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Kids, some 9 and 10 years old, and younger, are fleeing violent situations in Guatemala, crossing into the U.S. alone or with child smugglers, who promise to assist them, but usually abandon them at the border. One of the poorest countries in Latin America, Guatemala has a gross domestic product (GDP) of under $2,000 per year, per capita (per person). Reeling from a 36-year “civil war” – more, an internal armed struggle – in which 200,000 – mostly indigenous Mayan and unarmed – were victims, Guatemala kids struggle to survive against continuing violence and poverty.
There are very few options for the indigenous who are desperately poor in Guatemala. Long ago stripped of their rights, if they have any land, they often have to sell it to pay for basic needs, such as food and health care.
Parents may be forced to leave their children with grandparents while they make their way to the U.S. in order to earn money for the family. When grandparents are no longer able to take care of the children, they may feel that there is “nothing left for them in Guatemala.”
Guatemala has one of the highest concentrations of indigenous people in Latin America. Of the 300 million people globally who consider themselves to be indigenous, 5.6 million live in Guatemala. The indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala comprise approximately 50 percent of the population and over 80 percent of them live in poverty.
Children and teens are coming unaccompanied, making the arduous journey from Central America to the U.S. They are arriving by the tens of thousands, perhaps 90,000 just this year – a record number. Once detained, after they appear in court (often alone and without legal counsel – some unable to understand because neither English nor Spanish is their native language), some youths will be allowed to remain in the U.S., but many will not.
A Los Angeles organization, Esperanza Immigration Rights Project (funded by Catholic Charities), provides free legal awareness training and counsel to kids who have been released in that city. They use experienced and professional immigration attorneys, but only helps 0.4 to 0.6 percent of the kids who arrive.
This week the Obama Administration will ask Congress for aid to respond to the need. However, the refugee and humanitarian crisis is not the focal point of this effort.
While the plan for $2 billion is to allocate funds for emergency shelters, legal programs, and medical care, it is also intended to increase enforcement and to process deportation faster.
If this occurs, what will happen to the young migrants when they are returned home? There is a reason for Guatemala kids leaving their homeland, taking the risk to cross the border alone into the U.S., and in addition to poverty, that reason is violence.
The Program Director of the Esperanza Project, Attorney Caitlin Sanderson, says that Central America has the highest murder rate in the world. The United Nations identifies Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as having the highest rates, and Guatemala is the fifth highest in the world. According to Carrie Kahn of National Public Radio, domestic violence, broken homes, and gang violence are high in Guatemala, especially in urban centers.
Often boys are conscripted into gangs and must comply or their lives will be in grave danger. If kids are returned home from the U.S. and do not feel safe, they will continue to attempt to return to the U.S. by whatever means they can.
Kahn says that, aside from violence, other indices of health and welfare are in the danger zone. These include malnutrition, infant mortality, and being underweight. In Guatemala, pregnancy of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 (in addition to those up to age 18) is at an all-time high, and growing.
Boys in particular, Kahn says, feel an economic responsibility to care for their families, and so will risk their lives to travel to the U.S. to make money to send back. In some cases, the very young yearn to be reunited with their family members who have come to the U.S., which is a motivator for the journey.
Even though Guatemala kids risk everything to cross the border alone into the U.S., the violence that they are fleeing in their native country is sufficient reason for them to try. Without a humanitarian response from the U.S., and despite U.S. government warning, the youth, if deported, will make the effort again, because the possible opportunities here weigh more strongly than the danger of trying.
Opinion by Fern Remedi-Brown
Fern Remedi-Brown writes on global social justice issues (human rights, LGBT, health care and education access, immigration, refugees, and the Holocaust) for Guardian Liberty Voice.
Previous articles on the Guatemalan poor include:
Guatemala Cancer Injustice Fight for Poor Women
Women’s Cancer Collective in Guatemala Demands Allocation of $3M
Guatemala Patients Dying in Racist Practice?