Deportation from the USA: An “Illegal” Guatemalan’s Tale
The author interviewed an indigenous migrant in his Quiché village and heard first-hand the hard reality of his deportation from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to Guatemala after working in the United States for two years.
Guatemala is witnessing a speeded- up deportation of its migrants living in the United States. A recent study by the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman cites a 20% increase in the number of deportations in the first three months of 2008 (5,373) compared to the same period in 2007 (4,467).
Three big round-upsGuatemalans accounted for 257 of the 390 undocumented emigrants (314 men and 76 women) captured during a May 12 round-up in a meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, a small town with a population of 2,200 inhabitants. Many, perhaps the majority, were indigenous people from the departments El Quiché, Totonicapán and Huehuetenango. A photograph in the Guatemalan newspaper La Prensa Libre shows some of them shackled like criminals following the biggest workplace round-up in recent US history.
Two other big round-ups also affected our compatriots, particularly indigenous ones. The first, on December 12, 2006, marked the start of these mass sweeps and involved six Swift & Co. meat packing factories in Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Utah, Minnesota and Iowa. On that occasion almost 1,300 people were detained. Another 361 male and female workers were detained on March 6, 2007, in the Michael Bianco Inc. factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, which makes backpacks for the army in Iraq.
Interviewing DaniloWe had the chance to interview several young people deported after the March 2007 round-up, all them from El Quiché. Some spent four long months in a detention center in Texas until the judge sentenced them. One of them, let’s call him Danilo, told us about his own personal odyssey step by step. I was interested in following the thread of his decisions. His isn’t an objective tale; it’s a narrative of revelation as he slowly discovers the disaster he’s caught up in.
Danilo is a 27-year-old man of the Mayan Quiché identity. He is from one of the municipalities most affected by attacks and massacres during the eighties, so much so that the Historical Clarification Commission chose El Quiché as a paradigmatic example of the policy of genocide against the Quiché people. His village has 140 houses. During the war, when it probably had around half that amount, some 100 villagers were killed, most of them by the army.
Danilo’s story provides the perspective of an active subject. We sometimes think of deportees as forcibly returned and contrast them with those who return voluntarily, but we mustn’t ignore their capacity to act and resist, even when their hands are bound and all exits are sealed off. They are constantly trying to come up with alternatives. Listening to Danilo shows how we must fight for human rights that don’t victimize these violated people or make them passive.
“They took us by surprise”The Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] police raided Michael Bianco Inc., where Danilo was working, on a Tuesday, when everybody there least expected it. The ICE, which Danilo pronounced like the English word for frozen water, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in the wake of 9/11 to bring all government migration control bodies into a unified unit.
Danilo insists on contrasting that Tuesday with the previous day, a happy one in which nobody ever suspected that disaster would befall them and change their lives so drastically. The ICE must have chosen Tuesday rather than Monday to make sure none of the workers were absent and thus maximize their catch. “They swooped in at quarter past eight in the morning,” he explains, when all the workers were concentrating on operating their sewing machines.
The ICE officers first went to the factory office to bring the company under their control and make sure management collaborated. The company supposedly knew nothing about the round-up as they were acting as accomplices of the undocumented workers by giving them work. Everybody in the factory heard the secretary softly bid them good morning in both English and Spanish over the speakers installed in the workroom. But then she gave them an unprecedented order. “She didn’t tell us to ‘work, work,’” recalls Danilo. “Instead she told us to ‘switch off all your machines and don’t move. All of you stay in your places.’”
Everyone was amazed that they were being told not to work. Was she trying to call a strike? What was going on? Then suddenly they saw the “migra” come in and start going down the rows of workers. They were wearing blue uniforms with ICE Police written on the back. They were like agents of a non-natural disaster. Suddenly the workers found themselves up against the authorities they constantly feared.
They later found out that the immigration authorities had planted a female spy in the factory for the previous couple of months to make a map showing all exit doors and check out everyone’s legal status. “She came to work just to see who had work documents.” According to The New York Times the same tactic was used in Postville, Iowa: “There was also at least one undercover source who wore a wire and became an employee of the plant at ICE’s request.”
