*This paper was co-authored by Miguel Casar and Pedro Noguera. In December 2018, Casar, worked alongside other volunteers at a migrant house in El Paso, TX and Juarez, Mexico. Many of the reflections shared in this article are based on his experience.
I am sitting across from a man and his daughter at a makeshift table, inside a large, brightly lit room. We are at a house in El Paso that has been set up to support the flood of migrants who managed to cross the border and have been released from the overcrowded detention centers. These are the “lucky” ones. On the other side in Juarez there are thousands of others waiting for their cases to be heard.
Around us, there is a never-ending movement of people, phone calls, conversations, and lots of gestures from both the volunteers and the people we are there to support. The air is filled with stories, of both hope and tragedy, mixed with clarity and confusion, laughter and sadness. The walls are covered with notes of paper each carrying simple, cryptic messages pertaining to the current status of migrants: “waiting for family to call back”, “unable to reach uncle”, “leaving on a red-eye to Chicago tonight at 11:43.”
Sitting across from me is Julian, a young man from the Maya Q’eqchi territories in Guatemala. Squeezing his hand as if to give him strength, sits his daughter Esperanza. She stares at me with a curious smile. Her eyes are big and bright, hopeful, and yet sad at the same time. Undoubtedly, her eyes have seen much more than a six-year-old should be burdened with. She asks me my name and I introduce myself. I then briefly explain who I am and why I am here. I lamely ask whether they are OK, knowing even as I ask my question that they couldn’t be “fine”. I also know that neither the father nor his daughter could provide a simple explanation of their current situation.
“Primero Dios, estamos aqui” (God willing, we are here), shares Julian, as he lowers his face. Immediately, Esperanza, shifting her gaze to her father, adds “estamos bien papá, estamos bien” (we are ok dad, we are ok). It is ironic how often I saw children comforting their distraught parents as if they were stronger and better able to handle the hardships and uncertainty they had experienced.
Volunteers were there to help on both sides of the border. In El Paso, our role was primarily to help the families that were being released from the detention centers find temporary shelter as they awaited their asylum hearings. In many cases, this involved traveling somewhere in the US, wearing ankle bracelets, where family members could provide support while they waited. Across the border in the much larger sister city of Juarez, many organizations actively supported the rising number of migrants that continued accumulating on the Mexican side of the border. Most of us were organizers, educators, and advocates, well informed in the politics of immigration and displacement, yet unprepared for the layers of complexity and the tragedies we encountered.
The immigration debate is often represented as a conflict between xenophobic demagogues and righteous do-gooders. Depending on your politics, the opponents of the asylum seekers are merely safeguarding the border to protect national sovereignty, while the advocates are at best naïve and unrealistic about the threat posed by the hordes at the border. As this national spectacle plays itself out in American politics, the migrants themselves have been rendered into characters that bear little resemblance to who they really are. Hearing their stories was the only means we found to be viable for countering their dehumanization.
During my time at the migrant center in El Paso, I met with large groups of refugees, some of whom had been released by US Border Patrol authorities in large groups into the freezing desert. I heard their stories. Many were familiar: families fleeing violence and poverty, the separation of children from their parents, the suffering and harassment they endured at the hands of coyotes and the Cartels while crossing Mexico, the tedious waiting to be processed and considered for asylum. Some of the stories I heard I found difficult to comprehend. Without an understanding of the context in their home countries that led them to leave everything behind for the arduous journey north, I would be unable to understand why they “chose” “to risk their lives and become one of the many displaced refugees.
I couldn’t understand but I could listen. Each one of their stories brought texture and helped in creating an explanation of the experiences of the migrants. As I listened I was forced to confront previously made assumptions about both the causes of migration and the consequences of displacement. Over the course of several days, I came to realize that beyond being there to help, I was bearing witness to a human tragedy set in motion by global politics and powerful economic interests.
Migration in Context
According to the United Nations, every minute, twenty human beings are forcibly displaced and become migrants somewhere in the world. This global problem will not be abated any time soon. The UN’s Refugee Council estimates that over one billion people will become refugees in the next ten years. While the movement and migration of people is a phenomenon that has been part of the human experience since the beginning of time, increasingly, the movement of people across national boundaries is associated with catastrophic global crises such as climate change, growing inequality, the collapse of states, gang violence, and unending wars. By the end of 2016, there were 31.1 million new displacements due to conflict, violence, and disasters, the equivalent of one person forced to flee every second (IDMC, 2017).
