Risky business: Leaving Guatemala

Peter O'Dowd Dec 19, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: The immigration debate in this country isn’t limited to political campaigns or debates about the economic impact. To be honest, it’s not even limited to this country. A couple of years ago, one of the biggest workplace raids of undocumented immigrants happened in Postville, Iowa. Hundreds of Guatemalans were working at a meatpacking plant there — illegally. Now, three years later, there’s a debate going on among those deported workers about whether it’s worth it to try to come back to the United States.

Peter O’Dowd of the regional reporting project Fronteras went to Guatemala to hear the pros and cons.

Peter O’Dowd: The debate begins in a Guatemalan woodshop, where Jose Rodas and Marvin Gomez build coffins for a living. After each box is sanded, lacquered and lined with silk, the men stack it beneath a corrugated roof. For this work, they earn $7 a day — hardly enough for Rodas, who’s 23 and married with kids.

Jose Rodas: I want to try my luck in the U.S. I think about it when I get desperate and there’s no work.

Rodas would make the trip illegally, like his co-worker Marvin Gomez once did. In Postville, Gomez made 10 times the amount he earns here. He sent more than $20,000 to his family. He bought a car; he put an addition on his house. But Gomez spent every day looking over his shoulder. Outside of work, at the grocery store, he’d worry. Is that a cop behind me? And then, one day, it was.

Marvin Gomez: They treated us like criminals, put us handcuffs, stripped us and searched in unimaginable places.

After Postville, Gomez spent five months in American prison for identity theft. And then he was deported. He tells Rodas, this suffering is something he never thought about before leaving.

About an hour away, between the slopes of two volcanoes, the story is different, but the debate is the same. The village of San Jose Calderas is home to a community of subsistence farmers, who tend to rows of cabbage and carrots. In such a remote place, it’s disorienting to hear such familiar names: Anthony, Jared, Christopher. One mother says it makes sense — 19 children in Calderas were born in the United States.

Mother: Por que son de aya.

Nearly 130 Calderas residents worked in Postville, and before they were deported, families with small children made sure to get their documents in order. The mothers unwrap plastic bags and show me what’s inside. Pristine Iowa birth certificates, Social Security cards and U.S. passports stamped with the picture of a baby.

Debora Junech Pastor says she’s willing to send her son north when he’s 10 years old. Edwin is four now, and his family barely has enough to eat. Pastor will find a relative in the U.S. to raise Edwin, and take him to school. If he stays in Guatemala, he will most likely stop school after second grade.

Alejandra Gordillo: We know that we have to respond, but how? This is the problem.

Alejandra Gordillo heads a government agency for migrant affairs. She says several thousand American children return to Guatemala every year.

The best place for the children is here in Guatemala, she says. We don’t want them to grow up in dirt, but we also don’t want them growing up in a society that rejects them. Gordillo and the families agree that politically and economically, life will be difficult in the U.S. But it will be harder in Guatemala. So every Postville family here expects the children to go north eventually.

A man I met in the coffin woodshop described this debate in Guatemala as a two-sided coin. One side is the dream. The other is the risk. And so it is in this country that you’ll find government officials, neighbors and coffin builders engaged in a conversation that never seems to end.

It’s all around you, says former Postville worker Marvin Gomez. So many people come back to these villages with money. You’re human. You think about it. Just like coffin-maker Jose Rodas thinks about it now.

Rodas: If I ask her, my aunt will give me the money I need.

Gomez: Que le eche ganas! Y que no se deje agarrar eso es todo.

Give it your best, Gomez says, and don’t get caught. When the time is right, Rodas will leave. Until then, he’ll line another pine box with silk, and dream about his chances.

Reporting from Guatemala, I’m Peter O’Dowd for Marketplace.

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