• Area: 42,042 square miles; smaller than Tennessee
• Population: 14.4 million
• Religions: Roman Catholic, Protestant, traditional Mayan
• Languages: Spanish, 23 indigenous languages
• Literacy (age 15 and over who can read and write): 69 percent
• Infant mortality rate: 26.02 deaths per 1,000 live births
• Life expectancy: 70.88 years
• GDP Per capita: $5,200
• Area: 3.8 million square miles; slightly bigger than China
• Population: 313 million
• Religions: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, other Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim
• Languages: mainly English, Spanish
• Literacy (age 15 and over who can read and write): 99 percent
• Infant mortality rate: 6.06 deaths per 1,000 live births
• Life expectancy: 78.37 years
• GDP per capita: $47,200
Source: CIA World Factbook, Guatemalan government officials
BY THE NUMBERS
• 340,000: Number of children born in the United States in 2008 to at least one illegal immigrant parent.
• 4 million: Number of children (18 and younger) of illegal immigrants born in the United States.
• 37: Percentage of adult illegal immigrants who were parents of U.S. citizens in 2008.
Source: Pew Hispanic Center
CHIVARRETO, Guatemala — It’s lunch time at the elementary school in Chivarreto, a tiny Guatemalan village surrounded by rolling hills, tall pine trees and narrow dirt roads, where running water is available only a couple of times a week and most households lack showers and indoor bathrooms.
Today, lunch is atol, a hot drink made of corn and soy dough boiled with water, cinnamon and sugar.
In her fourth-grade classroom, Jennifer Xiloj, a 10-year-old dressed in jeans and sandals, kneels down, places her white flower-print plastic cup on the dusty cement floor and pours herself a cup of atol from a red bucket.
School lunches are one of the things Jennifer misses most from her days at Chattanooga’s East Side Elementary School, where chicken sandwiches and pepperoni pizza were on the menu along with salad, fresh fruit and milk.
Her meals at home are just as limited as those at her Guatemalan school. Meat is a luxury she gets to enjoy maybe once a week. There’s no more opening the refrigerator and pouring herself a glass of milk. In her new home, there is no refrigerator.
Even though she’s only 10, Jennifer recognizes the chasm between her old life of possibility and her new life of hardship and want, the very thing her parents were trying to escape — and thought they had — when they illegally entered the United States in the late 1990s.
Jennifer was born in Chattanooga, but was yanked out of the only life she knew when her mother took her to Guatemala last year. Work in Chattanooga was scarce because of the recession, her mother Inocenta Garcia said, even more so because she was in the country illegally.
Jennifer is one of untold numbers of children in the crosshairs of a vitriolic immigration debate: children born and raised in America — and thereby U.S. citizens by law — but forced to move to other countries when their parents are deported or pressured to leave.
Opponents of illegal immigration say that’s fair; the parents knew the risks when they crossed the border without permission in the first place. In their view, Jennifer is exactly where she belongs.
The discourse is so heated and the issue so divisive that some Americans patrol the border with Mexico on their own time, with their own weapons.
And states like Georgia, Alabama and Arizona have passed some of the toughest laws in the country to deter illegal immigration.
There’s also a renewed debate on whether children like Jennifer should even be granted U.S. citizenship.
Derisively referred to as “anchor babies,” the children are targets in the battle, with some — including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal — arguing they should not be granted U.S. citizenship because the parents can use the children to legalize their status. When American children turn 21, they can sponsor their parents to come to the United States legally.
Nationwide, there are more than 4 million citizens born to at least one undocumented parent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
But there are no numbers on how many U.S.-born children are leaving Tennessee or the United States for their parents’ home countries.
It is likely that as deportations increase, they’ll drag along more children like Jennifer in their wake.
In 2010, the elementary school in Chivarreto enrolled for the first time American children, including Jennifer and her 5-year-old cousin, Thalia, who also was born in Chattanooga. Thalia’s mother signed a voluntary departure form after being caught in a federal immigration raid in 2008, while her father remains in Chattanooga.
