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Reluctant Migration: The Vicious Cycle of Debt, Deportation and Flawed Policy That Drives Central Americans Over the Border Again and Again

No two deportations are alike, but what every deportation shares is hardship.

Mass deportation does little to stem the tide of Guatemalans who repeatedly risk “one of the most dangerous human journeys on earth” to save their land, their lives and their livelihoods.

“In terms of human misery, the potential impact of our immigration laws can hardly be overstated.”
-Maurice Roberts, former chairperson of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Quoted by Daniel Kanstroom in Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora

Sergio 1 remembers the date without hesitation: January 12, 2010.

On that day, he and dozens of other Guatemalan citizens landed in a chartered jet at the Air Force base near Guatemala City’s Aurora Airport, courtesy of one of the largest and most expensive deportation campaigns in US history.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, Sergio was just one of 29,661 Guatemalan nationals returned in fiscal year (FY) 2009. Back in Denver, Colorado his thriving construction company was without its founder and his 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter was without her father. With these hard facts on his mind he was, in a sense, gone the second he set foot in Guatemala. Six months later he was on his way north again on the first of several attempts to get back to his life in the United States.

“When I signed the deportation document, I was already thinking about returning. I told myself, ‘I’m not going to stay long in Guatemala,'” he said.

That he wanted to get back to the United States as soon as possible makes him a fairly typical returnee. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 43 percent of deportees interviewed immediately after their arrivals in Guatemala City report that they intend to return to the US within 12 months. This, of course, is before they’ve had a chance to return to their communities of origin and appraise the situations waiting for them. Other IOM employees working in high-migration communities report that likely more than half of returnees try to get back to the US at some point.

What is clear is that on the ground in Guatemala and off the US media’s radar, US deportation policy is playing out in decidedly ugly ways. As each deportation flight lands, the country fills with more stories that not only shock the conscience, but also raise fundamental moral and practical questions about our nation’s radical deportation policies, questions that were largely absent in the presidential debates leading up to this year’s election.

No two deportations are alike, but what every deportation shares is hardship. Numerous factors are at play and come together in complex ways to produce a nearly infinite set of possible consequences. However, there are some common themes. Rising border enforcement, the US recession and debt-financed migration from Guatemala are combining to create financial nightmares for tens of thousands of migrants and their families. Similarly, rising interior immigration enforcement is tearing thousands more away from husbands, wives, children and jobs.

The human costs of these policies are tremendous, but so are their financial costs. According to ICE Deputy Director Kumar Kibble’s January 2011 testimony to the US House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, it costs approximately $12,500 to arrest, detain and remove an individual from the United States. So, on top of the human cost of Sergio’s deportation, it cost roughly $12,500. So did his second. He was deported from Mexico on his third and fourth attempts. But if the fifth attempt he’s planning ends in deportation from the United States, it will be another $12,500 spent in a long-standing and deepening war on undocumented people living in the United States, or trying to cross into it.

In fiscal year 2011, the 76,016 US deportations to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the three high-migration Northern Triangle countries, cost just short of $1 billion. There’s no knowing the number of families separated or livelihoods upended behind that sum, but Sergio makes it clear that $1 billion is dwarfed by its unquantifiable enormity.

“I dream about being back there,” he said. “It’s hard to get … an entire life out of your head.”

And the planes just keep coming.

There were eight the week of August 21, carrying 936 men and women and dropping them off at the Fuerza Aerea near Guatemala City’s airport, according to the IOM. There were seven the week of November 12, carrying 701 more.

Despite promises of prosecutorial discretion and other changes to deportation policies recently made by President Obama, 2012 is already the biggest year yet, with more than 37,000 deportations at the end of November. The total for the year likely will be near 40,000 aerial deportations to Guatemala, a country where little or no meaningful infrastructure or programs exist to help deportees negotiate the fraught and complicated experience of return and reintegration. At best, the government or other aid organizations might buy all or part of migrants’ bus tickets to their home communities. After that, they’re on their own.

Some, like Sergio, have their lives and most important family connections back in the United States. Many are returning to economic situations as bad as when they left. Others, because of the intersection of migration, debt and deportation, are returning to situations that have significantly deteriorated – situations that make future migrations more likely, if not guaranteed.