“We couldn’t get away”Danilo observed that the spy “brought in” the police just like the Army informers did in El Quiché, when soldiers suddenly cordoned off communities to massacre them. The reaction of the people in the factory was the same as their parents’: they stood up and tried to make a getaway down the aisles. The police followed and there was general panic. Many looked for the exits, making their way to the next floor or down to the basement. But all exits were sealed off—again, just like the army did back home in Guatemala when they surrounded a market before a massacre.
Danilo had the same thought right at the beginning that some massacre survivors had: “Oh God! What’s going to happen?” He didn’t know how bad it would be; he’d only discover over time, but the deployment of force was massive. They surrounded the whole factory and were even hovering overhead in a helicopter with that terrifying rhythmic beat of the motor. Just like in Guatemala, when the infantry was guided from the air. Danilo’s description of the force deployed by the migration service was his excuse for not doing anything, at the same time that he felt he should have resisted. But he couldn’t; there was no way out: “We couldn’t escape.”
The police worked in groups to immobilize everyone at their work stations, making those that had moved go back to their own seat. Danilo says they all obeyed; there was no alternative. But while they couldn’t make a break for it, those from the same town started talking among themselves in Quiché, just to share what they were thinking: “Let’s hope nothing happens.” They were worried something really serious could ensue; even that they might get killed. He repeated several times as though reciting a prayer, “Oh my God. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen here now?”
Through the windows they could see a lot of media outside the factory: “Equipment, antennas, television news people were set up outside.” Danilo interprets the media presence as part of the deportation strategy. The more people know about the round-up the better, to discourage migrants and dissuade Latin American youth from wanting to enter illegally. As he left the factory, Danilo noticed the traffic had been blocked.
The factory’s owner, 50-year-old Francesco Isolia, was also detained that day, along with three other top executives and a fifth person. They were accused of helping the workers obtain false papers.
“Have you got a work visa?”Before taking them away, the police bound their hands with plastic ties and took them to the dining hall, where ICE officers ordered them to take everything out of their pockets, particularly papers, anything with a cutting edge and money. Then they were ordered to identify themselves: “‘Where are you from?’ he asked me. ‘I’m Guatemalan. I’m from Guatemala, OK?’ ’Have you got a work visa?’ ’No, sir.’” Danilo responded respectfully and honestly as he knew he couldn’t hide the truth, that the government had the technology to discover anything contradictory. The officer asked why he was in the United States, and he replied with a summary of reasons the immigration authorities already knew: poverty, lack of work and violence at home. And because of his family, as he had to support his widowed mother.
It’s not exactly clear whether it was then or when they reached the jail in Texas that their money was taken away, but once in the jail Danilo could receive amounts when he asked for them. His bank card was also taken away with the promise it would be returned when he was sent back to Guatemala, but he thought he’d never see it again: “They’ll go off to the bank and get my money out just like that,” just as would happen in Guatemala. But in the end he didn’t lose the money, which really surprised him.
As a bachelor, Danilo didn’t suffer like the female workers who were separated from their children during the round-up. His main problem was having to abandon the apartment where he was living with his brothers, who were also arrested in the same factory. His brother-in-law, who was working elsewhere, got hold of the key, removed their stuff, packed it and sent it back to Guatemala.
Knowlede that can cut either wayThey were taken out of the factory, tied up and then bussed to Boston, an hour away. Danilo was constantly thinking about escaping, but it was obvious that any attempt would be futile: “If you had managed to get away, I don’t know what they would have done to you.” Would they have been shot? He remembers how hungry they were because they had only been given a few cold sandwiches and chips. They were also cold as there was still snow on the highway and “it was really freezing.” Since they’d already been questioned, he asked himself the same question all the way to Boston: “So what now? Where are we going?”
He eventually discovered that the answer was deportation, a process he learned all about over the next months. It was knowledge that could cut either way, either dissuading them from coming back as they risked being deported again or jailed, or making them less afraid of that possibility as they now knew the ropes with respect to deportation and could more easily avoid getting caught.
Danilo doesn’t remember where they were in Boston, but he does recall that they were fingerprinted and had their photos taken, giving them an official identity. All the information was entered into a computer so his past record would be easily accessed if he ever got caught again.
