Immigration and Debt


The Ixil Triangle –the rugged mountain home of the Ixil Maya in Guatemala’s Altiplano — was the center of the Guatemalan Army’s counterinsurgency campaign three decades ago. It was also a destination for progressive writers, researchers, and photographers compelled to record the story of insurgency and its horrific repression.

The unnerving trip past military patrols, checkpoints and newly established garrisons, along with the roving military-sponsored civil patrols, was out of the question for Guatemalan journalists and scholars. But we foreigners, magically protected by our passports and connections (and sense of invulnerability), could venture into this this massacre-marked land – into this mountain-bound triangle defined by the towns of Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal.

There was much to report and photograph:  abandoned hamlets, burnt-out Catholic churches, the army’s “model villages,” the new presence of U.S. evangelicos, and the hauntingly empty stares of villagers and young peasant soldiers who had witnessed and perpetrated horrors.

Like many progressive activists and scholars indignant about new U.S. interventionism in Central America, I traveled to the region, tracking the trail of U.S. imperialism — learning, expressing solidarity, and educating, and protesting back home. But never going back. Not after the disintegration of the resistance movements, the successes of the counterinsurgency campaigns, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the peace accords of the mid-1990s. Moved on to other hot spots, other causes.

Fortunately, David Stoll, the author of a new book focused on Nebaj, kept returning to Guatemala to tell the evolving story of the Ixil people. El Norte or Bust! doesn’t tap the cachet of indigenous resistance, genocidal repression, or secret U.S. collaboration with dictatorships that drew progressives to Guatemala in the late 1970s and 1980s. The author establishes the context for the new conjuncture of development projects, emigration, and integration into the global culture and consumption, briefing the reader about the recent but fading past of rebellion and repression, yet avoiding the temptation to recall the horrific time in much detail and evoke the emotion, sentiment, and convictions that lingers from this period. It seems that the Ixils of Nebaj have mostly moved on, and so has Stoll.

Instead, Stoll has returned to investigate the inner workings of micro finance – a subject that at first glance seems of interest only for development specialists, not for the general reader. The book’s subtitle, “How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town,” might strike one as a title best suited for an academic essay or doctoral dissertation. Yet from the first page, Stoll skillfully elnortecaptures the reader with a story of the small Latin American town of Nebaj that is immeasurably more linked to us today than it was in the early 1980s.

We should be thankful that Stoll didn’t abandon the region like so many others, and that he brings to his research not only his rigorous scholarship but also his ability to break through old paradigms of analysis — all with an off-hand eloquence and frankness.

In El Norte or Bust! there’s much to inform us – not only about the Ixil people have fared since the war but also about the continuing links between America and the highlands of Guatemala.

But Stoll’s contributions do more than inform. Like his earlier books, Stoll’s El Norte or Bust! shatters assumptions, destroys myths, and ushers in new frameworks of analysis and understanding about such issues as immigration, globalization, and communitarian indigenous society.

Stoll, a respected cultural anthropologist, brings together the best of the techniques of scholarly research, investigative reporting, and feature journalism to this important book.

Upon his return to Ixil a several years ago, Stoll found that his inquiries about how Nebaj had changed in the intervening years led inevitably to “two sacred cows in the current pantheon of wishful thinking.”

Through interrelated stories of Ixil families, Stoll casts his penetrating gaze on microcredit (why not call it “micro-debt? Stoll asks) and wage-migration.

As the counterinsurgency war and Marxist-led rebellion came to an end, the Ixil Triangle was flooded by NGOs bearing projects, many of which were microcredit development initiatives, largely European. Stoll aptly describes his book as a “fortuitous window on an obscure subject – how Guatemalan peasants have used formal and informal credit to finance unauthorized migration to the United States and, as a result, are now deeply in the hole.”

For those of us who follow immigration issues, it is commonly understood that would-be immigrants need several thousand dollars to pay for their trip north. Not so well understood, however (and never before so thoroughly examined) is the back-story of where this money comes from — and what happens when these immigrants never make it to the other side, cannot find jobs or lose their jobs in the United States, are deported, and are never able to pay back the debt that paid for their trips north.

Although Stoll acknowledges that most of his field experience has been in Nebaj, he observes: “The stories I hear suggest that migration is a highly competitive process, not just in U.S. labor markets but in the sending population, fueled by competition over land, inheritances, and scarce opportunities for upward mobility.”

That much most immigration experts already knew — although probably wouldn’t have been able to state the process so succinctly. But then Stoll takes us a step further, beyond where most immigration observers have gone: “The stories I hear also suggest that migration is a process that runs on debt, with migrants indebting themselves and their relatives to the migration stream in ways that many are unable to repay. The debts not only enable migration but pressure more people to go north, in a chain of exploitation that can suck more value from the sending population than it returns.”

Most South-North migration in the Western Hemisphere, as Stoll sees it, is best described as “low-wage” migration, and he makes a strong case that it is unsustainable. His study of the mostly devastating impacts in Nebaj (real estate bubbles, lost farms, indentured immigrant families hopelessly in debt, pyramid financing schemes, and more all in this remote Latin American town) — especially leading up to and following the 2007-08 U.S. financial crash – provides a powerful argument.

But his macro argument is even more persuasive. Listen, especially as the immigration reform debate begins again in the United States:

For me, and for the Guatemalans…the most important issue is whether the U.S. economy can give them a living wage. Employment is the key: if they can find a job at something like a living wage, then most of the problems raised in this book will resolve themselves or at least be manageable. Thus if you think the U.S. economy can provide tens of millions of good jobs for a rapidly growing population, then immigrants like the Nebajenses have a good chance of paying their debts, contributing to the U.S. economy and helping their families back home.

If on the other hand you think the U.S. economy faces serious constraints, that it will be an uphill struggle to provide living wages for our existing population let alone large numbers of immigrants, then our low-wage migration streams have become yet another unsustainable business model.”

While the context is the link between debt and migration, Stoll doesn’t let the traditional constraints of academic research box him in; and again, we should be grateful. Some of the most powerful sections of the book take apart the myths of indigenous communitarianism, reveal the plight of the Ixil women in a deeply patriarchal culture, dare to discuss over population and “surplus siblings,” detail the ugly blowback of immigration streams in Guatemala, and draw the connections between the microeconomics of Nebaj and the pyramid schemes and structures of global capitalism.

El Norte or Bust! is an eye-opening book – a must-read for all  sympathetic observers of immigrants and their options, and for all of those who left Central America behind.

El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town

Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, 2013

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy and is the author of Border Wars  from MIT Press. See his work at http://borderlinesblog.blogspot.com/


Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

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