Being a missionary in an impoverished and gang controlled area of Guatemala, some of our friends have started asking for our perspective in the newly popular media trend of talking about children from Guatemala that are illegally entering the United States. I’m wondering why it has taken so long for people to start noticing! Since God called us here 3 years ago, we have been trying to tell others of the extreme poverty crisis here in Guatemala that causes Guatemalans to risk everything for the chance of living in the United States, if only to send a few dollars back for the rest of their family.
For those of you who didn’t happen to see our initial presentation we gave at various churches in 2012 as we prepared to come down here, I will directly quote the stats we gave as evidence of the ongoing problem:
If we can get communities to the point where people are happy to live in them, they won’t be flocking to the US illegally, further draining our resources. The 2000 US census counted 480,665 foreigners born from Guatemala, but the International Migration data suggest that approximately one million Guatemalans now live in the United States. Although the International Organization for Migration estimates that there are 200,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the US, some civil society organizations believe the actual figure is higher. They also estimate that between 6,000 and 12,000 new Guatemalan migrants arrive in the United States via Mexico each year. Why would Guatemalans want to move into the United States? More than half of the population is below the national poverty line and 15% lives in extreme poverty. 43% of children under five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. 42/1,000 children die before the age of five, the highest mortality rate in the hemisphere after Haiti and Bolivia.To put that in a little more of a personal comparison, as of 2004, Guatemala has 56.2% of the population below the poverty line as opposed to only 15.1% in the United States.
The numbers have gotten worse. I’m sure by now everyone who pays attention to the news in the U.S. has been inundated with statistics, pie charts, and reviews of past, present, and future policy change that is related to all of this. I don’t plan to pick apart certain news clips or debunk certain theories that have been developed and repeated. I want to give a perspective not just as someone who is here “on the ground” working with some of the very kids that are migrating to the U.S., but as one who has been purposed to come here and help prevent it.
God’s vision for us here in Guatemala is simultaneously simple and difficult: to help strengthen the local church so it can grow as a fountain of hope and God’s power for those in its surrounding community. If you would like a more detailed explanation, you can see our full vision by clicking here. It frustrates me that it took finding a couple dead children in the desert on the border of the U.S. for people to start paying attention to this issue. Sadly, though, not many people are asking the right questions. The question isn’t, “how do we prevent people from entering our borders,” rather it should be, “how can we help these countries better serve their people so they are happy to live in their own country?”
Being a Marine Corps Veteran who was sent to fight a war on foreign soil and one who believes in the right to pursue freedom from oppression, I wonder if we ever really stop to think about the ideals of our founding fathers. America has been long touted as the “Land of Opportunity,” the United States of America was founded upon the backs of migrant workers who appreciated the value of hard work, strong family principles, and the desire to serve our Creator in a way that pleases Him as our Father. The U.S. has grown lazy and the American dream is slowly dying because we have more than we could ever dream for and refuse to share it with anyone else. We know this does not apply to everyone; there are many people who are aware of the struggles of the rest of the world and who serve in whatever way God has called them to help alleviate this suffering. This isn’t to say nobody is doing anything, but to highlight that per capita and in comparison with how much we do have as a country, we could be doing a whole lot more. There are still many in the U.S. who are literally drowning in the river of dreams Billy Joel sang about and are trying to keep everyone else out. I know this seems like I may have strayed off point, but I offer this as a comparison to what my wife and I witness here in Guatemala.
Education is valued as a luxurious commodity in Guatemala. Families know the importance of being able to send their children to school, but the difficulty is in being able to afford to send them. There are public schools available but the quality is extremely low. This isn’t to say the teachers do not do their best, but schools are underfunded and under supported. One of the local schools we worked with in the past year receives about 5,000 Guatemalan Quetzales (about $640) per YEAR for whatever needs they have. Other than having their electric and water bills paid for by the local government, the school director must constantly ask the parents of the students to donate time and money in order to support teacher salaries, school supplies, and improvements to the buildings. All students attend classes part-time because there are more children than space in the schools. Primary school students attend for only 4 hours a day. One class attends in the morning while the other in the afternoon. Middle and high school students attend school once a week and have to do the majority of their learning at home on their own. There are some private schools available in each area, but these are only available if families can afford to pay about $300 per child each year ($250 of which is due at the beginning of the school year). The public schools, since they receive less funding, are also more privy to gang control. One school near the church we work in has received threats to the security of the staff if the parents of the students do not collectively pay an extortion demand. The police are working to resolve this issue, but the threat remains.