Recalling an exchange he had with an immigration judge after being apprehended during his first attempt to re-enter the United States in mid-2010, Sergio highlighted one of the many discords between US deportation policy and immigration reality.

“I’ve worked in the [United States] practically my whole life. That’s the reason I gave to the judge,” he said. “I told him, ‘look, I’m not trying to sidestep the law in the United States. I know that the laws here are strict and you have to respect them, which I do. But they also have to understand that I have work, a life here. Not just two or three months, a long time.’ Then the judge told me, ‘That’s fine, I sentence you to two months.’ And then they locked me up for two months and deported me back to Guatemala again.”

The Debt Cycle

When Eduardo Jimenez, a community leader and co-founder of the bi-national community development and migrant advocacy organization Grupo Cajolá, migrated with nine other friends to the United States in 1996, the US-Mexico border was a different place, and getting there from rural Guatemala was an easier process. Not only did he pay less than half of what migrants are now paying to get to there from Cajolá, the Maya Mam village he now calls home again, deportation was comparatively inconsequential. Indeed, Eduardo was caught by the Border Patrol his first attempt and was deported, but just to the Mexican border, not all the way home to Guatemala as is now the case for essentially all Central Americans caught crossing. The next morning, he and his group simply crossed again and made it without incident.

“The law was a little gentler then,” he joked.

A decade and a half after he set out north, the game has changed. In short, his fellow Cajolenses are now taking much greater risks to pay much more money for a less certain and more dangerous journey. Much of the increase in cost and risk has to do with rising immigration enforcement in both Mexico and the United States, which has forced undocumented migrants to take more remote and dangerous routes across Mexico and into the United States. In the US/Mexico borderlands this has led to well over 5,000 migrant deaths in the desert since the mid-1990s 2 and massive increases in the cost of crossing.

In Mexico, the widespread use of highway checkpoints and other measures has forced undocumented migrants to adopt more clandestine means of crossing the country, such as riding the tops of freight trains through sparsely populated parts of the country.3 This has made migrants easy prey for mass kidnapping, extortion, murder and robbery on the part of organized crime and unscrupulous state security forces. Indeed, in a single six-month period in 2010, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) documented 214 cases of mass kidnapping in which 11,333 migrants were taken and held hostage. Kidnapping often ends violently, as Cajolenses know well. According to Eduardo, Los Zetas, the infamous Mexican cartel, have kidnapped and killed at least six fellow villagers. Only two of their bodies have been returned.

Cajolá, a small community surrounded on nearly all sides by steep mountains thick with pines, is a 45-minute bus ride from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second largest city. Xela, the more common name for Quetzaltenango, is one of the most popular language school destinations in the country for young travelers and much of the city’s center has a vibrant, international feel. Cajolá has none of that.

The village, like many indigenous communities in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, is largely dependent on small-scale agriculture and migration remittances and has been deeply affected by the twin phenomena of mass migration and mass deportation. The signs of the remittances that migration brings are everywhere in Cajolá: multi-story homes in varying stages of completion, numerous businesses, fleets of three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. But Eduardo says that mass deportation, coupled with the US recession, is heralding a new era of Cajolense migration and calling into question the wisdom of continued remittance-dependent development, which had always been a mixed bag.

What Eduardo is seeing in Cajolá is being replicated across Central America. Between 2000 and 2008, remittances to the region grew at an astounding average annual rate of 21 percent. However, in response to the US recession and hardening immigration enforcement, remittances declined by 10 percent in 2009, the single largest drop that year among all remittance-receiving regions in the world.4 In a country like Guatemala, where remittances represented 11 percent of national GDP in 2009 and one of the only significant sources of income for hundreds of thousands of people, such a drop can spell disaster for many families and communities.

“When there have been opportunities to work in the United States, the people sending money to build their houses – that created work for Cajolenses here in Guatemala. But as soon as the deportation and marginalization started, many people stopped sending money,” Eduardo said. “Home construction stopped halfway through, there was no more work. That is starting to cause problems, because now nobody wants to invest because of the fear of deportation.”

Unlike the signs of remittances, the signs of mass deportation are largely beneath the surface, hidden behind shame and the generosity of families and neighbors taking people in who have been hit hard by failed migrations. But from his unique vantage, Eduardo is blunt about what mass deportation means for Cajolá.

“The policy generates more poverty,” he said.

