Desperate Guatemalans “risking their lives” travel to the United States | Human rights news

Campur, Guatemala – The water from the storms in late November had yet to calm down in the rural village of Campur when Michelle’s husband Byron decided to leave for the United States.

Nestled in a lush valley in the municipality of San Pedro Carcha in northern Guatemala, nearly 270 kilometers from Guatemala City, the streets of Campur were flooded by heavy rains from Hurricane Eta. At its peak, the water reached up to 12 meters in places, submerging homes, property, animals and crops, and leaving only the church steeple above the waterline.

Michelle and Byron – who did not want their real names used due to concerns it could affect Byron’s immigration status in the United States – and their three children were among the more than 600 families in Campur who have lost everything .

“No one thought the water would recede, we had no hope,” the 27-year-old mother told Al Jazeera as she ran the family store, of her husband’s departure in November. , shortly after the city was flooded.

But when the waters receded at the end of January, it revealed even more havoc – crops, homes and livelihoods were decimated – and the Guatemalan government’s pledge to provide money for reconstruction and helping families affected by storms never materialized.

“People were convinced that the Guatemalan government would provide support,” Erick Cu, a Campur resident who works for the municipality of San Pedro Carcha, told Al Jazeera. “But we are entering an economic crisis and people have started to migrate.”

A woman hangs blankets on the side of her house, which was damaged by the November 2020 floods in Campur [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Long-standing issues

Thousands of asylum seekers from Central America and Mexico – including families and young children – have arrived at the southern US border in recent months seeking protection, putting pressure on the president Joe Biden to tackle what some have described as a humanitarian crisis. But to fully understand what’s going on, experts say observers need to examine the reasons people make dangerous trips north.

While there are no exact figures on how many Campur residents have left for the United States so far this year, Cu said he knows at least 20 people who have since left. November. Sebastian Chub, a community leader, estimates that between 50 and 60 people have left, and Al Jazeera spoke with a family who said seven members aged 14 to 17 have emigrated in recent weeks.

The effects of storms on Campur go beyond flooding. The local economy, which relies on the production and sale of coffee and cardamom, has also been decimated. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the storms have exacerbated long-standing problems fueling emigration, such as unemployment, poverty and food insecurity.

“The effects of the pandemic and hurricanes have worsened socio-economic conditions,” Ursula Roldan, an immigration expert at Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala, told Al Jazeera. “It is also expected that with the new Biden administration, migrants will manage to enter the United States more easily, have the option of entering family units.”

Among those who saw hope in the change of government in the United States was Walter Choc. He left Campur for the United States in February, but United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials returned him to Mexico in early March under Title 42, a policy of the era. Trump who summarily bans most migrants from entering the country due to the pandemic.

More than 172,000 people were arrested at the US-Mexico border in March, according to CBP data, and at least 103,000 were deported under Title 42. After two months of repeated attempts to enter the United States , Choc and his cousin have decided to go home. in Guatemala.

“Our crops were overwhelmed and we couldn’t work to earn money for our families, and now we are in debt,” the 31-year-old told Al Jazeera from his stepfather’s home in Campur. “We have suffered a lot,” he said. “We have decided to risk our lives trying to migrate to the United States because our authorities do not meet our needs.”

‘Nothing to eat’

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has made little comment on the situation in Campur in particular. Following the disaster, Giammattei said funds would be made available for reconstruction or relocation of the village, but according to Cu, there has been no progress on the plan. The mayor of San Pedro Carcha, Winter Coc Bac, has also accused the president of abandoning the region.

According to the Guatemalan national daily Prensa Libre, in January, the Guatemalan state only used 25% (about $ 11 million) of the $ 45 million made available to respond to the disaster. The Ministry of Communication, Infrastructure and Housing did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment in time for publication.

Historically, only a few residents of the Q’eqchi Mayan communities of the northern department of Alta Verapaz, where Campur is located, have emigrated to the United States. But that has changed in the past five years as the region has been hit hard by soaring poverty rates. “There are whole villages going to the United States,” Cu, the local resident, told Al Jazeera.

Just over 83% of Alta Verapaz’s 1.2 million people lived in poverty, according to the most recent data from the National Statistics Institute from 2014, while at least half of all families suffered from extreme poverty. Cu also said that the lack of access to arable land – which historically served as both a source of food and a much needed livelihood – has contributed to the increase in emigration.

Walter Choc sits with his cousin in Campur in April, looking at photos of their attempt to migrate to the United States [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

Pedro Pablo Solares, lawyer and migration analyst, told Al Jazeera that in the face of these difficulties, many families in Alta Verapaz now see migration as “the only alternative”, but the flow of people out of the region does not didn’t start with hurricanes. .

“The migration from Alta Verapaz started due to similar times [to the hurricanes], “he said.” This year is Iota, the previous year was drought. The main problem is that there is nothing to eat.

Biden’s approach

As Guatemalans continue to seek to reach the United States, President Joe Biden’s administration says it wants to help Central American countries, which are home to a large portion of those arriving at the US-Mexico border, to s’ tackle what she calls “root causes”. of migration.

The administration pledged to make $ 4 billion available to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – the so-called Northern Triangle nations – to fight corruption, promote foreign investment and fight poverty, among others.

Ricardo Zuniga, the US State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle, met with Guatemalan officials, business leaders and civil society representatives in Guatemala City on April 5 and 6 to discuss measures aimed at to solve the problem of migration. Vice President Kamala Harris is also expected to visit Mexico and Guatemala.

But at the same time, the Biden administration has insisted that governments in Mexico and Central American countries tighten their borders to ensure migrants do not cross their territories. Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras responded by militarizing their borders. In January, the Guatemalan army and police used tear gas and batons to dismantle a caravan of at least 8,000 mainly Honduran migrants and asylum seekers, returning them to Honduras.

In a press conference after his meetings this month, Zuniga reiterated that “the US border is closed.”

A lifeline

The efforts also come as remittances to Guatemala from Americans surpassed $ 1.28 billion in March, according to data from the National Bank of Guatemala – a much-needed lifeline for families struggling to survive the crisis. economic crisis.

Byron was already in the United States when the waters finally began to recede in Campur in January, allowing residents to return to their waterlogged homes. Michelle said the money Byron sent her back allowed her to rebuild and restock the family’s home and store.

“If my husband was here we wouldn’t have been able to rebuild our house,” Michelle said. “We had lost everything.”

Byron doesn’t plan to stay in the United States for more than 18 months, Michelle said, as the family’s plan is to save some money to rebuild their lives in Guatemala before returning home. “It was difficult for us, we had nowhere to go,” she says. “But we are now recovering what little we had.”

While there are no exact figures on how many Campur residents have made it to the United States so far this year, residents say dozens have left the village. [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

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