Most families cannot afford to pay for their own rent and food, so instead of children completing their high school education the children find jobs at a young age in order to help their parents sustain the family. They know that getting a better education will result in a better job, but it is difficult to stay in school when your family is starving to death. Not only does not attending school alleviate the costs of attendance, but it also makes a family member available to work, when they can find it. So, families are faced with a difficult decision: who has the best potential to succeed in school and who should we keep out of school to work so we can eat? In the United States, we have taken for granted the “no child left behind” directive that ensures all children get an equal education. Guatemalan children are lucky if they get an education at all.
The gang situation in Guatemala is rampant. Most families have been abandoned in one way or another by the father figure. Either they have left the family because they could not handle the responsibility, they have moved somewhere far away to secure a better work opportunity to support the family, or they have been killed for not succumbing to the demands of a ruling gang. This opens the door for young men and women to not be properly guided and need to make very hard life decisions at an early age. Aside from the education issue, they are confronted with the opportunity to join a gang so they can keep their family safe while making enough money to sustain them all. One of the laws in Guatemala is that at the age of 18, any criminal history you have is wiped clean without question. As a result, boys under the age of 18 are recruited as hitmen because they know they get a clean slate in just a few years. I recently had someone ask me if we live in a “dangerous” area of the country. In Guatemala, the sections of each city is divided into “zones” and are assigned colors of red, orange, or yellow to signify the level of danger as indicated by gang activity. Guatemalans laugh at this system as the entire country is practically red and the only areas that aren’t are place where nobody really lives or aren’t connected with the rest of Guatemalan society (i.e. Indigenous Mayan tribes who have avoided contact with outsiders). While actual violence is mostly limited to the interchange of gunfire between warring gangs, armed robbery and theft has become an accepted element of living in Guatemala.
Despite the extreme poverty in Guatemala it amazes me to see how it has affected everyone for the good. If someone is given two tortillas, they share one with their neighbor. If there is a donation of clothing, the community tries to bless as many as possible instead of everyone fighting to get as much as possible. If someone is given an abundance past their immediate necessity, they find someone else to whom they can give the extra. Our boss always says, “you cannot out-give a Guatemalan,” referring to the abundant generosity and concern for the whole instead of the individual. This is how the majority of the Guatemalans we know and work with survive. The problem is there is never enough to go around, so someone always misses out. Even our poor and homeless in the U.S. have shelter, clothing and food.
Two sad stories hit us “close to home” in our ministry in regards to Guatemalan migration to the United States. One 17 year old boy, a senior in high school, disappeared over the last year from our church. He was the drummer of the church’s worship team and after he didn’t show up for a couple of weeks, I asked the pastor if he was ok. “Well, it turns out that his father who is in the U.S. illegally convinced him to go work with him in San Diego.” I was dumbfounded. In a country full of poverty, this kid literally had everything going for him. His dad, who lives in a garage with a few other illegals and works as a mechanic, told his son that he would be able to finish his high school education and flourish in the U.S. while helping him work to send more money back to the States. We heard nothing of the boy for months until finally the boy’s mother told the pastor that he had arrived safely in the U.S. His father had payed the coyote extra to ensure the safety of his son and they had been hiding in the desert waiting for safe passage. An admirable gesture, but why would the boy and the father go along with it? Coyotes cannot be trusted, nor can the Mexican cartels and if caught by border control, he would have been sent back to where he came from. That $500 could have supported the whole family for 3-6 months.