But it also can generate violence in the community. According to Caryn Maxim, a US national who collaborates with Grupo Cajolá, there has even been one murder in the community linked to unpaid migration debts and land used as collateral for migration loans is being seized by lenders.

“The problem is, people don’t talk about [debt],” she said. “They feel the shame of their being deported. I have only heard of two evictions here in Cajolá. So, losing your land entirely, you can lose what was pledged. There’s also the more violent solution too: Somebody can kill somebody else for the loss of your land. I know factually it happens.”

Migration out of Cajolá is largely debt-financed, and the loans for the journeys are assembled piecemeal from friends, neighbors and family, both in Cajolá and in the US. Much of the money loaned comes from previous successful journeys. As collateral, deeds to homes and land, which are often owned by the migrant’s parents or other close relatives, are commonly transferred to principal lenders. Upon full payment, if there is full payment, deeds are transferred back. Point to point, migration costs about 40,000 to 45,000 quetzales, or roughly $5,100 to $5,700. Typically 500 to 1,500Q is paid to guides or coyotes up front, which comes with one to three attempts at crossing. If a migrant is apprehended before the final destination, their guide will normally give them one or two more shots.

Upon arrival at the destination city – Atlanta, Grand Rapids and Los Angeles being some of the more common destinations for Cajolenses – the remainder is paid. Monthly interest rates of 10 percent or more are common, meaning that total payments can be well in excess of 45,000Q, especially when migrants are detained by US or Mexican authorities, or have trouble finding work in the recession-ravaged United States. With these features of Cajolense outmigration in mind, it’s easy to see that debt and deportation can intersect in very destabilizing ways.

However, destabilizing is perhaps too soft a word for what Edgar and his father Miguel are facing.5 Edgar, who is now 18, has had three failed journeys to the United States, the debts for which add up to 48,000Q, or roughly $6,050. According to Miguel, he had to put two of his family’s cuerdas – each the equivalent of 1/16 of an acre – in hock to secure the various loans from family members living in the United States. The family is being charged 5 percent monthly interest, which is relatively low for a migration debt in Cajolá. Having this debt hanging over the family is taking its toll.

“When we get work, we pay,” he said in Spanish. “But when there’s no work, well … what do we give? We are totally traumatized psychologically. One worries a lot. It’s sad, our situation.”

But it’s not just a trying situation. It’s also one that essentially guarantees that Edgar will migrate again. He could very well have already left. He might have already been apprehended and locked up just north of Tucson in a private prison, as he had been before, sitting and knowing that each month he spends behind bars means his family’s debt increases by 5 percent.

“He’s going to go again,” Miguel said. “He’s leaving within a month. But if there was some alternative, some opportunity here in Guatemala, I don’t think he’d go. To be able to pay the 48,000Q. He has to go because of the need.”

Edgar doesn’t want to go again. His father doesn’t want him to go again. The rest of his family wants him to stay too. They know the danger. They have heard the stories of the Cajolenses who were kidnapped en route and met grisly ends at the hands of the Zetas. They remember the phone call from Edgar this April, when he told his family that he had nearly passed out in the desert after being abandoned by his group, that he had resigned himself to death and survived only by chance, that he was calling them from the depths of a migrant holding facility in Arizona.

And yet they’re planning his fourth trip, a trip they plan to finance with more debt. But because Miguel has only been able to pay interest and none of the principal of the loan from their family, the relationship has soured and Edgar and Miguel will have to look elsewhere for the roughly $600 another shot will cost. In a normal week working the fields, Miguel said he can earn about 200Q, or $25. With ten mouths to feed, and one son with a crippling medical condition, the only way out of debt for the family is for Edgar to make it to the United States and find work, an increasingly unlikely prospect. And the only way for Edgar to make it to the United States, is for the family to take on more debt. Considering the possibility of losing the land he used as collateral for his son’s journey, Miguel made the long-term consequences of US deportation policy clear.

“The biggest problem, where will my children live?” he asked. “More poverty will come. It will increase…. Because I only have two cuerdas of land. The situation is critical. It’s absolutely critical.”

The vicious cycle of debt-fueled migration in which Miguel and Edgar’s family is now stuck can reach stratospheric heights before a migrant has a successful journey. Juan, a young resident of the nearby Maya Mam community of San Martin Sacatepéquez, shared the story of his brother, whose debt reached 225,000Q (just over $28,000) before he successfully made it to South Carolina.

