06 March 2007

Immigration and Guatemala

Recently I have been approached by several Guatemalans for help or advice on immigrating to the US. While there is little you can actually do for a person who seeks help, the experience can help learn a lot about the phenomenon of immigration.

Immigration to the United States is not only a common issue in Guatemala, but one of the largest sector of income to the country (by remittances). Guatemala is one of the 10 countries that represent over 50% of all immigration to the United States. Of the 160,000 Guatemalans that immigrated to the United States in 2000, roughly nine percernt were legal immigrants.

Why does immigration seem like an impossible matter for our country to manage? Is it that easy to get into the country?

First of all, it should be recognized that immigration is a very important topic to voters. The two effects of this are: immigration policy is constantly being reformed and reconsidered, and no politician will advocate an unpopular opinion or bill on the subject. While the first would suggest that sooner or later we should get really good at figuring out what to do, the second may suggest that experts, complicated suggestions, and unseemly ideas may be rejected outright.

We should also differences in perception of immigration between illegal immigrants to the US and residents. In the United States, it is shameful to be an illegal immigrant or hire illegal immigrants, because unemployment in the USA still exists. The sources of immigrants are assumed to be poor and full of unskilled labor.

In Guatemala and many other places, illegal immigration is considered a respectable way of providing for your family. In addition, illegal immigrants are from upper-middle class to the poorest of Guatemalans. Masons, construction workers, farmers who graduated high school, considered skilled labor in Guatemala, may leave careers if they are able to immigrate and get a job in the US.

Another difference is the presumed length of time. While in the united states we discuss "immigration issues," the vast majority of those working illegally in the States don't consider themselves immigrants, and most aren't. They are migrant workers. A large portion seek to enter the States, work for a brief period of time to build up a nest egg, buy a house, etc. and then return to life with their families. After all, while making money in the States is better than in Guatemala, life without your family is hard. In addition, the pay only gives you an advantage because of converting dollars to another form of money. With a minimum-wage pay in the states, you can live like upper-middle class in Guatemala, or dirt poor in the US. There is no advantage of moving your family to the US permanently in most cases.

The reality is a mix of both immigration and migration. Often, while in the US, migrants make new families, and find it very difficult to leave and return illegally for holidays, etc.

Of the 21 million immigrants in the United States, nine million are there illegally. One last point I want to make is that anything short of shooting at least 5% of all immigrants that enter the U.S. is not sufficient to convince people it's not worth the legal and physical risk to get to the U.S. People will risk a lot to feed their loved ones. Unless it is physically impossible or a higher risk of death, people won't stop.

These ideas don't provide many answers, I know. Personally, the temporary worker program is a good idea, but still so many bureaucratic barriers and the small number of immigrants that can use this program hinder it. If you have any better ideas, write your federal representatives.

For more information:
Migration Policy Institute

For Fact Sheets:
Legal Immigration
Illegal Immigration

"What Are `The Jobs Americans Won't Do?´"


amyprev said...

Powerful topic, Andrew. One that I imagine will bring much thought and discussion among those who check your blog. It leads to the issue that jobs performed by migrant workers are most often paid at minimum wage (a joke in itself) or less. A different spin would be "How do we encourage more citizens to work for less money than they are worth and less money than can poorly support their families?" When it's more attractive to collect unemployment or to turn to crime, we have created a society that fully supports illegal immigrants. And it's no different here in Canada. It's a change that has to occur from all levels: government, employers, consumers of food at 1960s prices, parents of teenagers that think they are too good to work. Big problem, and we're all to blame. Thanks for continuing to make us think, talk, and change.

Anonymous said...

And when they get here, In the United States. Thy tend to be very rude, and only want to talk about their country, how great thier food, is.

Never do they try and learn another culture, just talk about my cutlure, my food, my my my.

I am an American, and enjoy learning about new cultures, but find most have so many opinions. I lost my job of 5 years, because an illgal immigrant cried, when I did not say Good Morning. She constantly spoke spanish, and bragged about Guatemala. Her religion, her culture.

She was middle class, and abandoned her own family, for THINGS.

Anonymous said...

"Anonymous". You characterize immigrants based on one person at work. You probably lost your job because you sucked at it. For one: you can't spell and have no grasp of grammar - go learn English, you racist complaining fuckwit. Your posted comment on 5/30/08 demonstrates that you are a boring American, probably one who brags over and over that you "almost" did Peace Corps but chickened out and now leads a bitter life, eating your shit food on the couch. You are a joke.

I am required to mention that this blog doesn´t reflect the opinions of the Peace Corps.