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Central Americans Risk Lives to Reach El Norte

In late April, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger visited Washington, DC to meet with various U.S. officials, including President George Bush. The two heads of state agreed to expedite the negotiation of open borders for the trade of goods between the United States and Guatemala, but the frontiers will remain mostly closed to immigrants. Although Bush promised six-month work visas to Guatemalan immigrants already living in the United States, he refused to grant them Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which affords greater benefits.

Meanwhile, border officials are cracking down, not only on immigrants entering the U.S. but also at the Mexican-Guatemalan border, which they are dubbing a new frontier in the war against terror. Mexico’s ‘Plan Sur,’ initiated in 2001, is a U.S.-backed attempt to use Mexico’s southern border as a buffer zone against illegal immigration from Central America. Increased control has drawn attention to this very porous border and to the rising flow of immigration in this part of Latin America.

Increased patrols along the Mexican-Guatemalan frontier have also exposed the terrible dangers confronted by migrants attempting to make the trip to El Norte. Tight border control has led immigrants to traverse more hazardous routes, for example through Guatemala’s northern Peten region, a thick and dangerous jungle.

Once they cross into Mexico, migrants face a long journey before reaching the United States. Some are mutilated or killed after falling from moving freight trains. Others are attacked and robbed by youth gangs, who last year killed at least 70 migrants in Mexico. Those who make it as far as northern Mexico’s desert risk dehydration, exposure, hypothermia or abandonment by unscrupulous coyotes (immigrant traffickers).

If arrested, the undocumented often suffer mistreatment by Mexican border officials who bypass the proper judicial procedures, denying migrants their rights. In some cases, Mexican officials have assaulted their captives or held them indefinitely in detention centers with notoriously horrid conditions.

Struggle to Escape Poverty

Yet despite these obstacles, Central Americans continue to cross the border at ever-increasing rates. Last year Mexico deported 147,000 illegal immigrants, some 20 percent more than in 2002. Most hailed from just three Central American nations: Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Mexican immigration officials attribute this increase not to their success in capturing migrants, but to the escalating number of Central Americans willing to risk the journey. Strict visa requirements, including proof of profession, ownership documents, and bank statements showing lofty balances, prevent most Central Americans from entering the United States legally. Desperate economic circumstances, therefore, lead many to pursue the illegal route.

In Guatemala, where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and 20 percent are unemployed or underemployed, opportunities for economic improvement are quite limited. In the United States, however, salaries are an average of ten times higher than those in Central American nations, and some researchers estimate that approximately 95 percent of immigrants who manage to enter the U.S. are successful in finding work. According to immigration specialist Meintje Westerbeek, “the U.S. offers a tremendous amount of opportunity compared to other countries where there isn’t the same mobility and opportunity for work and personal success.”

The ability to advance economically allows immigrants in the U.S. to support relatives in their home countries. Remesas familiares, or remittances, are often the families’ only means of survival. Unlike international development aid, which requires lengthy bureaucratic steps to obtain and may be pocketed by corrupt government officials, remittances are a direct source of funds for poor families. In fact, remittances have become one of the most important sources of currency in Central America, and Latin American immigrants are expected to send a record $30 billion this year to their families and friends back home. Westerbeek notes that these funds are “a direct inv! estment into the economies of these countries, and nations such as El Salvador end up with an economy that is heavily dependent on the dollars from Salvadorans living in the U.S.”

Undocumented Immigrants Suffer Exploitation

Although the prospects for financial success in the United States initially seem abundant, many immigrants encounter unanticipated difficulties upon arrival. Lacking official immigration status, undocumented workers have no legal rights and thus no defense against exploitation in the workforce. “They are part of an underground economy that exploits them,” asserts Westerbeek. “They are frequently paid low wages or they are not paid for all or some of the work they perform. They have no rights. They do not exist.” In addition, undocumented immigrants cannot access the safety net of public services enjoyed by legal immigrants and naturalized citizens. They have no right to welfare, healthcare, or insurance to! protect them in case of medical or economic difficulties.

Adriana Hernandez_ whose husband and uncle paid a coyote nearly $4,000 each to travel illegally to the United States_ did not hear news of her loved ones for over a month after they had left their home in Quetzaltanango, Guatemala. She later learned that her husband was in the U.S. for 3 months before he found work. Even now his temporary low-paying jobs do not allow him to send money home to his family. Her uncle, meanwhile, is not able to work at all since cutting his finger in a meat slicing factory, after which his employer fired him immediately without covering related medical expenses. The entire Hernandez family is now in dire economic straights as Adriana’s parents mortgaged their house to send the! ir relatives across the border. “We thought it would be worth it to pay the coyote because we didn’t realize the obstacles they would face,” laments Adriana. “They thought it would be easy there.”

In addition to the economic suffering, Adriana and her child endure the emotional pain of separation from husband and father. Yet she claims to understand his reasons for leaving. “He wanted his child to have everything,” says Adriana, “to live well, to receive an education, unlike us. That’s my husband’s dream, to buy a small piece of land, build a house on it and raise his family there.”

Many who oppose the U.S.’ strict immigration policy argue that Central Americans have a right to follow dreams such as those of Adriana’s husband. Human rights organizations are lobbying the United States Congress to pass legislation that would legalize the status of many undocumented immigrant workers. Whether or not the U.S. government chooses to ease restrictions on immigration remains to be seen. One thing seems certain, however: despite the obstacles, Central Americans will continue to enter the United States in the hopes of escaping poverty in their native countries.

LISA VISCIDI is editor-in-chief of EntreMundos newspaper, based in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. She can be reached at lviscidi@yahoo.com.

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