Illegal immigration has been a contentious issue in the US for the past several years, especially around election time. We constantly hear about how aliens come illegally to our country, either sneaking in the back door to the American dream, seeking a better life and citizenship. Or, and this is what we hear mostly, that they are taking American jobs, using American health care, and bringing crime and disease into the country. Neither is true for most immigrants.
In past years the money immigrants from Guatemala send home has accounted for about 10% of the money in the country. Most come to the US hoping to make some money, then return home.
But the US economy, and political posturing, has had an impact on the Guatemalan economy, and on immigrants with hopes of a better life not in the US, but for their families back home. In the last year remittances have dropped by 70%.
A couple years ago, the last time I was in Guatemala, I learned that a half-dozen or so young people I know here had gone the US to find work. One in particular surprised me because he had a wife and two children, and seemed to be relatively well off compared to most of his neighbors in his village. But, his wife said, he thought he could earn more money in the US to send back to his family. A couple weeks ago he returned and he is happy to be back. I talked with him about his experience.
He made his way though Mexico, on foot and by bus, to the Texas border. There, with about 20 others, he crossed the mountains into the US. For a fee of about $1500 he was picked up and transported further into the country where he found work, mostly by word of mouth in the network of illegal immigrants. In the two and half years he was there he worked in several southern states, mostly packing vegetables.
I asked him how much money workers were able to send home. He said that if one can find steady work, a worker can earn about $1000 a month. Those who live frugally—eating cheaply and living in housing that some farmers provide, which is often crude shelters—one can send back $700-$800 a month. (Though it is very hard to imagine someone living on $200-$300 a month under any circumstances.)
More typically workers are able to send back half or less of what they make. He said he could make as much at home in Guatemala, and be with his family. But by the time he figured that out, he was stuck there trying to earn enough to pay for his travel expenses and enough to make the trip worth it.
For others the choice is not quite as clear. Manual laborers in Guatemala earn about $6 a day.
Another friend made it to the US, worked for six months—just long enough to pay his expenses—and came back. His story was similar, of a dangerous trip—riding freight trains through Mexico– and hard work, low wages and poor living conditions after he made it to the US.
After telling me about how much he disliked working in tobacco fields, he was eager to show me the two souvenirs he had brought back—a picture book of North Carolina, and a book about barbecue. Evidently he had some fond memories of some southern cooking. He also asked me whether I had ever seen a Wal-Mart. That impressed him too.
As I mentioned before, the father of my godchildren is currently working in the tobacco fields of South Carolina, and has been there about a year. He works with about 60 other Guatemalans, all illegal, who sleep together on beds set up in a farm warehouse. He has told his family that he plans to stay for five years, but he may change his mind. Work in the tobacco fields, in addition to being very difficult and unpleasant, is dependent on the weather. Work is not steady and he has been unable to send much money home.
So that’s the reality of the life of at least some illegal immigrants. I suspect most have similar stories. It isn’t what a lot of immigrants expect, nor is it what a lot of Americans think it is. It is a lot worse than either. The beneficiaries of the system—and the employment of illegal immigrants is more of a system than most realize—are the owners, who get people willing to do the work for low wages, and the American consumers, who get tobacco, produce, meat, construction labor, yard work, restaurant meals, manufactured goods, and more—at “reasonable” prices.
Think about it next time you hear a politician or right-wing pundit pontificating on the subject.
On a completely different subject, this is my last post from Guatemala this year. In a couple days I’ll be flying back to Toronto to pick up Faye, then we’re off to Asia. Look for an update from there in a couple of weeks.