“He went, they deported him,” he said in Spanish. “He went, they deported him. He went, they deported him. This happened to him five times.”

The logic is simple, often inexorable. A migration debt cannot be paid off in a reasonable amount of time with the prevailing subsistence wages in Guatemala. If a migrant is deported with debt, there really are only two options: default, and all of the personal and familial difficulty that may come with that, or hit the road again, either with the chances remaining in the original migration agreement or a whole new round of debt and vital family assets on the line. Even with a successful journey, debt repayment is a slow process.

It took Juan’s brother five years to pay his debt off, working long hours at a poultry processing plant in South Carolina. Juan’s own migration debt, because of interest and unforeseen expenses, got up to 110,000Q, or nearly $14,000. He paid the debt off in his five years living and working in South Carolina, but wasn’t able to send much back home and has no savings at all today. Now 22 and with little more than low-wage and inconsistent agricultural work near the Pacific coast to sustain himself and his wife, Juan is thinking about heading north again. He has no illusions about what this means, the many risks it entails. As he did before, he would have to use the deed for his father’s house as collateral for another 45,000Q, and he knows well the psychological torment that comes with such a risk. Juan was apprehended after crossing into Arizona during his first attempt and, sitting in Border Patrol’s migrant processing facility near Tucson, dark thoughts weighed on his mind.

“It wasn’t my house. It was my father’s; he did me the favor,” he said. “If I lose that, how would my father feel? Terrible, of course. One feels awful, and the father and family will feel awful too. If you have land, they take the land away. They leave you like that; they’ll sell it to someone else – someone who has money to pay the price. You’re left with nothing.”

For one of Eduardo’s friends back in Cajolá, losing his home was just the beginning. After three failed journeys that put him 120,000Q in the hole, the principal lender took his house, but the value of the home left 20,000Q in debt unpaid. That debt landed him in prison.

“The charge against him is that he didn’t pay the debt and they took his home. But when they took the home, he still owed another 20,000. He couldn’t pay it, and that was the justification for putting him in prison, the 20,000 remaining,” Eduardo said. “He’s definitely not going to pay it locked up. It’s just punishment, and maybe they’ll let him out in six months, a year.”

In his work in the northwestern Ixil Mayan community of Nebaj, anthropologist David Stoll also has witnessed the troubling intersection of debt and migration. With rising costs and risks associated with the journey northward, Stoll argues that the community is at a crossroads of sorts, one at which the potential benefits of migration and attendant remittances are increasingly being countered, if not cancelled out, by failed journeys and the anemic US economy.

In a 2010 article on outmigration from Nebaj, Stoll writes that, “Nebajense stories … suggest that migration is a process that runs on debt, with migrants indebting themselves and their relatives to the migration stream in ways that many are unable to repay, resulting in the loss of homes and productive assets. The debts not only enable migration but require more people to migrate north, in a chain of exploitation that may suck more value from the sending population than it returns,”6

But he notes that the consequences of these changes are not borne equally among community members, a fact that will likely have dramatic long-term consequences for community cohesion.

“The dilemma I see exemplified in Nebaj is simple: If remittances set off inflationary spirals in sending populations, then they pressure wider circles of people to come north. When have-nots go deeply into debt to keep up with their neighbors, they take on enormous risk. Wherever remittances have produced dependent inflationary economies, an inner ring of apparent success stories could be surrounded by less visible outer rings of imitators who are indebting themselves to go north, failing to find sufficient employment, and losing assets.”

In essence, what can happen, what is likely happening across Guatemala, is a hyper-local manifestation of David Harvey’s notion of accumulation through dispossession;7 those community members who, through previous successful journeys or other sources, have money to lend to those wanting to go are positioned to significantly increase their assets by seizing collateralized land and houses.

In an interview for the 2007 report “La Decisión de Marcharse” by Rolando Duarte and Teresa Coello, Reverend Angél Vicente, the parish priest of the rural Mam community of Cabricán, painted a clear picture of how this can play out.

