by Kyra Coates
The issue of immigration has been a heated topic over the past several months in the United States. When President Trump enacted a “zero-tolerance” policy, there was a subsequent outcry from the public over the separation of families with people taking to the streets in protest. According to a recent article in the New York Times, there are still 13,000 migrant children in government custody who either arrived at the border alone, or have been separated from their guardians. Despite these extreme government immigration policies, there still has been an increase in people crossing the border illegally in the past few months. According to data from the US Customs and Border Protection, the largest percentage of those people are from Guatemala, with almost 43,000 families being taken into custody in 2018 to date, which is a sharp increase from the almost 25,000 apprehended for the entire year of 2017.
Contrary to common belief, it is not a result of rising violence that is driving people to emigrate. Violence in Guatemala is actually at a 17-year low. It is the decades-long issue of extreme poverty that is forcing people to leave their homes in search of a better life. With a population of 17.25 million, a staggering 60% of the country lives in poverty, with the majority of those being the indigenous population of Mayan descent. 79% of the Maya population lives below the poverty line, with a child malnutrition rate of 80%, which is the highest in the Western hemisphere.
Guatemala is a country with a painful past, that now lives with a wounded present. The country has suffered a long history of poverty and war, with the most recent being a bloody civil war from 1960-1996 that included a genocide of over 200,000 indigenous civilians being killed or “disappeared” at the hands of the government. Once the war ended, life for indigenous Guatemalans only improved minimally. Extreme discrimination continues to exist for the Mayan population. The corrupt government offers substandard public services and unreliable infrastructure, including road, water and air quality. And the country began to feel the effects of climate change, having now slumped into an unending cycle of hurricanes, drought, and other extreme weather. For a country where much of the population survives on local subsistence farming, and lives in the rural areas of the country, their future is bleak.
The province of Huehuetenango, in the northern part of the country bordering Mexico, has been hit especially hard. Agriculture is the main economic activity in this region, especially coffee. Yet with a destitute economy, high unemployment, prevalent gang violence, and a highly damaged ecosystem, this western province of Guatemala has the largest number of people migrating to the United States. It also has the youngest population, with 58% of the province being under the age of 19. There are few jobs, and the ones that do exist pay little. An average daily wage in Huehuetenango for agriculture or construction work is 40 quetzales, which is equivalent to $5.19. With that wage a family can afford to eat meat once a week, but cannot afford to send children to school, or pay for a home with indoor plumbing.
Meanwhile, a treacherous high-risk journey to cross the border is appealing when there is the promise of wages that are 10 to 15 times higher in the United States. On the local radio stations you can hear advertisements from smugglers, known as “coyotes”, proclaiming that children and pregnant women are guaranteed entrance at the US border. The trip costs anywhere from $10,000 – $12,000, with no promise they will even make it. Most individuals borrow the money from local lenders at an outrageous 120% annual interest rate. This puts them at high risk for extreme poverty and even homelessness if they don’t make it across the border. But the opportunity to make enough money to send home to their family is too big of a draw, so people continue to gamble and make the journey.
Maria Ramoz is 28 years old with two children, ages six and nine. Her husband worked for several years for a local fast food chain, Pollo Campero. He had taken out a loan with the company a few years ago to help cover some family expenses. Then his mother fell gravely ill and they could not afford to pay her medical bills. Because he is an only child it was his responsibility to take care of her. After contemplating the journey to the US for several years, he was offered a job in the United States and travelled there legally, but decided to stay after his three month visa expired to continue paying for his mother’s treatment and pay down his travel loan to the United States. He now works in a nail factory in Illinois and sends money home monthly. He plans to stay there for another three years.
In the meantime, Maria is left alone with their children. She suffers emotionally since he left, and says that some people try to take advantage of a woman whose husband has left. If she goes out with a friend or does her hair, gossip spreads that she has moved on, or has a new boyfriend. Although the worst part for her is that her young children are growing up without a father. “You cannot recuperate their childhood,” she says.
With poverty at such an epidemic level in Guatemala, what options are there?