They were visited by pro-bono Boston lawyers who wanted to help keep them from being deported. “We just gave them our name” they told the lawyers, but it wasn’t true; by the time the lawyers got there they had already given the authorities too much information. The lawyers got one woman from Danilo’s village released at that point because she had a child who was still breastfeeding. Danilo couldn’t come up with any reason to be freed in Boston and escape transfer to a jail in Texas. He defined valid reasons as “having a child who was born there, who was American, or a relative who was a resident.”
They thanked the lawyers for their good intentions, even though they couldn’t help. However, the lawyers and the prisoners weren’t quite on the same wave length, with the former wanting to fight for them at whatever cost, while the latter wanted to decide for themselves which path to take.
The peak of Danilo’s sufferingThey were held all night in a cell with no beds and nothing on the floor, said Danilo; “if you wanted to sleep a bit you couldn’t because of the cold.” The next morning they were bound again then taken to the airport, but this time chained together in groups of five. They could barely walk. They felt like hardened criminals with the guards barking orders at them. All of this was humiliating to Danilo. “Good God!” he wondered. “What great crime did I commit?”
This seems to have been the peak of Danilo’s suffering in the prolonged deportation process. He expresses it through the idea of “repentance,” which indigenous migrants frequently use to describe the most difficult moments of their journey north. They “repent” when caught by the migration authorities or when their coyote abandons them en route, a moment of desperation in which they feel as though their great efforts had made no sense. Danilo adds that “later I didn’t”—when the meaning of everything he had done with such hope returned.
The journey to the Boston airport also involved a deployment of force that made it seem as though a group of dangerous drug traffickers was being transported in the buses, with one state highway patrol car up front and one following behind. They were checked again on arrival at the airport: “They open your mouth, they look in a lot of places to make sure you’re not carrying knives, firearms or anything… they’re doing that and we’re all tied up.” They were unshackled from each other to board the plane: “One by one we got on the plane and filled it up, it was a really long plane…” And then they flew off to El Paso, Texas.
“I was navy blue”The El Paso detention center is outside the city, “nearly in the desert, surrounded by three or four cyclone fences.” Danilo kept thinking about escape, but always concluded it was impossible: if you pass the first fence, you come up against the second one. All the fences were topped with “some wire” and “big migration vehicles” patrolled the roads circling the detention center. Danilo always referred to the place as a jail, although technically speaking it may not be, as the inmates are not criminals.
When they got there, they were untied and checked again to see if any had a criminal record: some problem with the police, a citation for drinking or running a red light, failure to attend a court summons… “Your crime’s there if you didn’t go clean your record,” says Danilo. “They’ve got you in the computer; just try and lie to see if your name doesn’t appear there. If you’ve got a crime stored in the computer it’s sure to throw up your name.”
They were classified according to their crime: an orange uniform for a minor offense; a red one for something serious, like murder; and a navy blue one if, like Danilo, they had no crime associated with them. “‘Nothing, you don’t have anything,’ they say and give you a blue uniform: navy blue shirt and pants with the letters EPC here on the back.” He doesn’t know what those letters stood for; it could have been simply El Paso County.
Despite having been previously treated like one, being classified as a non-criminal made Danilo feel a little easier, a little safer. At least he wasn’t on the lowest rung. “Let’s say that those of us who were blue, who didn’t have a record, were good people, and there were a lot of us.” The rules of the game were starting to be defined: most of those detained were navy blue.
When they went in, their shoes, clothes, personal possessions and money were stored in a box and they were given a card with a number on it to get them back when they left: “You don’t lose that while they’ve got you locked up there…”
“You don’t eat tortillas there”During those first days a few people were let out, including a nephew of Danilo’s who also had no papers, but had what was deemed an acceptable reason for returning to New Bedford: his father was sick and sent clinic papers proving it. However, he had to pay his own plane fare back.
They slept in four huge rooms with bunk beds, grouped by sex and the color of their uniform. An officer passed along the beds counting them three times a day and they all had to be “in bed without moving at all from it.” The bed was the reference point in that place. They had to get up at 6 am. “They didn’t wake us up,” explained Danilo, but the prisoners had to “get a move on” to catch breakfast: “If you’re fast asleep, you stay there and they only give you food again at ten.”