“Powerful groups are being created in each municipality …There are new wealthy people throughout the Mam area; en Concepción Chiqirichapa, San Juan Ostuncalco, en San Martín Sacatepéquez, en Cajolá …They have four or five three-story houses, they have cars. The profits from migration are thousands and thousands of quetzales monthly. Imagine, if you have 45,000Q lent to 20 people at 10 percent monthly interest, do the math….”8

When asked about this, both Caryn and Eduardo said that this does not accurately characterize the situation in Cajolá. The principal beneficiaries there, they say, are not the people originating the migration loans but the coyotes, or guides. And, though they are making a lot of money, coyotes do not exert much power locally.

To get a sense of the possible scale of debt-related consequences faced post deportation, two numbers are helpful to have in mind: 29,736 and 18,406. The former is the total number of Guatemalan deportations in FY 2010 and the latter is the number of Border Patrol apprehensions of Guatemalan nationals that same year, meaning that likely more than half of all Guatemalan deportations result from a border apprehension. Many of the Guatemalans crossing, though there is no way of knowing how many precisely, have serious debts riding on their journeys or attempts remaining if they get caught. The brutality, senselessness and wanton waste of deporting such people, people who will likely brave the vicious undocumented crossing of Mexico again soon after being dropped off in Guatemala City, only becomes clearer when one has an idea of the impossible calculus that awaits many of them and their families back in Guatemala.

It is important to note, however, that many folks in Guatemala aren’t taking the situation lying down. Friends, family members and neighbors often come to the aid of those whose journeys weren’t successful, offering places to stay and other quiet forms of solidarity. But there are also the beginnings of organized resistance to the ravages of deportation and migration debt. Indeed, just over a year ago in Patzún, Chimaltenango, a mid-size Maya Kaqchikel community just east of Lago Atitlán, community members formed the Asociación de Deportados y Familiares de Migrantes de Patzún Asoju (The Patzún Asoju Association of Deportees and Migrant Families). After a lender recently came calling on more than 200 properties used as collateral for migration loans, the organization took the case to the Office of the National Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and demanded assistance from the National Council for Guatemalan Migrants (Conamigua) this past September. The case is ongoing.

High Stakes Gamble

Mass Deportation to Guatemala is, of course, not just a story of debt. It is also one of family separation, loss of livelihood, alienation and many other forms of profound disruption, problems more likely to be faced by people with significant time in the United States preceding their removals.

Like many Cajolenses who head north, Guillermo’s plan when he left nine years ago was to save money, build a house in Cajolá and head back to Guatemala triumphant. Almost a decade later, after having settled in Morristown, New Jersey with his wife and two US citizen children, he did indeed come back, but not as he had intended: He flew in shackled instead, on a plane with dozens of other Guatemalan nationals, on June 14 of this year. It was a Thursday, he recalled, just over two months after a chchance encounter with Morristown police resulted in his arrest, detention and deportation.

He’s now living in the house he had dreamed of, which he was able to build with money sent home, but not in the way he had dreamed of living in it.

“I get home and I feel alone,” he said of his empty house. “I imagine that my kids are there, playing. That my wife is there, walking around. But no, they’re back [in the United States]…. It’s very hard for me, to get home and just sit by myself. I sleep a couple hours a night. And then I get up, and start looking for my children….”

The way Guillermo sees it, he has two choices: Roll the dice and migrate again to get back to his family, or have his family come back to Guatemala. Each is a terrifying prospect for different reasons and he has yet to make a decision, which is itself a traumatizing third option.

In the meantime, he’s working at a local carpentry, one of Grupo Cajolá’s economic projects in the community, but more for the distraction than for the money. “I don’t want to think much,” is what he told Yovani, the young and charismatic former migrant who runs the place, when he asked for a job. Yovani, in his all-smiles way, of course said yes.

Guillermo’s reasons for not wanting to migrate are simple: It would mean putting his or his father’s house on the line for the loan and braving the undocumented crossing of Mexico, a journey that Amnesty International has called one of the most dangerous human journeys on earth because of rampant human rights abuses against migrants on the part of state security forces and criminal elements.

“Imagine if I were to be returned again. I lose that money. We would lose everything,” he said. “I’d have to pawn my things again, my father’s house so that they’d give us money, but now it’s double. It’s like 45,000Q, what the guides charge.”

Under the best of circumstances, bringing his family back to Guatemala would also be a challenge. But his 8-year-old son has a medical condition that makes his right leg grow incorrectly, which requires regular medical attention unavailable in Cajolá and out of the family’s budget in Quetzaltenango.

