Poverty, climate change drive Guatemala’s poor to migrate

TIZAMARTE, Guatemala (AP) — Alvina Jerónimo Pérez tries to avoid going out. She doesn’t want to see neighbors. She’s even changed the chip in her cellphone since her failed journey to the United States.

The 42-year-old woman is fearful her unsuccessful migration could cost her more than she can bear — even the single-story concrete block house her husband built on land passed down from her great grandparents in this mountaintop hamlet in south-central Guatemala.

Her husband, Anibal García, had recently added another room onto the back. The family had borrowed money to pay for the addition and was having trouble paying. Jerónimo thought she might be able to find the money if she migrated.

From afar, it seemed a safe bet. Many others in town, even in her own family, had made similar journeys. “Since people were passing (the border), we thought they were going to let us pass,” Jerónimo said.

The smuggler told her to bring her daughter to make it a sure thing, banking on the idea U.S. authorities wouldn’t deport a minor or her parent.

He promised her a job in the U.S. that would allow her to pay her debt.

So she put the house up as collateral to pay the smuggler $7,700. “The deal was that when we had arrived there, we were going to pay that money and they would return (the deed), but it wasn’t possible,” she said.

In March 2020, she and her daughter Yessenia, then 14, left Tizamarte. Three weeks later they were caught entering Texas. They were deported a week after that.

When Jerónimo realized they would be sent back, she cried. “I thought of everything the trip had cost me. I asked myself ‘What am I going to do?’ I’ve lost everything.”

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This story was supported by The International Women’s Media Foundation.

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Jerónimo’s story is similar to that of thousands of Guatemalans who scramble to gather the money needed to migrate to the United States. Often it comes from relatives already living in the U.S. or networks of informal lenders. Sometimes migrants must sell their possessions, including their homes, or like Jerónimo, use the deeds as collateral. They are driven by the chance of breaking the cycle of poverty that affects 60% of the country’s population.

The COVID-19 pandemic initially blunted migration to the U.S. last year, but numbers were soon on the rise again. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 30,000 encounters with Guatemalan migrants at the Southwest border this April.

President Joe Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of finding ways to address the root causes of migration and Harris was scheduled to arrive in Guatemala on Sunday.

She has been talking with officials and nongovernmental groups about the forces at play, including poverty, corruption, violence and climate change. She has also expressed interest in groups historically facing discrimination including indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and LGBTQ communities.

The Biden administration fears that an unmanageable number of migrants, especially children and families at the southwest border, will distract from its domestic policy goals even as it tries to present a more compassionate face than its predecessor.

Jerónimo is among more than 228,000 Guatemalans deported by the United States since 2015. For many of those, the dream failed. They were sent home with the stigma of failure and staggering debts that can’t be paid in a country where the minimum wage is about $11 per day.

She, like many others, sees no way out but to try again.

In Tizamarte, it’s during the hot months from March to October after the harvest is over, when wages and water dry up and food grows scarce, that people migrate. Last year, Jerónimo decided to join them.

She and her daughter left early one morning; she won’t say exactly how. Jerónimo carried a change of clothes in a small knapsack and 500 quetzales — about $65. It was the first time Jerónimo had traveled outside the department of Chiquimula near the Honduras border.

For three weeks mother and daughter walked, rode on buses and in cars. Jerónimo says she doesn’t recall the details of their route, but also clearly did not want to share them. What stuck in her memory was concern for her daughter, recalling a time when another migrant, frustrated that the girl’s weariness might slow the group, had threatened her. She remembered nights spent awake making sure no one tried to harm the teenager.

At the Mexico-U.S. border — Jerónimo says she doesn’t remember what part — they spent days locked inside a safe house before crossing into Texas, only to be apprehended hours after entering the U.S.

The U.S. Border Patrol held them together for seven days and put them on a plane back to Guatemala City. It was the first time Jerónimo set foot in her country’s capital.

Jerónimo said neither she nor her daughter were tested for COVID after being detained or flown back — something that led to widespread complaints against the Trump administration’s deportation flights during the pandemic.

Guatemala’s health minister said in April 2020 — the same month Jerónimo and her daughter were deported — that deportees from the United States were driving up the country’s COVID-19 caseload, adding that on one flight some 75% of the deportees tested positive for the virus.

Jerónimo finally arrived back home without a cent. She had to ask a relative in the U.S. to wire her $50 to buy bus tickets back to Tizamarte.

Smugglers in recent years have promised would-be migrants three tries at successfully crossing the U.S. border — an acknowledgment that it’s a large investment that doesn’t always pan out.

But Jerónimo had hired the smuggler through an intermediary — a neighbor who lives about 100 yards away — who apparently pocketed a significant portion of the fee, according to Jerónimo. So the smuggler refused to take her again.

That neighbor also had arranged a loan for Jerónimo — turning to a migrant living in the U.S. and his father, who lives in a town not far away.

Those lenders call and send text messages from time to time asking when she will pay. The first deadline was last October and Jerónimo asked for more time. The threats of seizing her house then became so frequent that Jerónimo changed the chip in her phone.

The anxiety of potentially losing the house affects Yessenia as well. The teenager says she’s willing to take the risk of trying on her own to return to the U.S.

“Losing the house and being left without anything scares me more,” she said.

Yessenia has been out of school for two years, because even before the pandemic her parents couldn’t afford the school fees. She used to dream of being a police officer and fantasizes about being able to study again and buy new clothes, but the risk to the house looms over everything.

“I want to save the house and the deed to not be in the hands of someone else, but in our hands,” she said. “So to help my mom I’m going.”

Yessenia’s parents disagree. If there’s a way, even if it means risking more debt, Jerónimo said she herself will go.

“That is what makes you desperate enough to migrate,” she said. “It’s pure necessity.”

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