangs, impunity and government corruption – are real factors influencing Guatemalans to migrate.
But these days there is another driving force: smugglers actively promoting their services with the promise that parents who make it across the border will be allowed to stay in the U.S.
New Mexico’s Bootheel has become one of the newest routes used by coyotes taking people to the U.S. border. Since Oct. 27, large groups totaling more than 5,370 people have arrived in Antelope Wells. Most are parents with children, or minors traveling alone from Guatemala, according to Border Patrol.
“Nobody leaves because they think it’s going to be easy,” said Luis Argueta, a Guatemalan filmmaker who has produced a trilogy of documentaries exploring migration issues.
Spurred by smugglers, Guatemalans who may have contemplated leaving for the U.S. see this as their moment.
“It is a fact if you arrive at the border with an underage child your chances of being admitted temporarily are very high,” Argueta said.
With limited family detention space and a ban on keeping children locked up for more than 20 days, smuggling organizations peddling the American Dream dangle the ultimate reward for migrants who ask for asylum at the border.
“Smugglers will tell people, ‘You’re going to get a permit,’ which is not true. They’re going to get an order of appearance (for immigration court), but they confuse the immigrants. They tell them with this paper you can work for however long you want. It’s not true,” Argueta said.
Central Americans with children are released, often with ankle tracking devices, and though most won’t be granted asylum, a backlog in cases means they can stay in the U.S. until a judge decides their case.
“It can take years. But people know that in a year or two years they can pay the debt, the debt to the smugglers,”Argueta said.
Smugglers are looking for new customers, and not just in rural areas with a history of heavy migration. They are also drumming up business in places like Chimaltenango, in central Guatemala.
Chimaltenango, one of 22 departments, which are similar to states, is home to 15 municipalities, including San Martin Jilotepeque. At the open-air market in front of a historic Catholic church under renovation, it’s an open secret that coyotes are looking for new customers.
“If you have a child, they say you get into the U.S. Is that true?” asked Dina Muzuzt, 36, perched on a stool at her fruit and vegetable stand behind piles of tangerines, potatoes and apples. She is amazed that her cousin’s husband made it to the U.S. so quickly.
“He took his daughter. In 11 days he arrived. Now, he’s in New Jersey,” Muzuzt said.
“They’ve told me I should go because my husband is there,” she said. He left 12 years ago.
“I’m not going to go. You know why? He can come here,” she said with a chuckle. Muzuzt said she is content. “What do I want over there?”
A woman approached when she saw Muzuzt talking with a stranger and asked her, “Are you leaving for the states?”
“No,” Muzuzt answered, explaining that the visitor is a reporter.
But at another produce stand in the market her cousin was reluctantly considering leaving with her 14-year-old son to join her husband and teenage daughter in the U.S. The impetus for her to leave was the crime she sees.
“They’ve robbed the truck we were riding in twice,” Ana Matzutz said.
Gunmen stopped the vehicle when they were on the way to buy produce and fired warning shots into the ceiling of the truck, she said. They made people strip down to their underwear and “they put their hands in undergarments and bras,” to make sure people were not hiding cash, she said.
“What do we have left when bad people rob us?” she asked. “This is what we live from. This is how we eat.”
She wouldn’t confirm that they will hire a smuggler to take them to the U.S. border.
Now that her husband is in the United States, she said, the family has been targeted for extortion because gangs believe they have money.
“It’s a very troubled country that isn’t providing to the vast percentage of its population what any government should be providing,” said Sue Patterson, a former U.S. consul general serving in Guatemala.
After retiring from the foreign service in 1996, Patterson started WINGS, a nonprofit that helps rural and indigenous women with reproductive health and family planning in Guatemala, where half of the population copes with chronic malnutrition.
Poverty, a growing population and high unemployment fuel migration, Patterson pointed out. Guatemalans working at minimum wage in the U.S. can make as much in an hour as they can working a whole day at home.
“There are true, valid reasons for heading off to the U.S. and a lot of optimism in that, and a lot of that is based on actual stories of the brother who got up there and started sending back money,” she said.
But she suspects something else is behind the sudden surge in migration from Guatemala.
“What’s made it explode so suddenly, in my opinion, has to be the traffickers. They’re spreading false information. I can’t find any other explanation,” Patterson said.
The largest number of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the border now are from Guatemala, more than from both Honduras and El Salvador.
Since October, 50,593 family units – parents with children – from Guatemala have turned themselves in to Border Patrol, according to government figures.
“This is the newest market, if you will, of people who are very desperate people to get to the United States,” said Theresa Brown, an immigration expert with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C.
She said sophisticated smuggling networks are aggressively promoting their services in Central America by touting their knowledge of the border, U.S. policies and the best time to cross.
“Think of it like a car dealer. They always want you to believe that right now is the time you must buy because they’ve got to make their numbers,” Brown said.
In some cases, families use deeds to property as collateral while they pay their debt to smuggling organizations. Others get a loan from relatives in the U.S. to pay smuggling fees, which according to various people in Guatemala can range from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the services provided and final destination.
The policies of the administration of President Donald Trump may also be boosting smugglers’ profits when Central American families are turned away at official ports of entry and told to wait in Mexico for their turn to file an asylum claim, according to Brown.
“The smugglers are going to the people waiting in those long lines and saying, ‘Why are you waiting here? They’re never going to let you in. I can get you into the U.S. today,’ ” Brown said.
They are taking families by the busload to remote stretches of the border, including Antelope Wells, where migrants are told where to cross and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents, according to the Border Patrol.
Guatemalans know about the two migrant children who died while in Border Patrol custody in December and others who have lost their lives heading north, but Argueta, the filmmaker, said a “deep either faith or fatalism” tempers their fears.
” ‘God willing, it won’t happen to me. God willing, I’ll make it. God willing, I’ll succeed and achieve some of my goals.’ And they’ve seen others who have done it,” Argueta said.
Alvarez’s son was 20 years old when he set off for the U.S. six years ago to earn some money after the birth of his second child. He quickly ended up in an immigration detention center and was deported.
“When he arrived, I was so happy to have my son back,” Alvarez said. “I told him we have beans, corn and that’s enough.”
Not long after her son came home, the smuggler showed up offering him another chance to cross the border. Her husband talked to the man.
“The coyote came here, and I told him, ‘Don’t bother us because my son will not be leaving,’ ” Celestino Alvarez said.
But on a busy street corner in the city of Chimaltenango, someone else’s son said he will be setting off for the U.S. The shoeshine boy said he’s 13, but he looks much younger. Jose Macario tells a customer, “My father says we should go.”
He said they will depart for the U.S. as soon as they have enough money to pay the smuggler.