“We’re sad, because I have no idea what’s going to happen,” he said. “Because I’d like to go, but I hate thinking about what would happen if something happened to me. They want to come; it scares us to think of something happening to the children as well. We’re between the sword and wall. There’s absolutely nothing we can do.”

And the high mental toll keeps climbing each day Guillermo is away from his children.

“I can’t sleep. I hear them, as if my children were here with me. I hear their voices,” he said. “And I tell myself, ‘I must be going crazy. Something must be happening to me. That’s what’s happening.’ I have my brothers and sisters here [in Cajolá], but it’s not like having my children or my wife here. My siblings tell me, ‘We’re here to support you.’ ‘I know brother,’ I tell them. ‘But what I need in my life are my two kids.'”

Homeland: Places in the Heart

Unlike Guillermo, Josué, a young man born in San Marcos, Guatemala but raised in Houston, knew exactly what he was going to do the second he stepped off the deportation flight at the Fuerza Aerea: Split for Texas.

“I feel comfortable [in Texas], I have my girlfriend, I have a child over there,” he said. “It’s messed up, man. I left my family over there, and I’m here, a lost person. I don’t have a car. I do have a house, but it’s a lot different. It’s a lot different.”

The disorientation he confronted after landing only hardened his resolve to get back as quickly as possible. He left San Marcos in 2000 when he was seven and had never been to the capital before, so he didn’t even know how to get to what the US government considered his home after being deported.

“I was asking people, ‘Hey, where’s San Marcos at?’ I had no idea,” he said in English. “I was seven when I left. The only place I know is San Marcos. I had no idea of Cuatro Caminos, I had no idea of Xela, I had no idea of anything. I was lost.”

And San Marcos, a city he hadn’t seen in 12 years, wasn’t the same place when he finally got there.

“I felt lost. Lonely. I had no friends. Well, the people I grew up with, they, right now they’re married. They have children; they’re already parents. It’s a lot different,” he said. “I didn’t like it. I went back to the US myself.”

But that attempt resulted in another deportation. And so did the next. And the next. And after his fourth deportation, Josué threw in the towel.

“Like I said, I’m going to try three times. And after three times, I’m just going to do my life here,” he said.

In a narrow sense, this was a policy success. But at what price? Assuming the $12,500 figure cited above, this “success” cost US taxpayers $50,000. For a single person. And, while enforcement agencies and their backers will likely not be moved by it, it also meant that Josué had to run the gauntlet of migrating undocumented through Mexico three times. This is one of the major problems of the deportation campaign to Central America: It’s not just a humanitarian crisis, which is always the case with mass deportation. It’s also fiscal insanity.

But despite it all, post-deportation life is going fairly well for Josué, at least financially. Because of his high-level English and the intervention of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental group that works on immigration issues around the world, he is now working at Transactel, a call center in Quetzaltenango. He said he’s making 3,500Q a month, or about $440. It’s not a lot, but it’s a lot more than what he’d be making in construction or agriculture.

“You can take care of yourself,” he said of the wage.

However, Josué’s experience is not representative, at least not among those returnees who work with the IOM. The Guatemalan Repatriates Project, the USAID-funded IOM program that tries to provide training and job opportunities to returnees, has a spotty track record. Between June 3, 2011, when the program started, and November 5, 2012, 55,208 Guatemalan nationals have been flown in to the Fuerza Aerea, where the IOM provides initial services. Of those, 59 have received job training and 29 – .052 percent of the total – have found jobs with the help of the organization. IOM’s 2012 budget for reintegration work in Guatemala is $924,200.

“It’s not a big number. It’s very difficult to get people jobs,” said Philip Burns, head of the repatriates project at the San Marcos office of IOM, when asked about the program’s success so far.

While Josué said that his wage at Transactel is enough for him to stay in Guatemala, such work is of course only open to those with advanced English skills, as are many of the tourism jobs that IOM has helped people find. Indeed, Transactel appeals to potential clients by noting that Guatemala “has a talented and skilled pool of bilingual manpower with cultural affinity to the United States….” on its corporate web site, seeming to allude at least in part to the country’s high deportee population.

According to Philip, much of the rest of the work available to returnees is in low-wage construction and agricultural positions.

“Most returnees are interested in working in construction, something that has to do with construction,” he said. “Most don’t have English skills.”

