That’s why immigration advocates and migrant leaders are urging the Biden administration to start a dialogue with asylum-seekers and communities where young people feel forced to leave because of violence or poverty. They want the administration to do that before handing over a proposed $4 billion to Northern Triangle governments.
“If we are going to continue giving money to corrupt governments or NGOs with ties to the government without talking to the communities themselves, it’s going to be more of the same,” said El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector. “Aid from government to government or government to nonprofit is not enough because some of them spend more money on buildings, expensing salaries and housing and (things) that don’t help the affected communities.”
Spector, who’s been representing asylum-seekers for three decades, says he has clients who were forced to leave Guatemala because of persecution by former military officers and those supportive of business interests displacing indigenous communities so they can build mines, energy plants or grow cash crops like African palms.
He is trying to gain the support of Democratic House members to have them testify in Congress or meet with Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden has charged with spearheading a response to the current migration challenge.
On Thursday, those clients spoke about the struggles that forced them to flee Guatemala and of possible solutions so that their countrymen don’t feel forced to follow them to the United States.
“Guatemala has always received American aid. If (the United States) does not change its policies on how it distributes that money, that money is going to fall to graft,” said Gaspar Cobo, an environmental activist who fled Guatemala after receiving death threats. “If they don’t change that, it’s going to be the same result.”
Cobo and fellow asylum-seeker Francisco Chavez, a survivor of an Army massacre in 1982, worry too much U.S. aid traditionally has been earmarked for security. Their government, they said, has used those funds to train and equip soldiers and police who repress Indigenous communities or assist Guatemalan corporations or the rich in land grabs that force them to migrate.
“If that aid doesn’t directly reach the communities, if it goes to fund big projects from corporations, little is going to change,” Cobo said.
Guatemala two years ago closed a popular anti-corruption agency that was investigating President Jimmy Morales for campaign finance malfeasance. Honduras likewise allowed an Organization of American States-backed anti-corruption project to expire, and President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been identified in U.S. court filings as the recipient of bribes from drug traffickers. (He denies the allegations and has not been charged.)
Cobo said funding training in farming and trades has proven effective in preventing migration in the Maya Ixil communities he comes from. So has the establishment of farmers markets where families from the countryside can go to a town to sell their products. That also benefits the country’s economy because 60% of domestic food production in Guatemala comes from small farmers, he said.
Also, governments must stop giving free rein to corporations pushing mining and more hydroelectric plants that displace small farmers. “If the local economy grows, people stay in their community. Otherwise, they are forced to leave. No one is leaving by choice. Migrating is no tourist trip. It’s a hard road you take, and it leaves a void in your community,” Cobo said.
Activists’ case draws out
Chavez and Cobo have been trying to get asylum in the United States since June 2019. They were let into the country only last November and spent several weeks in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. This week, they were allowed to ditch ankle bracelets and received notice of hearings on October and August 2022, respectively.
Spector said he’s tried to draw attention to the case because it’s been one of the most remarkable he’s ever handled.
Chavez survived an army massacre in 1982 that claimed his father’s life and estranged him and his 3-year-old sister from their mother for a long time. Chavez, then 6, said he physically fought off attempts at an army camp to separate him from his sister and spent time in a Catholic orphanage before being reunited with his mother. Chavez went on to testify against former Guatemalan President Rafael Rios Montt, who was convicted of genocide.
Chavez said his role in the conviction earned him threats and persecution from pro-government supporters.
Cobo has fought land grabs by mining and hydroelectric companies in Maya-Ixil lands and helped protect from further harm genocide witnesses like Chavez. He, too, left Guatemala after getting death threats.
Spector said the two men weren’t only persecuted in Guatemala but in Mexico as well after they tried to file a complaint upon being robbed by police in Chihuahua. They were threatened away from filing the complaint and called racial slurs because of their Indigenous heritage, the lawyer said.
Both men have continued their activism in Guatemala online and are now advocating for restitution for 70 survivors of genocide in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.