Food was served three times a day Monday to Friday, and twice on Saturdays and Sundays. And it was bad: “They gave us dirty beans, half cooked eggs and badly done potatoes. They give you whatever they find, but only in small quantities. Bimbo bread [Bimbo is a Mexican company that makes processed bread], but with wheat that’s kind of moldy. You don’t get tortillas there.”
They were let out for 45 minutes a day for sports. There was one court in the whole complex, “but it’s always closed.” There’s also a clinic attended by one doctor: “Say you’re playing and you get hit, or your tooth hurts, you go talk to the officer—and it’s free.” There’s also a library “if you want to go look something up or study something or type a letter to your family.” The letters are left in a post box. There was no Internet.
“We talked by phone”The detainees could also communicate with the outside world by telephone. Although there are three phones in the jail, “You have to buy a $5, $10 or $20 card, and $5 only lasts three minutes”; just enough time to “hear my mom’s voice… say ‘I’m here; don’t worry about me’ and that’s it! Just a few words and your card’s used up.” That’s how Danilo found out that the box with his things in it sent by his brother-in-law had arrived in El Quiché. His mother told him “Your things have come. Now we’re waiting to see when they’re going to let you out.” He also used the phone to talk to his brother-in-law and the nephew who’d been released.
The telephone calls were the main cost. One way to buy phone cards was with the money they had when they were picked up. The $300 Danilo had on him was taken away, but he could ask the officer to give him some. Another method was a money order, but his brother-in-law didn’t have enough to send anything. And the final option was to earn money: “If you put your name down you could earn a dollar [a day]. As there was nothing else to do I started working: sweeping, mopping.” That way Danilo saved $5 a week to buy a phone card. He calculates his total spending during the four months there at $422: the $300 he arrived with plus $122 in earnings.
Why four months?They built up friendships in jail, telling each other their stories, learning from each other and swapping advice. Danilo, for example, asked an “orange” detainee: “’What was it you did when you were on the outside?’ ‘You know, it’s a lie that’s stuck with me,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘I was with a relative of mine in the apartment and they accused me of being a rapist,’ he told me. ‘So they called the police and they came around. There was a woman there who thought I was going to do things because I’d been drinking.’”
There were social classes in the jail, defined by the money the different prisoners had access to. The poor were those who had to work for their weekly phone card, “but those who didn’t work just spent, spent, spent; blowing five or six dollars a day.” Their money was sent in to them by relatives supporting them from far away.
Catholic detainees could benefit from a Colombian priest who came to give Mass in the dining hall. A “sister” also came to the prison. “I asked her to get me a Bible,” recalls Danilo, “because there was nothing to do there on my bed during lock-up, and I preferred to read something.” The Bible she gave Danilo made it all the way back to Guatemala: “It’s my only souvenir.”
The officers treated them badly: “They criticized us too much; they treated us like animals.” He said it frightened him just to look at them because they seemed really tough. There were two kinds of police officers: those who gave orders and those who were workers, whom Danilo saw as more benign.
The one thing Danilo still can’t explain is why they were locked up for four months. The most despairing thing was spending so long with nothing to do, waiting for the judges’ decision.
“I don’t want to be here any longer!” Their relationship with the lawyers, migration officials and judges is what most reveals the detainees’ decision-making processes and capacity for action and resistance, as far as it was possible. All detainees had their own pro bono lawyer who served as the intermediary between the detainee and the judge, talking to their client before going to court and then returning to report what the judge had said. “They didn’t give the lawyers any answers,” says Danilo, “which left us waiting…” That “waiting, waiting for days, weeks, months…” slowly built up a climate of frustration, while the lawyers could only counsel that they be patient.
Despite the individual lawyer-client relationship, a collective decision was reached to close the case and stop fighting: “Some of us got tired of being locked up and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to talk to my lawyer and close my case because I don’t want to fight any more. I want them to let me out of here, to send me back to my family in my country. I don’t want to be here any longer!’ That’s what everyone started to say.”