Philip himself concedes that the employment landscape for construction work is mediocre.

“I would say most returnees, especially those who have experience in construction, they are not completely unemployed. They are underemployed,” he said. “A few days here … a few days there. I would say that that is not something at all unique to returnees, but that’s the norm in rural Guatemala. Most are in that situation.”

With much of rural construction dependent on remittances and remittances in decline, the likelihood that such work will provide sustainable economic alternatives to migration for returnees seems low – and lower still for those returning with significant debts.

While the IOM does provide a number of important services to returnees post-arrival with their funding, such as bus tickets home and phone calls to family members, sustainable long-term reintegration requires the economic stability that comes with steady employment and decent wages. Ricardo, a recent returnee to Cajolá who came back with nearly $2,000 (15,000Q) in debt, eloquently put those as of yet unaddressed structural obstacles to just reintegration in sharp relief.

“If I work in construction, the most I’ll earn in a day is 50Q, like $5,” he said. “How much does a pound of meat cost? 20Q. 50Q is only enough for two pounds. If there are a lot of people in your family, it’s not enough. And to pay the 15,000Q? That’s impossible. Completely impossible.”

Tucson As Enforcement Laboratory

The Tucson Sector of Border Patrol, far and away the busiest sector in terms of both undocumented migration and smuggling, has been a laboratory of sorts for recent shifts in the agency’s enforcement practices. Nearly two years ago, sector field supervisors started having agents categorize each captured migrant and determine which consequence would most likely deter future migration. For example, it was determined that migrants apprehended for the first time should be subjected to criminal prosecution and those suspected of smuggling should be turned over to Mexican authorities for prosecution there. While the component punitive measures came before the policy, this was the first effort to systematize their use.

Among the consequences are the much criticized Operation Streamline, the defining feature of which are its en masse trials of up to 70 migrants in Southwestern Federal District Courts; Expedited Removal (ER), which comes with a criminal charge and a five-year ban on legally entering the US; and the Alien Transfer and Exit Program (ATEP), which attempts to separate migrants from their smugglers by repatriating them to distant border cities. The latter has been criticized for separating family members who crossed together and deporting migrants to unfamiliar cities, some of which are among the most dangerous in Mexico.

The Tucson Sector’s effort, now called the Consequence Delivery System (CDS), has been adopted border-wide. In his testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security in October 2011, Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher laid out the agency’s thinking about consequence delivery.

“To break the smuggling cycle and deter a subject from attempting further illegal entries or participating in a smuggling enterprise, [Customs and Border Protecion (CBP)] has developed, with the support of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)], a new Consequence Delivery System (CDS) that guides management and agents through a process designed to uniquely evaluate each subject and identify the ideal consequences to deliver to impede and deter further illegal activity,” he said. “The CDS uses a combination of criminal and administrative consequences developed by the Border Patrol, and implemented with the assistance of ICE, targeting specific classifications of offenders, effectively breaking the smuggling cycle along the border of the United States. This allows the US Border Patrol to match the individual and the consequence in the most effective and efficient way.”

While repeating much of the same language, Border Patrol’s five-year strategic plan, which was released in May of this year and announced the border-wide implementation of the policy, contains one line that more clearly highlights the problematic thinking and heady self-assuredness behind it: “CDS provides a process designed to uniquely evaluate each subject and apply the appropriate post-arrest consequences to that individual to … end the subject’s desire to attempt further illegal entry” [emphasis added].

According to this line of thinking, economic and political realities in countries of origin have no bearing in decisions to migrate. It is simply a question of finding “the ideal consequence.”

However, on the ground in Guatemala there is no shortage of people who have been subjected to the new CDS model. Nor is there a shortage of people whose “desire to attempt further illegal entry” has not been ended. But it’s not just that these policies don’t “end the subject’s desire to attempt further illegal entry.” It’s that they often encourage it, especially when those policies collide with migration debts. For example, imagine you are given a six-month sentence in an Operation Streamline hearing, the maximum sentence for misdemeanor illegal entry. Assuming a 10 percent monthly interest rate for your migration debt, it will increase by nearly 80 percent during your sentence. The deterrent value of this is not obvious and, if not for the enormous human cost behind the irony, it would be hilarious.