These U.S.-born children face the same hard futures as other Guatemalan children, especially those living in rural areas, where only 35 percent of them will have access to and finish middle school; only 20 percent will have access to high school and less than 1 percent will go on to college.
Totonicapán, the state where Jennifer’s village sits, has a lower level of human development than Cambodia, according to the United Nations.
“It’s hard because you know what their potential is here,” said Marisol Jimenez, an English as a Second Language teacher at East Side Elementary, the Hamilton County school with the highest percentage of Hispanic students — 53 percent. And the majority of those students were born in the United States.
“For reasons we can’t control, kids who would make wonderful additions in Chattanooga are having to leave,” she said. “You know they could be somebody but may never get a chance to reach their full potential.”
The situation is not much easier for the teachers in Guatemala, who suddenly have a student who may not speak Spanish, let alone one of two dozen indigenous Mayan dialects spoken in the Central American country, which is smaller than Tennessee in size but has twice as many people.
“At first I was surprised by her arrival because, unfortunately, the need in this country is great,” said Ceferina Maldonado, Jennifer’s fourth-grade teacher, speaking Spanish.
More than half the female youth in the state of Totonicapán live in poverty, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. And about 70 percent of children under 5 in the state, located in southwestern Guatemala and one of the most rural areas in the country, are affected by chronic malnutrition.
When Jennifer — or Yenni as she is known now — arrived on May 15, 2010, she got sick. She had rashes all over her body, parasites and headaches.
“The water here doesn’t have chlorine like [in the United States], so she got sick, then got the flu,” Maldonado said.
Jennifer suffered a lot in the first three to four months, Maldonado said.
A year later, she’s thinner than when she first arrived. The lack of lotion and the ever-present, coating dust from unpaved roads has parched the skin on her feet and hands, especially rough around the knuckles and nails. Her long brown hair, which she wears back with a plastic clip, looks dry. There’s no money to buy shampoo or hair conditioner.
When Jennifer is asked which country she prefers, the United States or Guatemala, she answers in a quiet voice, “I like it in the United States more.”
She misses her teachers, her school, her friends. Getting letters and pictures from her friends at East Side “makes me feel happy,” she said.
Even at her age, Jennifer knows her native country is a lot wealthier than her mother’s country.
“Here there’s no money. Over there [in the United States], they are a little bit rich and here they are poor, you see,” she says in grammatically incorrect Spanish, while nervously twiddling a piece of dry grass between her fingers under a tree across from her mother’s pink-painted house.
The psychological trauma of change is just one of the many effects suffered by children moved from their homes to their parents’ native countries, teachers and experts say.
Especially in Jennifer’s case, where the move from Chattanooga to Totonicapán was a matter of weeks.
Her teachers at East Side Elementary found out they were losing yet another student when her mother asked for her school records. Three weeks later, she was gone.
“She didn’t want to go but was OK with it because her mom was going,” said Jacob Vrieswyk, Jennifer’s English as a Second Language teacher at East Side; he still calls her in Guatemala every few weeks.
On her last day of school at East Side, Jennifer was allowed to visit her favorite teachers and friends to say goodbye. As she walked from one classroom to the next, staring down at the floor, biting her lip, Vrieswyk — or Mr. V as students call him — tried to make small talk but it didn’t work. Jennifer remained quiet.
“She knew that day would be her last day in that school,” he said.
She tried to hold everything in, to keep it together. But when she hugged her teachers, tears just flowed, rolling down her cheeks.
Teachers shed tears, too.
“It’s hard to let go of someone you feel doesn’t have a home,” Vrieswyk said.
Starting at a new school in Guatemala was also a challenge.
For the first few weeks in January, Jennifer, who is taller than most of her classmates, sat quietly in her small wooden desk, her back against the window. Her classmates were afraid of her. She came from the United States. She was different. She spoke English, not K’iché, the Mayan language spoken in the region.
