Global Politics

These two Guatemalans say they had little choice but to head north

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Credit:

Reuters

Two young men from Central America travel to the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico in 2006. This fiscal year, US officials have detained more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors and 39,000 women with children along the US-Mexico border.

Here's a number to mull over: 1,000.

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That's how many young migrants, mostly from Central America, are reported to be pouring over the US border every week. But two Guatemalans put a face on those skyrocketing numbers. And they say they had no choice but to make the dangerous trek.

I meet Luis Figueroa and Mario Kevin López in Berkeley, California, on a street near train tracks. It’s where groups of day laborers congregate, hoping to find work.

Luis and Mario are new faces here, and younger than most of the workers here. They’re both 17 now, and recently crossed over from Guatemala.

They’re actually from the same town near Guatemala’s border with Mexico, but they only met for the first time here in California.

They wait for possible jobs, wearing work boots and jeans, ready to do any manual labor they can find. But it’s slow today, so there’s time to talk about their new lives here, and why they each left Guatemala.

“My parents didn’t want me to go, especially my mom," says Luis. "She knows how dangerous the trek is."

But he felt he had no choice: it was either farming beans and corn like his parents, earning barely enough of a salary his whole life. Or, he’d be forced into a gang, like so many of his friends.

Mario agrees. “The gangs rob, kidnap and kill,” he says. “If you refuse to join, it could mean death. The only way out is to leave.”

Also, both of Mario's parents are dead. They were killed in a car accident, he says.

He lived with an aunt, one of a few relatives still around. Nearly all of his other relatives migrated to the US over the years. So when his uncle in California offered to cobble together the $6,000 smuggling fee to bring him here, Mario said yes.

He traveled north by bus, paying bribes to everyone from Mexican migration officials to drivers along the way.

Near the US border, he met with smugglers: “They took us to a hotel and kept us locked up in a hotel room with other migrants,” says Mario.

They were held at the hotel for 10 days, he says, until they were told it would be safe to cross.

But, at one point at the hotel, Mario says armed men or kidnappers, burst into their room and demanded ransom.

“They told us that if we didn’t pay up, they’d kill us,” Mario says. His relatives wired another $1,000. But he remembers one boy who couldn’t get the money. He tried escaping from a bathroom window.

Mario watched as the men grabbed the boy and beat him.

Luis’ trek was just as rough. It took him days to cross the desert. He suffered extreme thirst and hunger, and says he walked by the dead body of someone who didn’t make it across the border.

Not long after reaching Arizona, immigration officials, in Phoenix, caught Luis.

The same thing happened to Mario.

They’ve both spent time in shelters for minors and were released to relatives after a few months.

Now, they both face immigration court hearings soon. And they say they’ll show up, even if it means deportation.

Luis says he’ll fight to stay here.

“I’d like to stay and work here with a visa. I’m going to try and make my case,” he says. And he tells me that he wants to emphasize how dangerous Guatemala is today — the country has one of the highest crime rates in Central America and is dubbed "critical" by the US State Department when it comes to violent crimes.

But he’ll have a hard time making his case. Current US immigration law makes it difficult to receive asylum for gang violence, the very reason why Luis says he won't go back to the US. He also cannot afford a lawyer, and undocumented immigrants are currently not granted court-appointed attorneys in immigration court.

Mario, on the other hand, sounds resigned.

He says if he’s deported, he’ll go back. But he’s also not sure what he would do in Guatemala. He feels stuck in the middle — between a country that won’t let him stay and a country where he sees no future.

I asked them what they’d do if they were fathers with kids around their own age.

Mario says he wouldn’t let his son go. The journey is too dangerous.

But Luis disagrees. “I’d give my son the chance to cross,” he says, “But he’d have to give it his all.”

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