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Migration: From empathy to action

The images we see and the stories we read depicting the human suffering at our southern border commonly gives rise to our deepest emotions: anger over policies, politics and profound empathy. Also, commonly, our response stops there, coupled with a sense of helplessness.

It is worth reiterating some facts associated with the crisis. Over the past year, just short of half of those seeking asylum in the United States originated from Guatemala. Stunningly, in the past 10 months, over 1% of Guatemala’s population has crossed our border, and the demographics have changed dramatically.

Previously, most of those seeking asylum were men escaping in response to gang extortion, drug-related violence and urban poverty. While these problems continue, the profiles of the typical migrant have shifted from urban to rural, and from men to women and children. The reasons are myriad and complex, but they center on lives of desperate poverty triggered by drought, collapsing coffee prices, systemic corruption and the inducements of coyotes who work as smugglers .

In particular, the diaspora is originating from Guatemala’s Western Highlands, where 76% of the population is impoverished and 67% of children under 5 are malnourished. Desperation is pervasive.

To facilitate the process of empathy giving way to action, it is worth giving attention to the number of NGOs working in Central America, and specifically Guatemala, that are addressing the root causes of poverty.

For the past 12 years, I have been working on behalf of one of those organizations: Constru Casa. Our mission is to stabilize families, working with local social organizations, through providing homes with toilets, showers, filtered water and efficient stoves.

We have constructed over 1,300 homes, schools and community centers. Having lived part- and full-time in Guatemala for over 7 years, I have witnessed the profound impact these projects have on the health and stability of hundreds of families.

As a U.S.-based 501(c)3 charity supporting a Guatemalan nonprofit organization, we are constantly faced with the ethno/geocentric question, “Why support charities outside of our borders?”

Our response is not to judge how one chooses to give; we can only encourage the value of efforts to reduce global poverty, particularly in light of the current border crisis. Our organization has been working for 15 years without governmental support or corporate sponsors. We survive donor by donor, helping one child, one mother, one family at a time.

As the scholar Abraham Heschel wrote, “The degree to which one is sensitive to other people’s suffering, to other men’s humanity, is the index of one’s own humanity.”

Jim Hille lives in Santa Fe and is president of Friends of Constru Casa, U.S.A., whose website is