Out of the 10 subjects Maldonado teaches, Jennifer struggles with language the most, even things as simple as the squiggly line over the “n” — the tilde — which doesn’t exist in the English alphabet.
They also teach K’iché, which she’s still trying to learn, especially to communicate with her grandmother, whom she just met and who doesn’t speak Spanish.
In the beginning, Jennifer complained about not liking the village or the food, Maldonado said.
Her diet consists of food such as tamales (corn dough wrapped in banana or corn leaves), beans, soups and chilacayote, a type of squash her mother grows.
She was afraid of the dogs that roam the dirt roads. Of the cows and pigs her mother keeps in pens in their backyard. Of the people, all unfamiliar to her.
But now she at least likes to pet Doc, Tarzan and Kikio, the family’s three dogs. And when it’s time to feed the turkeys and chickens, she starts calling, “pipipipio, pipipipio,” mimicking the sounds the birds make, as she crumbles corn dough onto the ground.
Now there’s more trust with her teachers. “Thank God,” Maldonado said.
Jennifer enjoys learning Spanish, has new friends and has adapted to a place where she bathes once a week in a temascal, a type of sweat lodge, instead of a shower. It’s a place where her house chores include herding sheep and cleaning after the pigs.
Her school has no computers or cafeteria. There are no red colorful slides and swings as there are at East Side. Her school has only seven classrooms separated by a dirt courtyard with a basketball hoop tied to a lamp post. Without a playground, children turn the metal struts that usually hold trash cans into swings, and a teacher sets up a table right outside the classroom to sell gum and lime-flavored icicles and chips to the kids and fellow teachers during lunch.
In Guatemala, Jennifer says, everything is broken, starting with the town’s playground.
Children like Jennifer are one more reason the government should enforce immigration laws more strictly, said Steven Camarota with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that advocates stricter controls on immigration.
“If you think of immigration as just an economic issue, that’s very foolish,” he said. “If we allow the illegal immigrants to stay, that has an adverse impact on some Americans. If we allow the illegal immigrants to go, that has an adverse impact on illegal immigrants and maybe their U.S.-born children, too.”
And every year the government fails to deal with the problem, more than 300,000 children will be born to at least one illegal immigrant parent, he said.
“U.S.-born children are one key example of why you want to deal with this problem sooner rather than later,” he added.
A couple of hours south of Jennifer’s town live the Miranda and Agustín girls — a blended family of five girls, all cousins. Like Jennifer, they were born in Chattanooga, but unlike Jennifer, they’ve now spent most of their lives in Guatemala.
The girls moved to Guatemala in 2007 when their parents, feeling the heat of immigration scrutiny and fewer jobs in Chattanooga, left the city and returned to their home country.
After four years, the girls’ memories of their native country are slowly fading, along with their knowledge of English.
“When I got here, I didn’t speak a lot of Spanish, and I would get it confused with English,” Alma Miranda said in Spanish. She was 6 when she left Chattanooga.
Now, English is the foreign language she studies a couple of times a week.
The girls miss celebrating their birthdays the “American” way with birthday cakes and lots of presents.
“Here we only eat tamalitos and have very little presents,” said Lucita Miranda, 9.
Still, they don’t have much in common with Guatemalan children. They never learned how to balance water urns on their heads like most girls do, nor do they eat a lot of corn tortillas, a daily staple in most households.
Without hesitation, they say they feel more American than Guatemalan.
They pretend to be Merliah, a surfing champion from Malibu, Calif., and Erris, the evil aunt from the cartoon “Barbie in a Mermaid Tale,” which they watch over and over in Spanish.
But at 9 through 11 years old they don’t play video games or listen to Justin Bieber. And they are learning to type on an old manual typewriter. For play, they turn to traditional children’s games such as “campanita de oro” — the Spanish version of “Ring Around the Rosie” — and different versions of tag.
