Guatemala: Migration Tears

A meeting of workers deported by the U.S. government after the Postville, Iowa kosher meat-packing plant raid. Image by Samuel Loewenberg. Guatemala, 2009.

I am interviewing a couple about their experience working as immigrant laborers in the U.S., I'll call them Eduardo and Anita. Eduardo has told us that after working successfully for several years in New Orleans doing construction, he was arrested by U.S. immigration officials and put in jail. It was over the Christmas holidays, he says. He was separated from his family. He starts to cry.

People seem to cry a lot in Guatemala. This applies to men as well as women, the country's reputation for machismo notwithstanding. The crying seem to come especially when they are recounting their experiences as migrants to the U.S. It has been something of a surprise to be honest. Over the years I've interviewed family members of murder victims, survivors of terrorist bombings, victims of medical malpractice, and I've not quite encountered something like this before. It is not that the trauma is greater (how can you quantify trauma?), but it does seem somehow closer to the surface. More than anything, I think what brings them to tears is a sense of grand injustice.

After all, they came to the U.S. to work, to provide for their families by dong jobs that Americans did not want to do, and they ended up being treated as criminals. The minimum wage in Guatemala is about $200 a month, well under the $250 a month considered necessary to feed a family, according to economist Jorge Santos, who says that U.S. economic policies, from the neo-liberal economic regimes known as the "Washington consensus" to the more recent Central American Free Trade Agreement have only increased the pressure on Guatemala's poor, who make up the vast majority of the country.

Indeed, the level of Guatemala's income inequality is stunning, with only a handful of families controlling the vast majority of the country's wealth in what is almost a feudal system. The level of education for the general populace is among the lowest in Latin America, and malnutrition strikes about half of the country's children - making it one of the worst such situations in the world.

As immigrants have always done, Guatemalans who come to work in the U.S. do the hard dirty jobs that native-born citizens won't take, like cleaning houses, working in the backs of restaurant kitchens, and construction and field work.

The post 9/11 hysteria that has characterized U.S. immigration policy has pushed border policing so such an extreme that immigrant workers without legal status are treated as if they were violent criminals or possible terrorists. The government policy is so out of control that agribusiness and immigrant rights groups have even put aside their long-standing opposition to each other to try to get Congress to pass immigration reform.

The vindictive and irrational nature of U.S. immigration policy was driven home when I attended a gathering of workers who had been rounded up in the infamous Postville, Iowa kosher meat-packing plant sweep. While the owner of the factory is now facing nearly 100 Federal charges for labor violations, which he has managed to tie up in court, hundreds of people doing honest labor (they even paid their taxes into a fictional account) were detained under harsh conditions for months and then deported.

In a small community center in a village outside of the Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua, dozens of men and women who had worked at the factory gathered to recount their treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration officials. They described being held for as long as five months, with negligible access to lawyers, unable to communicate with their families, and some said they were stripped naked. One woman, according to the Washington-based Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA which organized the meeting, was separated from her one year old child during her imprisonment - when she was released, she found her baby had been adopted by an American couple.

Workers told me they were hit by ICE officials, and when describing the abuse, which was not only physical but psychological, a rather tough looking guy with a mustache and gold chain broke down in front of me. "I came back with more scars than benefits," he said.

In the current economic crisis in the U.S., immigrants are the ones who will face the backlash driven by populist demagogues like Lou Dobbs, whose Father Coughlin-like rants are broadcast on primetime by CNN. In fact, George W. Bush tried and failed to reform U.S. immigration laws towards the end of his term, but he was beaten back by a small but strong nativist core in Congress. With the current economic anxiety, things are going to be even tougher for the Obama administration.

For now, though, whether you want to call them "illegal" or "undocumented," the rule of law does not seem to apply to immigrants in the U.S. "They need to investigate everything that they did to us so that they can change the situation," the mustachioed man told me tearfully.

Its an injustice worth crying about.