Thousands of Guatemalans have left their hometowns for El Norte and crossed into the United States over the past three decades, but that’s starting to change.
Some Guatemalans say the number of people heading across the border has slowed in the past few years for two reasons: The recession’s unrelenting grip on the United States and the threat of Mexican gangs.
Tennessee lost more than 160,000 jobs from March 2007 through March 2011. Georgia lost twice as many. Many lost jobs were in sectors that rely heavily on immigrant workers, such as the construction industry and the carpet factories.
And even if jobs were available in America, crossing the border illegally is simply more dangerous now than five years ago. Guatemalans must pass through Mexico to reach the U.S., and life is cheap to the drug cartels of Mexico.
“You are basically between life and death because of the Zetas,” said José Morales, referring to one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.
Morales lived in Chattanooga eight years before returning to Guatemala in 2007 to be with his mother.
Because immigrants tend to be among the most vulnerable, they’re often preyed upon by gang members and other criminals, said Erick Maldonado, Guatemala’s vice minister for foreign relations.
Immigrants may be kidnapped and tortured until they give the kidnappers a relative’s number; the criminals often ask for several thousand dollars in ransom. And if the immigrants can’t pay up, they may be killed.
Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission estimates 20,000 migrants heading north get kidnapped every year in Mexico and hundreds of others get killed.
“We are not talking about brutal extortions, blackmailing [or] kidnapping,” Maldonado said. “We are now talking about murder. We are talking about executions.”
The routes commonly used to smuggle people from Guatemala into Mexico and the United States are the same routes being used to traffic weapons and drugs, said Mauro Guzmán, a Guatemalan lawmaker who heads the country’s Immigrant Commission.
Smuggling methods are dangerous, too. In May, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas found 513 immigrants — 410 Guatemalans — inside two U.S.-bound tractor-trailers with air holes punched in the floor. The immigrants were clinging to cargo nets in the containers to remain upright as the trucks drove off from the Guatemalan border, according to media reports.
Mexican authorities have also found mass graves. Last year, 72 migrants were massacred in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas. This year, 200 more bodies were found in Tamaulipas and Durango. Many are believed to be those of migrants heading north.
Maldonado said Guatemalans put themselves in peril because coming to the United States legally is not an option for most of them.
“It’s not that I’m justifying their actions, but I believe that if there were more ways for them to go legally, it would be a lot easier for Guatemalans and we would avoid the series of risks and highly vulnerable situations in which they find themselves during their journey,” he said.
American opponents of illegal immigration see it differently.
“There is no universal civil right to live in the United States of America,” said D.A. King, president of Georgia’s Dustin Inman Society, a group opposed to illegal immigration.
“I think immigration should be regulated, sustainable and should benefit the United States of America — not every other country,” he said.
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 ...