2018 not only proved a disastrous year for migrants, especially those who are most vulnerable. It is now clear that migration and the arrival of refugees in new lands have also reshaped the political landscape in many nations throughout the world. Far-right populist movements, both in Europe and in the Americas, have used the “threat” of immigration to fuel electoral victories. Deploying populist rhetoric and a new “nationalism”, anti-immigrant politicians have effectively preyed upon fear and resentment to change laws, tighten asylum policies, and harden attitudes toward immigrants among the citizens of receiving states. The criminalization of migrants is key element of the political playbook that is dramatically altering the policies of liberal Western democracies.
Although the movement of people to the United States from Mexico has decreased radically (to an actual reversal in 2015), a rising number of families from Central America have begun to show up on the US southern border to seek asylum. During our time on the border, we were able to see first-hand how zero-tolerance policies are affecting those who seek entry. There are now more than 2,600 children who have been separated from their parents. In January of this year, the largest single-group of migrant families and minors ever recorded in Arizona turned themselves in to U.S Border Patrol agents after tunneling underneath a border fence in Arizona. The overwhelming majority were Guatemalan families, 176 were children. In Pima County, Arizona, in 2017 alone, the county recovered 128 remains of migrants in the desert, many of which are still unidentified. Even as both border security and asylum policies get “tougher”, the migrants continue to arrive. I ask myself: Why? Haven’t they heard that Trump doesn’t want them and won’t let them in? As I come to understand the challenges the face on their journey and while waiting at the border, I become more curious about the experiences that led to their displacement and prompted them to “choose” their current predicament.
The Migrant House
On my first day, we were given a small tour and a brief orientation. The building where the work took place was a small temporary shelter run by a local church and staffed by an eclectic mix of volunteers from all over the country: clergy, activists, retirees, and recent migrants themselves. The building was modest, consisting of a long hall flanked by rooms full of beds, a kitchen, showers, a small side hall with goodie bags and supplies for those continuing their journey. A large room where migrants were “received,” was adjacent to the main hall, and a door in the back led out to a small yard. Across the street was a church, and off to the side, a small building with three rooms full of clothes, shoes, and supplies that had been donated from all over the country.
Despite our makeshift accommodations, the center ran like a well-oiled machine, achieving a miraculous combination of efficiency and humanitarian compassion. Every day, groups of migrants were released by US immigration enforcement at Greyhound Bus stations with their few belongings, an ankle bracelet, and a future court date somewhere in the country. In an act of “compassion”, U.S. border officials notified the volunteers at the migrant houses and churches that they had just released a group of people, often in a desolate and isolated area. Buses and groups of volunteers went out to pick up those who had been released and brought them to the Migrant House. Upon arrival, families were given a warm bowl of chicken soup, tortillas and water. Before the meal, a prayer was called. After eating, the “registration” process could begin.
I was prepared to conduct my first registration. I sat across from Julian and his daughter Esperanza and we began our conversation by using the questions on the Registration Form as our guide. This largely entailed gathering personal information: place of origin, destination, contact information, etc. Julian’s Spanish was limited, but far better than my Q’eqchi’ which was non-existent.
Esperanza was six, but her father was unsure of his age; somewhere around 36 he guessed. They explained to me that they had left their home, in the Q’eqchi’ territories of Guatemala, four months ago, leaving behind his wife and youngest daughter. With me they shared their hopes of going back home with enough to “empezar una vida” (start a life).
We had been given maps of the United States, primarily to connect migrants with space and to ground our conversation about their “journey”. As I pulled out the map and began to explain where we were, Esperanza’s eyes followed intently.
“Where are we?” I asked.
Tejas? She answered.
“Do you know where you are going?”
“Florida (pronounced Flor- ee-da)”, she responded.
“Can you write your name in the map?” Yes, she said proudly, picking up a pencil and beginning to slowly, and intently, trace the outlines of her name.
Julian didn’t speak much but gradually seemed to become more relaxed. “Can we call my uncle?,” he asked. Julian carried a small plastic bag with the few documents that they had brought with them from Guatemala. Inside were a couple of wrinkled, almost illegible papers, and on one, the name, phone number, and address of his “tio de cariño” (uncle by love) in Florida. We called, and to our collective delight, he answered. Elated, Julian anxiously asked for the phone and then went on to speak in Q’eqchi’ for a couple of minutes.
After the call, we resumed our conversation. I soon realized that Julian was eager to explain why they had embarked on this difficult journey north. Julian shared that though they had left Guatemala “only” four months ago, their migration journey had already begun to define their lives. Without much prompting by me he offered: “I never wanted to leave, really,” he shared. “We did not have money most of our lives but did not need money. We love our land, we had a simple life…but we cannot live there anymore. Before, coming here was seen as too dangerous and expensive, only for young people. Things have changed now, we lost our land, my eldest left, and it began to feel like the only option.”