Their school, a 10-minute walk up a steep hill from their home, offers a computer class a couple of times a week as well as English, but Linda Agustín, 10, complains teachers can’t pronounce the words right.
Teachers go on strike a couple of times a year, often to seek more funding or better salaries. When those days are combined with volcano eruptions and tropical storms, the number of days students go to class in some schools can drop from 180 days to about 80 last year, according to local media reports.
During the day, Artemio Agustín and Delfina Miranda take care of their four nieces and nephew, including Alma and Lucita, as well as their own two daughters — Linda and Edna — while the other parents work in Guatemala City. All of them lived in Chattanooga and returned to the Central American country for similar reasons to Jennifer’s mother.
For more than eight years, the couple worked making parts for gas appliances at a Chattanooga company until they were called into the manager’s office and told their documents didn’t match government records. They had three weeks to fix the problem.
But it was a problem they knew they couldn’t fix. They were undocumented.
“We got desperate,” said Artemio Agustin, sitting at his kitchen table in his three-bedroom home in San Bartolomé, a town known for its cabbage and lettuce fields, peach and pear trees.
“A lot of undocumented people were being caught [by immigration authorities] and we were afraid for our girls,” he said. “We didn’t want them to be left alone, so we decided to come back.”
Four years later, they regret the decision.
“When you get here, you realize that things are very hard,” said Delfina Miranda. “But now we are here and there’s nothing we can do.”
The parents feel guilty about taking their daughters to Guatemala, away from better schools and easier access to health care — resources that illegal immigrants are accused of draining when they live in the United States.
The Agustín family, who lives in an urban area outside the capital, has a better standard of living than many families who live in a rural area. They saved enough money from living in the United States to be able to return to Guatemala on their own terms, unlike those who get deported.
They lease a house in Guatemala City and use their savings to buy food and pay the electric bill.
They haven’t bought any clothes for the girls since they arrived four years ago because they took bags filled with shirts and pants of different sizes. They even have a computer, a stereo and a television — all bought in Chattanooga.
They built a two-story concrete home two years ago, living on the second floor and renting out the first. And Artemio Agustín is starting a business making and selling shoes out of his garage.
The five girls are thin and healthy. They have shiny black hair that falls below their shoulders. They have an indoor shower, shampoo, body soap and lotion, just like they did when they lived in Chattanooga.
Both Artemio Agustín and Delfina Miranda knew their daughters, like Jennifer, would struggle if they took them back to their village in the northern state of San Marcos. Neither of them finished elementary school and they feared their children might follow the same path. They knew their children would get sick from the water.
So they moved to Guatemala City and later to San Bartolomé Milpas Altas, just outside the capital, where life would be a little bit easier for them.
But things are still difficult, Artemio Agustín said.
“If people around here find out you have a business, they come and ask for protection money,” he said.
Violent criminal activity continues to be a problem in Guatemala, including murder, rape and armed assaults, according to the U.S. Department of State.
The girls didn’t tell anyone at school they were born in the United States because people automatically assume that means they have a lot of money, although San Bartolomé is still considered to be relatively safe and nothing has happened to them.
Food is still expensive.
A pound of grapes sells for about a $1.25, less than in Chattanooga, but basically impossible for about half the country’s population, who live on $2 a day.
Each of the girls’ uniforms — a white shirt with pleated blue skirts, a sweater, white socks and black shoes — costs the equivalent of $40. For a family making $4 or $5 a day, each uniform means a week of work.
“It is not their fault,” said Artemio Agustín. “We are the ones to blame; we brought them here against their will because they are just kids.”
In 1995, Artemio Agustin paid a smuggler about $1,000 to get him across the border. He first arrived in Florida, where he worked in the fields, picking tomatoes and oranges for more than a year before moving to Chattanooga, where he was told there were better-paying jobs.