Another story is of a woman known by the church we are working with; she lives a few hours away. Her husband has been in the U.S. for quite some time and she wanted to go to be with him and help him earn more money for their children. For an entire year, she saved up money by eating as little as possible and keeping her children out of school. During her trip guided by the coyote she paid, she and her traveling companions were taken hostage and a bounty was requested to be paid. Her village gathered the necessary money to pay for her release and she was sent back to the town she came from. Now she is paying off her debt to those who paid for her freedom and the children are missing another year of school.
We hear these stories and first question, “why would someone ever do something so ridiculous?” Unfortunately, the people here in Guatemala do not have the luxury of recognizing these actions as ridiculous. These actions are actually done out of love and the pursuit of survival and opportunity. They aren’t even really pursuing happiness, they are just trying to make sure their kids have a better life than they did, even if that means that they will be able to read and write and have at least one meal a day. Our ignorance as Americans goes far beyond understanding what it means to be poor or undereducated. It reaches into the depths of our own depravity of recognizing from where we’ve come as a people and society. When my wife and I were preparing to come to Guatemala two years ago, we sometimes got the question, “why would you go to another country and help people when we have needs here in the U.S.?” I have a plethora of answers to that question now and a handful of stories to tell you about those same people who still refuse to be a part of the solution but expect us to be the actors of everyone’s desires and ideas. The answer I offer today, however, is that the people who have the grave needs in the U.S. have come from the country we are now serving in. We complain about the influx of poor and hungry immigrants into the “land of opportunity” but balk at the idea of meeting them where they are so they can create their own land of opportunity.
I have an evolving understanding of the word “poverty” which is: the result of one’s environment failing them. I have and continue to read various books on poverty, wrote a college thesis about it (and it’s alleviation), and continue to involve myself in discussions over physical, emotional, and spiritual depravity which all point to this simple principle. As humans, our basic needs when not met create an emptiness in our lives that cause us to strive to fill those needs. Some do it with drugs, others with violence, some with sex, yet others by shutting themselves off from the rest of the world. As our depravity grows and our needs continue to go unmet, we work harder to create that equilibrium. Eventually, this depravity grows strong enough to motivate us to pay someone to load our 5 year old on a bus and drive across some of the most dangerous gang controlled territories in the world for the hopes that at least they will get clothing, shelter, and a full belly all the while sacrificing ourselves to make it happen. Yes, they could be kidnapped and sold into the sex trade. Yes, they could die of starvation or dehydration in the desert. Yes, I will probably never see them again. But it is worth the risk because life here isn’t any good either.
On the Statue of Liberty overlooking the New York Harbor which was intended to be a symbol of welcome reprieve from a tumultuous world, is a tablet engraved with a poem by Emma Lazarus that is meant to signify the virtue represented by it:
Even more important is what Jesus says in Matthew 25 about His imminent return and impending response about how we treat the least of society:
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ 41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So instead of worrying ourselves with politicking about the legality of foreign children bussed in with the hope of a better life, maybe we should focus on why they are coming in the first place. Instead of cursing the ever growing “illegal immigration” problem, maybe we should remember that this country was born by the hard work of “illegal immigrants” and fertilized by the blood of patriots who believed in everyone’s self-evident truths: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (copied from our U.S. Declaration of Independence) Instead of fighting wars on foreign soil to secure better stock rates and fuel prices, maybe we should fight for the freedom of those who otherwise are left hopeless and helpless not oppressed by tyrants but the inadequate reliability of their surroundings. Instead of thinking “mine, mine, mine,” maybe we should think, “yours, yours, yours,” because what we have isn’t ours to keep; it is a gift from God He has given us with which He wants us to bless others. Instead relying upon skewed news reports and opinions of people who have never visited the squatter’s villages of Guatemala, maybe we can look for ways to be a part of the solution.
In America we talk of freedom as a commodity that we deserve, not something we are blessed to have. Yet, if we truly understood the depth of the freedom we possess, we would be gladly sharing it with all and working to make sure all are truly free. From the freedom that was obtained by our early settlers to the freedom that Jesus Christ offers us, our understanding of freedom is revealed in our willingness to share it with others and secure it for those who might not even recognize it is an option.