On a recent visit to the country, I heard businessmen, public officials and community activists insist that Donald Trump and his wall would not intimidate aspiring migrants. But migrants aren’t wasting time, either. As a community leader told me, “Everyone is saying that they better rush now before Mr. Trump finishes his wall.”
In fact, many Guatemalans want the migrants to go back. Their return spells an end to remittances that constitute about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And returning migrants are flooding an already depressed job sector, where three-quarters of the labor force works off the books.
Not surprisingly, returning migrants aren’t particularly liked. Guatemalans figure they were sent home for breaking the law; those with tattoos are ostracized, assumed to belong to a violent street gang. Employers won’t hire them, and passers-by glance away.
Of course, such treatment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Denying migrants the assistance to reintegrate economically and socially will just make the country’s problems worse.
Marginalized individuals often join street gangs in a search to belong, and drug gangs and human traffickers recruit returning migrants. They know how to get across the border; many have lived in communities where gangs and organized crime fester; and they are the Guatemalans most familiar with the United States.
While it’s true that some migrants will head back north, many have no interest. One man I know, whose remittances were used to set up a T-shirt factory that employs his 10 children in his village, is heading home for good. Older returnees, especially those who have squirreled away enough money to survive, no longer feel pulled toward the United States.
Categorizing all deportees as criminals is equally misleading. Whereas a minority are felons, many more committed misdemeanors, and the majority are guilty only of crossing the border illegally and working without a permit.
Indeed, many migrants represent an untapped resource. Most left their countries as unskilled peasants, yet through resourcefulness and hard work in the United States they acquired a diverse set of professional skills and rose through the ranks.
During my visit, I encountered bricklayers and carpenters who undertook sophisticated home renovation projects, professional landscapers who worked on golf courses, a leather craftsman who oversaw a briefcase-making business and a young sushi chef who spoke fluent English and even rudimentary Japanese. They are eager to put their skills to work in Guatemala, either by opening their own businesses or by finding a private-sector partner.
For starters, the government should provide credit and, for those in the construction and tourism industries, ease cumbersome certification requirements so that they can ply their trade immediately. It could also develop a returnee-specific “linked in” program, where returning migrants would advertise their skills, connected to an effort to match them with businesses committed to diversifying and modernizing the Guatemalan economy.
Inasmuch as the migrants could help stabilize the Central American region, the United States could also benefit from the skills of deportees. The Alliance for Prosperity, which the American government has provided funds for, aims to curb migration by alleviating poverty, lawlessness and violence. Among other things, it fosters international, public and private investments in education, health care and vocational training — goals that skilled returning migrants can help achieve.”
Our short-sighted policies, unwillingness to invest wisely in the futures of foreign countries (beyond military and law enforcement aid), and apparent inability to look for different approaches (beyond just arrest, detain, and deport, arrest, detain, and deport) virtually guarantees a continuation of the cycle of illegal entries, reentries, and expensive, resource intensive immigration enforcement. Walls, fences, more detention centers, more DHS agents, and, yes, even more U.S. Immigration Judges are not going to solve this problem.