In 1998, Delfina Miaranda borrowed about $1,800 from a village neighbor to be smuggled into the United States. She was 18.
Neither had plans of meeting someone, getting married and having children. But they met at work and fell in love in Chattanooga.
Miranda and Agustin planned to stay in the United States for three, four years, work hard, save money and go back to Guatemala.
But life happened. They put down roots. Chattanooga is a pretty city, quiet, they said, and three years turned into six, then eight, nine.
“It’s cleaner,” Artemio Agustín said of the Scenic City. “The schools take better care of the children; the health care system is better.”
Jennifer’s mom, Inocenta Garcia, left her hometown in Guatemala in 1999, changing from cortes — the traditional hand-woven skirts women wear in the Indian communities — to jeans and from sandals to tennis shoes when she reached the Mexican border. She was 27 years old.
She came to Chattanooga after her sister’s husband agreed to help her find a job and worked at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant until 2008, when her employer found out she was working with fake documents and she voluntarily left the company.
She stayed in Chattanooga, working temp jobs until 2010, when she left with Jennifer and her 3-year-old sister Lillian. But García’s son, 5-year-old Julio, stayed with his father Felisario Vásquez in Chattanooga.
“I didn’t want her to go,” Vásquez said, sitting on a bench at a local Chattanooga park. “But I couldn’t support the entire family because I also lost my job.”
He stayed with Julio because three children would be too hard for García in Guatemala. He still does odd jobs like cleaning offices but doesn’t have full-time employment and, if nothing changes in a year, he will go back as well.
In Guatemala, like many women in rural areas, García supports herself and her daughters mainly with the pigs she raises, which sell for $75 to $125, depending on the size. She also sells the chickens, which go for about $6 each.
The money she earned while in Chattanooga allowed her to build a concrete home for her and her parents — one bedroom with two beds, a dresser, a sewing machine and a full wall of religious images for her and her two daughters; a separate bedroom for her parents. She has a small patio, a terrace and a kitchen where the family cooks and eats sitting around the fire stove. And there’s a toilet inside a small, closet-size concrete room with a piece of fabric acting as a door.
For most of these children, returning to the United States is not only an option but an obligation. They know they have the legal status to come and work, making money they can send back to Guatemala to help support their families.
But even being a legal U.S. citizen doesn’t always make it easy for them.
Alejandra Gordillo, executive secretary of Guatemala’s National Committee for Immigrant Services, tells the story of a man she met on a flight from Guatemala to the United States. He was 21 and had been born in the United States but raised in Guatemala because his parents were deported.
He asked Gordillo to help him fill out a customs form. He couldn’t read or write.
“Those kids who were deported years ago ... are going back to work [in the United States],” she said. “But [they] don’t know how to read or write because they came back to their parents’ community, where it’s likely that their parents were illiterate as well and didn’t have access to education or health care.”
Still, all of the girls — Jennifer and the Miranda and Agustín children — say they want to come back to the United States. And reminders of America surround them in Guatemala.
A red, white and blue U.S. flag towel is draped over a bed in Jennifer’s home. She keeps letters, cards and drawings from her classmates and teachers at East Side.
The name of her village, Chivarreto, is spelled out on the side of a nearby mountain with big white Hollywood-type letters, a sign paid for by one of the villagers who now lives in the United States.
Jennifer said she wants to return because the United States promises her a brighter future.
“I would like to be a doctor because we are going to cure little kids, but only if you go to the United States because you can’t do anything here,” she said. “The only thing you can do is grow corn; there’s no money.”
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...
related articles »
A 41-year-old Guatemala man faces 15 years in prison for bringing a 16-year-old girl to the United States for an ...
It’s 1,468 miles from Chattanooga to the Guatemalan village of el Xab.
Tennessee, and to a greater extent Georgia, are what experts call new destination states, places that had few immigrants before ...
The number of Guatemalans living in the United States has quadrupled in the past two decades.