Fish Tales and Other Costly Myths

But the CDS is really only a deepening and an expansion of a long-standing consequence-based mindset among immigration enforcement agencies, which in some ways has disproportionately affected undocumented Central Americans and other non-Mexican migrants. Indeed, the 2005 adoption of so-called “enforcement with consequences” led to an end of the long-standing “catch-and-release” policy of deporting non-Mexican migrants to the US-Mexico border or releasing them on the their own recognizance pending their immigration hearings. Despite equating apprehended migrants with caught fish, “catch-and-release” was fairly enlightened public policy, as shown by Eduardo’s 1996 apprehension experience described above. In announcing its end in 2006, then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff crowed that “We have successfully transformed ‘catch-and-release’ to ‘catch-and-return.'” Since then, essentially all undocumented Central Americans captured by the Border Patrol have been flown home at great human and financial cost.

Interior immigration enforcement also has been characterized by institutional braggadocio. This was most infamously illustrated by “Operation Endgame,” the 2003-2012 strategic plan for ICE’s Office of Detention and Removal (DRO). In the plan, the agency boldly – and in hindsight, foolhardily – set “removal of all removable aliens” as the central goal for itself. Ten years later, this has obviously not been accomplished. However, with Secure Communities now implemented in 97 percent of jurisdictions nationwide and annual ICE removals between 300,000 and 400,000 since FY 2007, interior enforcement capacity is at historically unprecedented levels.

But the post-deportation landscape in Guatemala calls the very word “removable” into question. Removable in what sense? Removable for how long? And at what cost? Caryn, who daily watches deportation play out in messy ways, is constantly confronted by the tragic absurdity of contemporary immigration enforcement and its profound disconnect with Guatemalan reality.

“That’s why this idea of the consequence delivery system is so stupid. If you split the [family] … if you leave the kids there, and the parents go home to their country, they’re going to go get their kids. And if you tell him they’re going to die, well, that’s the way it is. Because they can’t live without their kids,” she said. “And it’s the same thing; if you have a debt … the reality is there’s no choice. You have no choice. A friend of mine … has [just] gone back north. He has failed umpteen zillion times. I know he doesn’t want to go, but he has no choice. Because of debt, there is no choice.”

Eduardo points out that it goes beyond enforcement officials and lawmakers not appreciating the consequences of their policies. It’s that they have no stake or interest in the many ugly ways they are affecting his community and other communities on the receiving end of the deportation regime.

“It’s very difficult because those that create the law, those that manage it, they just propose the laws,” he said. “It’s the community that gets affected; it’s the people that are affected.”

With his son’s fourth journey all but guaranteed, or perhaps already in progress, Miguel made a passionate appeal for a simple and sensible change. That it sounds so politically impossible speaks volumes about the degree to which this sustained and bipartisan campaign of institutional barbarity has become normalized.

“They must end deportation. They must end it because it is harming human beings,” he said. “We are all human beings. We have a right to life, to work. They must end the hatred, the political hatred that is only harming human beings who want a better future.”

The author wishes to thank the fine people at Sustainable Development for Guatemala (DESGUA) and Grupo Cajolá, without whose help the research that forms the backbone of this article would have been impossible.


With the exception of public figures, all names are pseudonyms.

Androff, DK, and KY Tavassoli. “Deaths in the Desert: the Human Rights Crisis on the US-Mexico Border.” Social Work. 57.2 (2012): 165-73. Print.

Ogren, Cassandra. “Migration and Human Rights on the Mexico-Guatemala Border.”International Migration. 45.4 (2007): 203-243. Print.

Borja, Karla.. “The Impact of the Us Recession on Immigrant Remittances in Central America.” Journal of International Commerce, Economics and Policy. 3.3 (2012): 1250020. Print. (It should be noted, however, that remittances have been rising over the last year.)

Because of the terms approved for this research, Edgar, who was under the age of 18 at the time of the interview, was not directly interviewed, though he was in the room during my conversation with his father. At times he corrected his father’s statements about the timing of certain events and other similar details.

Stoll, David. “From Wage Migration to Debt Migration? Easy Credit, Failure in El Norte, and Foreclosure in a Bubble Economy of the Western Guatemalan Highlands.” Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 37; No. 1 (January): 123-142.

Harvey, D. “The ‘new’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” The Socialist Register. (2003): 63-87. Print.

[8] Author’s translation.

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