A group of about 15, including Danilo, decided to resist and continue fighting their deportation. Several factors influenced Danilo’s resistance: his positive attitude, his acceptance of both being deported or staying on, the existence of other buddies with the same ideas—you can’t resist alone—and a religious trust that God was with them. “I’m going to fight,” he thought. “I’m not going to lose hope, I’m not! I have to fight, but I’m happy to go wherever they send me. If they send me back [to New Bedford], that’s fine; and if they send me to my family, well that’s fine, too.”
Up before the judgeThen one day he was taken to face the judge who would decide whether he had the right to bail. Danilo recalls, with some detail this time, just how he was questioned. “We went up before the judge one by one,” he explains. “As he didn’t speak Spanish, there was a translator translating what he said to me. They asked how I’d crossed into Mexico and if I’d paid a coyote, and I said ‘yes.’”
“’How many thousands of dollars did you pay?”asked the judge, and Danilo told him $5,000, that he’d still owe a lot of it if he went back to Guatemala and there was no way he could earn so much. “They asked me a lot of different questions, like if I didn’t have a lot of problems there in New Bedford. ‘No, sir,’ I told him. ‘I don’t have a dad any more, I’m just supporting my family, and if I leave I won’t earn much money.’ So the judge tells me, ‘You don’t have the right to bail.’” Who would have posted his $5,000 bail in any event isn’t at all clear.
Return deported or voluntarily?Arguments used by potential deportees not to be sent back include the debt they say they still owe, poverty and not having a criminal record. But what matters to the judge is whether any people living in the United States are dependent on them. The judge told Danilo, “We’re denying you bail because you don’t have any family here in America; you don’t have a child, nothing. So what are you fighting for? You’re a good person so go back to your country voluntarily.”
Danilo thus had to choose between being deported or returning voluntarily to Guatemala. Going voluntarily meant paying his own airfare, but having his record expunged. Being deported meant the US government would pay his fare, but his record would remain on the computer files so any time he returned to the United States his deportation would show up and he could be jailed for several years.
He chose deportation because he couldn’t afford the fare. He told the judge, “Look, sir, I’m sorry but I don’t have the money to pay for my ticket.” His choice was forced on him by poverty: “Some people are lucky, but who’s going to send me any money here? So the government footed the bill and I left.”
Despite learning so much about the mechanisms of deportation, there are still some things Danilo can’t explain. For example, some people “whose cases had already been closed are still locked up and we don’t know why.” He also finds no explanation as to why at the last minute he was sent back with a different group, although he was thrilled to get back sooner: “God has such great power that he didn’t abandon the two of us [referring to one of his brothers], but rather sent us with that group that was coming back.” Being so religious, he falls back on divine intervention to explain the otherwise inexplicable.
Those who remained behind included two other brothers. One would arrive back in El Quiché later after finally being deported, while the other went back to New Bedford at the end of a long trial and was the last, or one of the last, detainees from the New Bedford round-up to get out of jail. The massive deportation had involved clusters of relatives.
Back to GuatemalaIt’s at this point that Danilo mentions the intervention by the Guatemalan Consulate, apparently the one in San Antonio, Texas. They were woken at 2 am, changed into their own clothes and left their detainee uniforms behind. They were given a bag to carry things they had acquired in jail, like the souvenir Bible and notebooks in Danilo’s case. “They called you one by one to give it to you,” he recalls, “then put us on the bus again to take us to El Paso airport. We were pretty anxious by then.”
They went through migration and were checked. Everything seemed to take forever since they wanted so badly to be back in Guatemala. “There we were, tired, hungry, thirsty, desperate, everything.” They weren’t bound this time like when they flew to Texas: “They passed us through and put us on the plane without our hands tied; you could hang on to something, move something.” This mixed group of men and women landed first in Honduras to drop off some deportees. “Some friends got off there. Sad. They’re friends from the same factory where they nabbed us.” On the plane they chatted easily with the officers guarding them, now without feeling detained. They were free now and going back to their land. One of the officers advised Danilo to think about his life, “what you’re going to do.”
