The Other Side of Immigration
category: Newspaper Articles

The Other Side of Immigration

by Emily Richardson Fanjoy

Guest Columnis

Last month I talked a bit about the Q’anjob’al people with whom we live, pointing out that a year ago I didn’t even know of their existence. Why is it important that we know of them? What bearing does it have on our lives at home? The Q’anjob’al are one of hundreds of small populations from around the world sending their people to the United States in search of opportunities to better their lives at home. They are illegal immigrants working in the US. Immigration is a very complex issue that has benefits and drawbacks on both sides of the border. Today I want to look at immigration from MY side of the border.

There are Q’anjob’al workers living in the states of New York, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, Arizona, California, and Oregon… and those are just the ones we know for certain. Migrant work has been a part of their culture for as long as they can remember. Thirty years ago their families spent portions of the year migrating to the coastal regions of Guatemala picking cotton, coffee, and bananas. When their civil war began in the late 70’s and early 80’s, people began to flee the country to save their lives. Those who found their way to the United States discovered that although the journey was more difficult, it was more profitable than migrating to the coast. Since then, whole towns have grown from the seed of remissions money—money sent to Guatemalans from their relatives working in the United States. Has this been a help or a hindrance to Guatemala?

An immigrant who works in the states earning just above minimum wage and living with 4 or 5 other men from his village can send back a few hundred dollars a month. The current exchange rate is 8 quetzales to the dollar, so $200 is 1600 quetzales. The average farmer earns 30 quetzales a day when he can find work, which is 3 or 4 days a week. At most, the farmer could earn 480 quetzales a month as opposed to the 1600 he could send home living in relative luxury in the United States.

The money sent back from the states goes to buy food, build homes, and send children to school; this benefits the family. The best example from our village is a man named Luis who migrated to the states in 1989. He’s lived and worked (most of the time legally) in the Northwest, renting a small room, never owning a car. He’s sent money home every month for twenty years: to send all seven of his brothers and sisters to school; to build a small, sensible house for his parents; to buy and stock a store in town; and finally to build his own home. Luis has created sustainable change for the better, for his entire family. Now he’s moving back to Guatemala because, as he told us, Guatemala is his home and he likes it better here. His story is inspirational to me, but it isn’t exactly the norm.

Many migrant workers are often bedazzled by their experience in the states and what they find there, so their money also buys televisions, stereo systems, satellite dishes, pay-as-you-go cell phone minutes, and Coca-Cola. Luxury items often precede necessities because, well, we all like immediate gratification. Just look at the current economic situation; it illustrates that money-management is not an inborn skill. This means that even though some families here suddenly find themselves with much more money, they are still malnourished and largely uneducated. In the worst case scenarios from our village, fathers have gone to the states and abandoned their families entirely, leaving them to suffer in poverty. In this gender-unequal society, it’s nearly impossible for the women to earn an income to raise their own family, so these single-parent families are perpetually stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Today crossing the border is treated as a right of passage for many Guatemalan youth, particularly young men. And why not? As a former Foreign Service Officer informed us recently, last year there were 80,000 new high school graduates in Guatemala and only 5,000 new jobs, fifty percent of the population suffers from poverty and chronic malnutrition, and (at its current rate of growth) Guatemala’s population will double in the next thirteen years. This isn’t exactly a land of opportunity. Many people in our village have expressed doubt that education holds any real value when a young man or woman could just go to the US and make money instead, mowing yards or killing chickens, happily doing the work that most Americans don’t want. But emigration doesn’t magically solve problems for Guatemala’s poor.

This article is just the very tip of an enormous iceberg. Immigration has its benefits and drawback for the United States as well as the immigrants. “Immigration reform” is something that the TV news anchors talk about from time to time, but I haven’t seen much that examines where these immigrants are coming from or why. I personally believe that immigration reform is needed, but we need a reform that is compassionate, well-informed, and recognizes the U.S.’s role in foreign development. We must open our doors to foreigners, and create a mutually beneficial relationship in which the drawbacks are minimized. After all, we are a country of immigrants, regardless of whether our families arrived 400 years ago or just last month.

Posted by: emily