No Escape: What Trump’s Border War Looks Like From a Guatemalan Village

Originally published by Mother Jones

César López remembers the exodus that began last October. His older brother and 11-year-old niece were the first to leave for Tennessee. Two younger brothers followed, along with all three brothers’ wives and five more children. The dozen of them shared one roof in Nashville, which had suddenly become the top destination for López’s neighbors. Hardly anyone used to leave Chivaquito, a 700-person mountain village in central Guatemala that lacked electricity until 2016. This year, he estimates, 40 villagers left for the United States.

López considered going, too. The journey would have been expensive—$5,000 for a smuggler, plus 10 percent monthly interest, in a region where a day’s labor might pay $5—and dangerous. But López had few options in Chivaquito, where there was no steady work and a lack of rain was killing subsistence crops. He was better off than most, earning a modest income building furniture and selling it to neighbors. But to expand his business, he needed power tools that he couldn’t afford without earning a salary in dollars.

The problem for López was that something had changed by the time we met in August.Everyone in Chivaquito was now saying the US border was closed.

A record-breaking wave of migration from Central America to the US border began in the summer of 2018, after word spread that migrants no longer needed to evade Border Patrol agents: If they arrived with a child, they could turn themselves in and be quickly released, following a 2015 court ruling limiting detention of migrant children. Central American families started arriving at the border in unprecedented numbers. Border Patrol agents took 84,486 parents and children traveling together into custody in May, compared with 925 in the same month of 2012.

As border crossings climbed this spring, President Donald Trump berated his staff, extorted Mexico with tariff threats, and reportedly offered pardons to border officials if they broke the law to keep migrants out. At the US-Mexico border, a new policy, misleadingly called the Migrant Protection Protocols, prevented tens of thousands of migrants from entering the United States. Under the policy, rolled out in January and ramped up this summer, asylum seekers are made to wait in Mexico rather than the United States for the chance to make their case before a judge. The shift, coupled with a crackdown by Mexico that deported tens of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans long before they reached the United States, has reverberated all the way down through Central America. Family migration fell by 85 percent between May and November.

Two thousand miles south of the border, the changes have upended life in Chivaquito and the surrounding municipality of Cubulco. For more than a century, the US government had propped up plutocratic regimes whose brutality and corruption drove Guatemalans from their hometowns, in search of jobs and safety in the United States, which then systematically denied them the chance to legally work there. The US federal court ruling had given them another way in, and mountain hamlets like Chivaquitobegan to be transformed by a newoutflow of people and influx of dollars. And then, with a new administration in Washington eager to go to extreme lengths to keep out nearly all Central Americans, residents of these villages found themselves stranded. 

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