When they got to the Guatemalan Air Force airport they were met by national migration authorities, who took down their details, but didn’t photograph them. One by one they went up to the officer as the others waited on the benches. “They gave us a snack,” recalls Danilo, “and we changed money in the Banrural bank. I changed the $80 I’d put aside just in case.”
“They give you a phone call there,” he explains. “They told us ‘If you want to talk to your family, here’s a phone and you can call free.’ I called my mom: ‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about me anymore because we’re in the airport in Guatemala. We’re going to get out at three in the afternoon and maybe we’ll be arriving at seven or eight in the evening.”
They went out onto the street of the capital. Nobody was waiting for their group of three: Danilo, his brother and another man from the same village. “We’ll go together,” they decided, and not split up. They were frightened by the disorder. They asked taxi drivers how much it would cost to take them the over 200 km to El Quiché, but didn’t get anywhere. “I was scared. It’s not the same over there in the United States. It’s pretty happy there, organized. What police they’ve got! They stamp this, fill out that and everything’s done with order. But not here. I was really afraid.”
They finally bumped into a deported friend from Chinique. Her brother was waiting for her in his car and she asked him if he’d take them to the terminal to catch the bus to El Quiché. He agreed and didn’t charge them anything. The snack in the airport had helped calm their hunger, as they hadn’t eaten anything since leaving Texas, but once in the terminal they bought Pollo Campero fried chicken.
“I’d forgotten what it’s like here”Once they were on the “Araceli”—buses that are proverbially dangerous on the mountain curves—Danilo felt threatened again. That was the Guatemala they’d yearned for in jail. “Ha! What a big shock! I was scared because you wouldn’t believe how they pass other vehicles on those roads! Oh my God! I felt like we were going to go over the side. When I came in the plane, no problem, I wasn’t frightened at all, even though it’s flying. I even looked down and didn’t get scared. But that bus ride really did scare me.”
When they got there, the only one of the five brothers who hadn’t travelled north was waiting for them under the town square’s bougainvillea. Their mother hadn’t come down from the village, but once back home Danilo hugged her and “cried with joy to see her again.” He’d also cried when he said goodbye to her as he left. He finds it strange that he cried the same way on two opposite occasions.
The whole walk to Danilo’s village was dark. He was returning to the lightlessness of rural life. “Arriving at night, when it was really dark, shook me. ‘It’s as if I forgot what it’s like here when I was over there.” But while he felt danger, he didn’t let himself forget the dangers over there as well, even though there was a lot of light: “When you walk around at night, at seven, eight, ten and later, if you see two boricuas, or Puerto Ricans, together, you know they’re going to mug you. They’ll even kill you if you don’t give them anything.”
I talked to Danilo when he’d been back in Guatemala for three months. The first thing he did when he got back was recover his money from the US bank account by sending his nephew the card and PIN number. “They got in just like that, because it’s not like here. You can get your money from machines over there. You put in your card and PIN number and out drop the notes. So they were able to get it all out and I don’t have anything there anymore.” He thought he’d lost his money; that it would be stolen; and the fact he got it back made him admire the order in the United States.
Another situation that shocked him in Guatemala involved the “millionaire,” a man who conned thousands of people. Many relatives of people living in the United States entrusted their remittances to him rather than a bank and either lost them or ended up in debt. “I didn’t want to sign up with the millionaire, because some people even lost their land.”
“I felt really sad”When Danilo arrived, his municipality was immersed in the election campaign. He couldn’t vote because he’d lost his voter-ID card on his journey north and was told he wasn’t on the electoral roll, despite having voted in the last elections. His brother and the friend they travelled back with both voted, however.
He realized how radical the political positions were in the municipality. “It’s horrible,” he said. “Everyone’s divided here; that’s why Guatemala can’t pull itself up.” He compares this to the United States, where “I didn’t notice any problems caused by politics.”
The third deported brother had just come back the day before I talked with Danilo. “I’m going to see how my brother is,” he told me. “I imagine he’s really sad, because that’s how I felt when I got back.” He said he even felt oppressed by the landscape when he first arrived, as if the mountain range of the former guerrillas blocked his view. It’s not at all like what he knows of the United States, where the landscape was always flat. “When I got back all I could see was a big hill. My God!” I thought, “I’ve got to jump up to see the other side.” He started idealizing the North and feeling pulled by the idea of going back.
