The young men represent the very people who the Biden administration is trying to keep from leaving Central America by offering them a glimmer of hope in their native lands.
EL PASO — Immigrant rights experts and migrants stuck here on the border have some advice for Kamala Harris as the vice president visits Guatemala and Mexico this week to seek answers to the root causes of migration: don’t overthink it.
“Help us create jobs, stop corruption,” said Ezer, detained by U.S. authorities after crossing the border at age 17. “That’s what I would tell the government because that’s what we all know.”
Ezer is one of four migrant teens recently interviewed by The Dallas Morning News who turned 18 while in custody and ‘aged out’ — all were released on their shared birthday from an emergency shelter for migrant children at Fort Bliss to temporary housing at the Annunciation House nonprofit center.
Manix, another of the teens, said he hopes to work in the United States for three or four years and then return home with enough money to run his own grocery store. “Pressure our authorities to make Guatemala safe,” he urged.
The four teenagers shared their stories and offered advice for Harris on the condition that their full names not be published, citing security concerns for their families back in Guatemala. The young men represent the very people who the Biden administration is trying to keep from leaving Guatemala by offering them a glimmer of hope in their native land.
Harris arrived Sunday evening in Guatemala on her first trip abroad as vice president to highlight the Biden administration’s efforts to find solutions to the ongoing humanitarian crisis that’s bedeviled the last three U.S. presidencies.
She’s scheduled to meet with Guatemalan political and civic leaders Monday before departing to meet Mexican leaders in Mexico City on Tuesday. The trip is part of an effort to curtail the highest levels of migration in 20 years as a record number of children and teens cross the border, many without parents.
In advance of the Harris trip, White House officials said the Biden administration’s strategy “will involve significant commitments of U.S. government resources” to promote “economic opportunity, strengthen governance, combat corruption, and improve security” in Central America. The administration is urging the private sector to invest more in the region to generate jobs for the local population.
The Biden administration is also pledging hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccines for Central America and a $4 billion long-term boost to development and security across the region, which suffers from high crime rates and economic devastation from the virus and recent natural disasters.
“I think there is this tension between telling Central Americans what the U.S. government is willing to do, but also hearing from Central Americans what they think the priorities should be,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “And hopefully [Harris] can balance that in some way.”
In Mexico, Harris is expected to arrive just 24 hours or so after millions went to the polls in the biggest-ever midterm election, which has polarized the country and will help define President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s final three year in office.
Last week, the White House announced that Mexico would receive a million vaccine doses from the U.S., coincidentally as López Obrador works to stop the flow of migrants headed for the United States. He’s mobilized thousands of national guardsmen across the country, underscoring Mexico’s bargaining power as the Biden administration strives to get a handle on the flow of immigrants, a politically fraught issue that threatens to overshadow his young presidency.
At the international crossings into Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, checkpoints manned by guardsmen create long lines as vehicles are stopped and checked for immigration papers.
The militarization is even more evident on Mexico’s southern border.
Here in El Paso, leading immigrant rights advocates applaud Harris’ visit to Guatemala and Mexico, but also stress that while the dynamics are complex, the Biden administration can make meaningful progress by acknowledging long festering issues, such as endemic corruption in the region and the U.S.’s long history of meddling in past Central American conflicts.
“Both sides need to be blunt with one another, especially as the United States figures out who exactly will be their partner in this difficult task,” said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, the El Paso nonprofit providing temporary shelter for migrants and refugees. The nonprofit has played a key role in housing tens of thousands of Central American migrants passing through the area in recent years.
For decades, people along the border have felt they’re at the center of a polarized political battleground oppressed by shifting geopolitical tensions. Leaders on the border, from human rights activists to mayors and county judges, have long insisted that the so-called crisis isn’t so much on the border but back in Washington where lack of political will and sole focus on deterrence has led to walls, increasing militarization and controversial policies like separating families at the border.
All the while, the cycles of poverty grow south of the border, forcing entire families to flee, reminiscent of previous waves of migrants from Ireland or Italy. The story is old, they said.
“If you still don’t know what Central America is all about, you’ve missed the boat,” Garcia said. “But if you’re going to go down precisely because you know what it’s about, and you need to sit down and you need to speak to these presidents, then that’s a very different kind of a trip, because part of what Harris needs to acknowledge is corruption starts at the very top.”
Garcia added he’d advise Harris and her staff to “identify all the key NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and then set up a meeting. Close the door. Let no media in and have everybody sign a nondisclosure agreement so that people could speak freely. … And, come up with some ideas on how to channel money so that money doesn’t end up in the wrong hands,” as history has shown it often does.
Marisa Limón Garza, deputy director of Hope Border Institute, agreed. She called on Harris to “chart a new path and direct her focus on grassroots and faith-based organizations in close contact with real everyday people,” adding that U.S. Agency for International Development dollars need to be committed to NGO groups that “voice the needs for their communities.”
“We know that militarization and deterrence just increase the strain,” she said. “We must reckon with the U.S.’s involvement in Central America and take responsibility to meaningfully address the root causes of migration.”
The four Guatemalan teens celebrated their birthdays on their own. They spoke about their experiences at Fort Bliss, with Ezer expressing “gratitude for the hospitality.”
Despite reports about overcrowding and shoddy conditions at some emergency shelters set up for the large numbers of unaccompanied migrant teens, all said they had been treated well at Fort Bliss, although they were unhappy with how long they’ve been detained. One was there for two weeks. Two were there for 10 days.
Ezer was there for 46 days. “Too long,” he said. “But I made friends and ate well.”
Overall, they downplayed concerns about living conditions, which Garcia said didn’t surprise him.
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said. “They come from very little.”
All four spoke of the reasons behind their decisions to leave, pointing to lack of safety and no apparent future back home. All four said they’d like to return to Guatemala someday to reunite with family and in the hopes that their country becomes a place not so much to “thrive, but simply to live and work without fear and be with family,” said Brayan, one of the four migrant teens.
The four conceded that as they turned 18, they couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for home. Sebas, an indigenous Guatemalan who speaks little Spanish, turned teary-eyed as Manix made a beeline for a guitar in the corner and began playing the Guatemalan version of “Happy Birthday.”
As he played, he said he hopes the Biden administration and leaders back in Central America find a way to “fix the future. Not so much for us, but for the next generation.”