New York Times (Op-Ed)
By Anita Isaacs
June 22, 2017
On a recent Wednesday, 75 Guatemalans disembarked from one of three charter flights, all full of deportees from the United States, scheduled that day. The group was led into a hangar, where authorities gave them a perfunctory welcome: a hello, a snack and bus fare to wherever they were headed.
The Guatemalan government’s relationship to the deportees ended there. Considering them a burden, even an embarrassment, the Guatemalan state and society are unable and unwilling to assist the thousands of migrants being sent back home.
Reintegrating them is no doubt a challenge. But so is doing nothing. And Guatemala and the United States have far more to gain by harnessing the economic, social and political capital these migrants bring back with them.
One reason Guatemala doesn’t do much with deportees is the widespread belief that they won’t stay for long.
On a recent visit to the country, I heard businessmen, public officials and community activists insist that Donald Trump and his wall would not intimidate aspiring migrants. But migrants aren’t wasting time, either. As a community leader told me, “Everyone is saying that they better rush now before Mr. Trump finishes his wall.”
In fact, many Guatemalans want the migrants to go back. Their return spells an end to remittances that constitute about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And returning migrants are flooding an already depressed job sector, where three-quarters of the labor force works off the books.
Not surprisingly, returning migrants aren’t particularly liked. Guatemalans figure they were sent home for breaking the law; those with tattoos are ostracized, assumed to belong to a violent street gang. Employers won’t hire them, and passers-by glance away.
Of course, such treatment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Denying migrants the assistance to reintegrate economically and socially will just make the country’s problems worse.
Marginalized individuals often join street gangs in a search to belong, and drug gangs and human traffickers recruit returning migrants. They know how to get across the border; many have lived in communities where gangs and organized crime fester; and they are the Guatemalans most familiar with the United States.
While it’s true that some migrants will head back north, many have no interest. One man I know, whose remittances were used to set up a T-shirt factory that employs his 10 children in his village, is heading home for good. Older returnees, especially those who have squirreled away enough money to survive, no longer feel pulled toward the United States.
Categorizing all deportees as criminals is equally misleading. Whereas a minority are felons, many more committed misdemeanors, and the majority are guilty only of crossing the border illegally and working without a permit.
Indeed, many migrants represent an untapped resource. Most left their countries as unskilled peasants, yet through resourcefulness and hard work in the United States they acquired a diverse set of professional skills and rose through the ranks.
During my visit, I encountered bricklayers and carpenters who undertook sophisticated home renovation projects, professional landscapers who worked on golf courses, a leather craftsman who oversaw a briefcase-making business and a young sushi chef who spoke fluent English and even rudimentary Japanese. They are eager to put their skills to work in Guatemala, either by opening their own businesses or by finding a private-sector partner.
For starters, the government should provide credit and, for those in the construction and tourism industries, ease cumbersome certification requirements so that they can ply their trade immediately. It could also develop a returnee-specific “linked in” program, where returning migrants would advertise their skills, connected to an effort to match them with businesses committed to diversifying and modernizing the Guatemalan economy.
Inasmuch as the migrants could help stabilize the Central American region, the United States could also benefit from the skills of deportees. The Alliance for Prosperity, which the American government has provided funds for, aims to curb migration by alleviating poverty, lawlessness and violence. Among other things, it fosters international, public and private investments in education, health care and vocational training — goals that skilled returning migrants can help achieve.
In my conversations with recently returned migrants, a pattern emerged. Their ultimate dream, they say, is not to return to the United States but, as one man explained, “to have Guatemala appear a little more like the United States.” For some, that means starting their own businesses; for others, it means spreading in their communities and workplaces the sort of team-building and leadership skills they found through their work in the United States.
Adamant that returning migrants can play a central part in reforming Guatemalan society, a deportee offered an analogy: People leave the country for the United States to escape a “house full of cockroaches,” where poverty and lawlessness prevail. The answer, he said, is to “fumigate the house — and make us part of the fumigation crew.”
Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 22, 2017, on Page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: The Immigrants No One Wants.
For more information, go to: www.beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com