Why go back to the North?Alter talking to me, Danilo took the risk of returning to the United States. How did he end up deciding to go back? Although he’s just one young person, his case shows some of the elements that can come into play in the decision taken by thousands and thousands of deportees who have to choose between staying in Guatemala and trying again in the United States.
“Yes, I ‘m thinking about it,” he confessed before leaving. “I’m thinking about returning, I’m not going to lie.” It’s not something he hid, although he knew the decision is frowned upon by many and could land him in jail. When I talked to him he still didn’t know which decision he’d make, but now that he’s left it doesn’t surprise me.
One powerful reason for returning is the money you can earn, because in Guatemala it’s very hard to get a job or produce anything to sell. He said, “I can earn $500 a week there [in the United States] and sent a bit home.”
But it’s not just the money; he also felt that living there really improved his lot. “It’s a great experience for me,” he explains, “I had never, ever worked in a big factory. It was only there that I learned how to earn and save a little.” Danilo and his brothers lived in real poverty in El Quiché.
The third reason for returning is the still intact chain of relatives over there drawing him back. His brother-in-law has no money and is sick, but his nephew encouraged him to go back: “Uncle, what are you going to do? Aren’t you coming back now?” Danilo replied that he didn’t have enough money to pay the coyote, but his nephew promised “If you decide to come back, I’ll do you a favor, I’ll help you out.” Deportation didn’t break the migration chain, and many deportees have returned. In other words, it’s possible to go back and isn’t as dangerous as the US government or the media try to make out.
Danilo also had “a lot of things left to do.” He mentioned that his brother and he managed to buy two small pieces of land, one of 7,500 square yards for 75,000 quetzals and the other for 60,000. But he sees that land in the context of the other goals he didn’t achieve: “I didn’t build my house; I haven’t got a lot of land; I haven’t got any cattle.” One goal is connected to another and the whole set of goals makes up the dream, which is much bigger than the individual goals and always expanding. It spreads from the material to the family sphere, to the social sphere, and even to imponderables like love: “My dream is to succeed a bit in life in order to have something. And God willing, to have or find a woman. I have to have something of my own to support a woman, and I can’t do that the way things are at the moment.”
For Danilo, the dream of getting ahead in life includes studying. Not in Guatemala, where he only finished primary school, but in the United States, where he started studying at a high school where “they give us computer classes, completely free, all in English.” He says his teacher, Paula, was “a good person. I wanted to talk to her but I don’t have her number and I couldn’t say much in English.”
Finally it should be pointed out that far from being some kind of sin for Danilo, the journey north is a gift of God: “I really thank God for giving my brother the chance to make it through when he went the first time.” The same attitude toward God holds true with regard to his decision to return. It’s a religious ideology very closely linked to work that condemns any vices: “I really, really thank God that I never fell into the vice of smoking or drinking liquor or beer. Maybe I’ve got a vice for money.” To ensure his religious convictions, he attended a group at the Catholic Church of Guadalupe every Sunday. And to make work more bearable, “I took my walkman to listen to songs of praise and music in the factory. You really get bored when you’re sitting there.”
Nothing would change his mindI raised some of the obstacles he would face when he returned, but he always had an answer. If the employers ask you for legal papers? “That’s true for the big fish and garment factories where I worked... ah, and the fruit factory. There they ask you for papers now. But if you work for an American, at their home or in their garden, or clean something in the house, maybe they’ll give you work.”
And if there’s now a climate of repression in the North? He answered that what you hear on the news is one thing and what his brother-in-law tells him over the phone is quite another: “He told me there isn’t a lot of fuss with migration right now; things are quite calm at the moment.” Danilo recognized that “getting there is a little expensive,” but not even the money could dissuade him.
Nothing would change his mind, even knowing that he could get 10 to 20 years in prison if they catch him again. A few months after talking to me, Danilo set off again and made it back to the United States, where he’s currently working.
Ricardo Falla, sj, is an anthropologist and envío collaborator in Guatemala.