Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Many forces contribute to problems at the border

Addison Independent readers are seeing more asylum advocacy in your pages. Bringing a national debate to Vermont, protesters joined Bristol’s Fourth of July parade to denounce “concentration camps” on the U.S.-Mexican border. “Close the camps!” demanded almost 200 demonstrators in downtown Middlebury on July 12. On your editorial page, Angelo Lynn has decried the Trump administration’s needlessly harsh responses to 140,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in a single month.
How could it be necessary to pen up thousands of Central American parents and children? Because the very question sounds ridiculous, your readers may be interested in one of the Guatemalan towns sending us asylum seekers. I’m a social researcher, and every year I visit the Highland Maya municipio of Nebaj. In 2018 the Guatemalan government projected Nebaj’s population to be 106,237. As of December, seven months ago, the well-run local health department could find only 77,717.
Where is the 27 percent shortfall of 28,520? Half or more could easily be in the United States. My reasons for this assessment include the astonishment of Nebajenses at how many of their relatives and neighbors have gone north. They call it the American Dream, and about it they express many divided emotions — from enthusiasm, to tortured family debates over whether they should chase it, to shock over the stratagems and risks it requires. I hardly know how to describe some of the discussions I have joined. In one a mother, who forbids her 17-year-old daughter to be out after 8 p.m., was about to entrust her to a smuggling network, for a bargain price that could turn her into a prostitute in a strange country.
Nebajenses are particularly troubled by parents using minors to make asylum claims (of the 132,880 mainly Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran unauthorized border-crossers in May, 84,491 consisted of adults accompanied by juveniles). The younger the child, the less likely they understand why they suddenly have been uprooted into a frightening journey with strangers. Sometimes this occurs when an angry spouse retaliates by taking a child north, without even telling the other parent. In other cases, adolescents younger than 18 have had their legal identities snatched by a sibling or cousin who is older than 18.
Why would parents yank children into dangerous journeys across Mexico? Is it because they are desperate? Asylum advocates claim that Central Americans are fleeing hopeless poverty. Yet Nebaj is an NGO- and migration-based boomtown in which virtually everyone has a higher standard of living than previous generations. Even the poorest Nebajenses have more access to clinics, schools, and motor transport than their parents did. Their clothing is warmer, their diet is more varied, and most are living in a warmer and drier house.
According to asylum advocates, Central Americans are fleeing homicidal extortion gangs. But there are no gangs in Nebaj, which is located in a department (El Quiché) with one of Guatemala’s lowest homicide rates. What about fleeing domestic violence? Any woman in Nebaj with a violent husband can seek support in the town’s shelter for abused women, and/or the town hall’s office for women, and/or two police forces which both have female officers, and/or the dozens of churches and mother/child projects which stress women’s rights in their programming.
What about fleeing the consequences of the civil wars that ravaged Central America? This, too, is often brought up by asylum advocates, and Nebaj should be a good illustration because it certainly was ravaged: many of the witnesses against ex-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in his 2013 genocide trial were Nebajenses.
Perhaps surprisingly, wartime scars have little to do with the migratory flow north. Consider the demography: 60 percent of Nebajenses were born after the war ended in 1996. In fact, elders complain that youth have no interest in hearing about the war, to the point of not believing them when they share their experiences. A more obvious issue is that, since the worst of the violence in the early 1980s, Nebajenses have more than doubled their population. In a trend that began long before the war, Nebaj parents have continued to produce five, six, seven or more children, even though they themselves have not inherited enough land for their traditional livelihood as peasant farmers.
As a result, thousands of Nebaj youth are unable to find a job that will satisfy their rising aspirations. Any young man can work as an agricultural laborer, but $7 or $8 a day will not buy what they see on their smartphones.
Asylum advocates say that only development projects will stem the flow of Central Americans north. Nebaj illustrates the weakness of this argument as well: in all the former war zones of the Guatemalan highlands, no town has received more projects than Nebaj. But no level of aid has been able to keep up with the level of reproduction. What was undeniably helpful was a flood of microcredits. Lacking plausible investments in their mountain valleys, Nebajenses invested many of the loans in paying smugglers to take them to the United States.
Since Nebaj began sending its youth north in the late 1990s, remittances have created many winners, who put up big houses and drive around in motor vehicles, and many losers, who are invisible until you start asking questions. For example, remittances have hyperinflated the cost of house plots. To pay the staggering prices, every family which needs additional housing is under pressure to send someone to the U.S.
Gaining entry to the U.S. has become so easy that smugglers now charge two different prices. While the cost of the old-fashioned evade-detection trip has risen to $12,000, a “delivery to the border” costs as little $2,100. For this second kind of trip, you are taken to the Rio Grande, floated across on an inner tube, and directed to the nearest border agent, with instructions to say that you are afraid to go home. This is the asylum loophole that, over eight months in 2018-19, apparently has led to the detention of 1.27 percent of Guatemala’s entire population by U.S. border authorities.
What about the rest of Central America? Could Nebaj be safer and more prosperous than other places sending migrants north? This is possible, but survey research by the International Organization for Migration suggests that asylum advocates have overestimated the role of criminal violence. According to an August 2016 survey of returned Guatemalans, the three most important reasons they left for the U.S. were economic (64.1 percent), family reunification (9.1 percent), and violence (3.3 percent). As for those Guatemalans who planned to leave for the U.S. in the next 12 months, their reasons were economic (55.2 percent), family reunification (18.6 percent), insecurity (3.4 percent), and sexual discrimination (2.4 percent). In similar IOM surveys of Salvadorans, from 2011 to 2017, 73.8 percent said they were going north to find work; only 16.3 percent cited insecurity as their motive.
What about the question I posed at the start — why should U.S. border authorities detain thousands of mothers, fathers and children just because they are seeking asylum? One reason is that they must verify legal identities. In May, Mexican authorities stopped four truck trailers and found that they were carrying 791 Central Americans. These included 270 children age six or seven and 98 under the age of five. Given that the object of asylum seekers is legal residence in the U.S., and given that legal residence in the U.S. is one of the most valuable commodities in the world, the potential rewards for selling children are enormous. To the Department of Homeland Security falls the unfortunate duty of ensuring that it is not waving through human traffickers and their victims. When it fails to detect human trafficking, as sometimes occurs, there is an uproar.
I hope the forgoing helps Addison Independent readers evaluate the accusation that the U.S. government runs concentration camps. I too am shocked by the reports I have seen. Doubtless President Trump’s decisions have contributed to inexcusable conditions, but it is also true that U.S. border authorities have been overwhelmed by unprecedented numbers of adolescents and small children. If the alternative policy is to wave through anyone who shows up at the border with a child, this could have even worse consequences. However dreadful the man in the White House, and however dreadful his scapegoating, many hands have played a role in creating this situation.  Simply blaming Trump is reverse scapegoating, and that is not going to help Central Americans. 
David Stoll
Middlebury
 
Editor’s note: David Stoll, professor of anthropology at Middlebury College, is the author of “El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town.”

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