Julian told me that he and his family were from a small village close to Ixcan in Northern Guatemala. Julian’s parents were among the more than 200,000 people who were killed or disappeared during the civil war of the 1980s (Memory of Silence, a report by the Commission on Historical Clarification (1999)). We learned that an additional 1.5 million people had been displaced from their ancestral lands as a result of the war.
From the beginning of his life, Julian had been a migrant. After years of moving, he married and resettled with his wife in a small village close to his original hometown to grow corn. After years of work, they managed to buy a piece of land where they farmed and raised cattle. He went on: “About five years ago, our land was stolen again, this time by the palm companies.”
The Proliferation of Palm Oil
Julian’s mention of the palm oil companies surprised me. From the reports I’d seen I assumed most migrants were leaving their homes in Central America because of gang violence. His explanation led me to learn more about palm oil cultivation, an industry whose exports from Guatemala had grown seven-fold from 2007 to 2017. I was surprised to learn that Guatemala is the largest exporter of Palm Oil in Latin America. “I never wanted to sell my land,” he emphasized, “but I had no choice, they were going after my family, and then I ended up working for them.”
Most of the reports on the Central American refugee crisis focus on the gang violence that has wreaked havoc upon indigenous communities. Faced with extreme violence, many have opted to take the perilous journey north in a desperate attempt to cross the border. However, less well known is the role of US, multinational, and national corporations such as Colgate-Palmolive, Nestle, Unilever, and Naturaceites. These companies, working in concert with the government, have used a variety of coercive techniques, including violence, to displace indigenous farmers and obtain their land. From our interviews, we learned that the major corporations that control the palm oil industry bear as much responsibility for displacing the indigenous people as the notorious gangs.
In the twenty-first century, the worldwide production of flex crops, including palm oil has surged dramatically. A global boom in the demand for palm oil has resulted in an increase in production from over 25 million metric tons in 1970 to nearly 150 million metric tons in 2010. With the demand for palm oil growing, production is expected to continue to rise.
In Guatemala alone, vegetable oil brings in $50 billion annually. Under the influence of powerful multi-national corporations, the Guatemalan elite, and international financial institutions, the export-led oil palm industry has expanded exponentially. Today, Guatemala is the world’s third largest exporter. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of acres under cultivation of Palm Oil in Guatemala grew from just over 36,000 to just under 300,000.
According to US AID, as of 2015, Guatemala had more undernourished people than it had during the last years of its bloody civil war. In the indigenous regions of the country, approximately 65% of the population is chronically malnourished. As production has increased a vast and prosperous agro-export industry has emerged, and the demand for agricultural labor has declined. Rural poverty and displacement have continued to rise, and food security has been jeopardized. Farmers, like the indigenous people we met in both Juarez and El Paso, are now migrants who have been displaced.
The Q’eqchi’ Region
In many regions of Guatemala, especially in the Q’eqchi’ region due to its weather, African palm oil cultivation is taking over subsistence from farming. In a conversation with a group of families during a meal, we learned that corporate intermediaries posing as farmers or ranchers would often approach small communities to buy land. For some, especially younger families, selling their land was seen as an opportunity to escape poverty and deal with the subsequent displacement associated. By emigrating to the United States they hoped to escape the threat of violence and the impoverishment created by being forced to sell their land to the palm oil companies.
Such practices are not new in Guatemala. In 1996, less than two percent of the population controlled over 80 percent of the arable land, one of the highest rates of inequitable distribution of land in the world. As palm oil cultivation became more lucrative, even the small plots of land controlled by the indigenous populations became too desirable to pass up. “Little by little,” the migrants explained, “they began to take over.” We learned that the practice of buying pieces of property and putting fences around them, making access complex or impossible for the remaining families, is a common practice.
From Julian and others, we learned that smugglers have been “negotiating” land transactions, through loans to small farmers. Utilizing a tactic similar to that deployed against tenant farmers in the American south, palm oil companies are able to take control of land once owned by small farmers by making loans available that are impossible to pay back. As the burden of debt becomes unbearable, and the pressure to pay back loans increases, selling the land, becoming displaced and then migrating north, become inevitable.
A woman we interviewed explained that she left home six months earlier with her two daughters, ages 5 and 9, because she was no longer able to access her own house. Having refused to sell her land she found that it had eventually been surrounded by corporate properties and fences. Loss of access to her land and the constant harassment and violence she had faced as a single woman, left her with no choice but to migrate.
In a group conversation later in the day, two men, both from the northernmost part of the country, close to the Mexican border, said that rivers that ran through their land no longer had water; they had been diverted to support palm oil cultivation. Without water, they were forced to sell their land and move to the city in search of jobs. They soon learned that none were available. With gangs dominating the streets they had little choice but to head north. One asked: “Where were we to go?”.
I met an old man while he helped other migrants find places to sleep at the center. He explained his displacement: “They have taken everything for their palm. We cannot look for wood anymore, we cannot fish, our crops will not grow, we cannot do anything.”