Friendship Bridge is working in Guatemala to give opportunities to these same families so they can make a better life in their own country. Our organization has identified key factors that can help alleviate the burden of poverty. First, we offer Guatemalan women financial opportunities through microcredit. We have recognized that women, on average, invest 90% of their income in their families and community. In Guatemala women see high rates of domestic violence and discrimination. According to the United Nations, two women per day suffer a violent death there, as Guatemala is considered one of the top-ten most dangerous countries for women in the world. The illiteracy rate for women has hovered around 65% for years. By offering women opportunities to improve their lives and have financial independence we know we are not only investing in them, but in their families and their communities as well.
After her husband left, Maria joined Friendship Bridge and took out a loan to start a business selling jewelry. “I have two babies, I’m 28 years old, but I want to go to university, I want to be a dentist. It’s very expensive, but it’s not impossible. It takes you ten years studying, but it’s not impossible!” Maria says. After her third loan cycle she is happy to say she now has financial stability, and is even studying to get her High School diploma as her first step to earn a dental degree down the road.
Every Friendship Bridge client also receives education. When a woman takes out a microloan, instead of needing collateral to guarantee her loan, she forms what is called a Trust Bank, which are groups of 7-25 women in her local community that come together to co-guarantee each other’s loans. These Trust Banks meet monthly with loan facilitators who offer them training on a range of topics, from business management, health, family issues, and domestic abuse. On average our clients have only three years of education, so this gives them the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge they wouldn’t receive anywhere else and apply them in their businesses, their families, and their community.
Once a woman reaches a certain level in the microcredit program she is eligible to receive advanced education through three different programs. Our New Skills Training Program gives women opportunities to diversify their income by learning new trades. The Artisan Market Access Program gives artisans training on how to access new markets, develop products, and eventually reach an international market. And the Women’s Credit and Agriculture Training Program teaches farmers modern agricultural practices in order to increase yields and mitigate risk of extreme climate disasters such as drought and flooding.
Ana married her husband when she was 16 years old, and had their son one year later. Their young family struggled to make ends meet. Seeking more opportunity in the United States, Ana’s husband tried to emigrate. Doing so required taking out a loan, one that he knew he could pay off with a job in the States. However, after an arduous journey he never made it across the border, and the loan quickly turned into a financial nightmare. As if matters couldn’t get any worse, their son got into a serious accident, and they couldn’t afford medical attention.
After weeks of rest and many nights keeping vigil by his bedside, Ana’s son made a full recovery. That gave Ana the strength she needed to carry on for her and her family. She looked at the ten acres of land they had and knew she could make something of it. In 2016, she joined Friendship Bridge, attracted to its Women’s Agriculture & Credit Training program. Today, Ana works with the on-staff agronomists in a demonstration plot on her land, while she maintains her own traditional techniques on another plot.
“With one pound of my seeds, I can only cultivate one acre,” she says. “With their new techniques, I can cultivate three acres. These different techniques matter. By the acre, we used to harvest 18 sacks of medium-sized onions and now, we’re harvesting 22 sacks of high-quality onions and getting a better price at the market.”
Friendship Bridge has been in Guatemala since 1998. We are happy to say that though the national poverty level continues to climb, our clients increasingly see a decrease in poverty. Huehuetenango is a newer area for us to work in. We began offering our services there two years ago, and are in the process of expanding. We expect to see similar positive results and, now especially, create opportunities for families to stay in Guatemala and not feel the need to leave for the US to find a better life.
We do recognize the problem of migration is complex and influenced by numerous factors, and what we offer is not the solution for everyone. However, as we see an increase in need we will focus our attention on addressing these issues by offering opportunities for women and their families to build financially sustainable and healthy lives, and hopefully, have the resources to stay together.
Kyra Coates is the US Marketing Coordinator at Friendship Bridge. She is a passionate advocate for Women’s Empowerment and has worked for years to promote equality. Outside her Friendship Bridge working hours she is an artist and gallery owner, a mother of two fierce and fabulous daughters, and a typical Colorado outdoorsy athletic girl.