In places like the Polochic Valley, where fights against the oil palm plantations have been lost, people are left without food, money, or a place to live. For many, the only “choice” left is either migration or working for the Palm Oil Companies. According to Verite, an international labor advocacy organization, palm oil plantations are riven with human rights violations and deplorable conditions including forced labor, health and safety risks, poor housing for workers, environmental degradation, and wage exploitation. Families often work for more than twelve hours a day and earn less than 8 dollars. Additionally, the industry is notorious for its use of child labor which has undermined the region’s educational infrastructure, resulting in a reduction in the number of schools.
The role of the state and its foreign allies cannot be overlooked. Through a series of international and national “agreements” and legislation, many enacted under the banner of “free trade” and “growth”, companies have used the state security forces to enforce and carry out repression, dispossession, and displacement. As one man we met explained as he lifted his hands in a gesture of helplessness: “The army is on their side.”
According to U.S. government data, more than 50,000 Guatemalans were apprehended in family groups at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 2018 fiscal year, more than double the year before. Most of them get deported, a proportion that has risen dramatically due to the limits placed on the “reasonable grounds to request asylum.” Often, deported migrants are forced to return to work for the companies that previously dispossessed and displaced them. Their exploitation is compounded by debt and the likelihood of violence by their debtors. When I asked Julian, what was it like to work for the “company,” he responded that it was like one’s life being stolen little by little. “No teníamos opción, no tenemos poder” (We did not have a choice, we do not have power).
Those that resist are branded as criminals and called “backwards”, and many indigenous leaders have been killed or incarcerated. Companies like NaturAceites have described the indigenous residents as ‘invaders’ because they refused to sell lands that have belonged to indigenous communities for centuries. Some of the companies take pride in being part of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil and advertise themselves as socially “responsible”. Further complicating the situation, many of the displaced are deemed “unemployable” because they have been blacklisted for opposing the industry’s actions.
Later that afternoon I bumped into Julian and his daughter, who was now chatting with a newly made friend. Together, they were going through clothing donations. Each family was allowed to pick one set of clothes and shoes before moving on to the showers. He asked me if we could speak privately and proceeded to share that he was worried about his daughter. His voice carried a combination of confusion and guilt, “Quería una mejor vida para ella, pero ha sido muy duro para ella” (I wanted a better life for her, but it has been very hard for her). He shared that there were many times when he just wanted to go back but the choice was always between horrible and even more horrible. Between the abuse endured in Mexico by “los malosos” (a word often used for the Cartels, traffickers, and smugglers in Mexico), walking for what seemed an endless journey under horrid conditions, they suffered in the detention center once they reached the United States. Julian and others told us that the thought their trip north would make it possible to help his family made it possible for them to keep going. “After years of abuse, the idea of moving became part of my daily life. I did not want to come.” he repeated.
Continuing the journey
In the evening, volunteers coordinated “rides” to take migrants to the airport and bus stations so that they could reach their families. That night, we took Julian, his daughter, and another family to the airport. We left the center at dusk, where the two families exchanged warm and hopeful hugs and tears with other migrants and volunteers. The center prepared goodie bags for their departure: peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, water, and a blanket.
At the airport, we explained what was going to happen in the morning. However, the details that might have seemed trivial to others about traveling – how to check-in, clear security, etc., were extremely complex and intimidating to Julian and the others. As we attempted to articulate what they could expect on their journey, it became clear that our instructions were doing little to help. Even as we drew maps and wrote phrases for them in English that could be used to help them navigate the next phase of their journey, it was clear that they were being thrown back into an unknown, precarious and hostile world.
From Migration to Displacement
The story of immigration is often framed as a matter of choice; people are choosing to leave their home countries in pursuit of a better life. However, the stories of displacement we heard forced us to think differently about the relationship between migration, choice, and displacement. When people flee their homes to escape violence, poverty, and oppression, what choice do they truly have?
As witnesses to history in the making, we knew it was in our hands to bring both scrutiny and humanity to the stories that dominate media. We also understood that we could do more than provide help to the migrants, especially as we came to realize that we are also participants in the very systems of displacement. As consumers of palm oil in the soaps and various household products we consume, we are part of a barely detectable process of global production through extreme exploitation. While we felt there was little we do to stop the palm oil companies, we knew that we could, in our own small way, advance justice by listening to their stories and humanizing their experiences.
On our last day in El Paso, a 7-year-old from Guatemala died of dehydration in Border Patrol Custody less than 10 miles from where we were. On Christmas Eve, another 8-year-old boy from Guatemala died in the desert outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Minutes after reading the news, I looked at my soap to read the ingredients, among them: palm oil.
People often make sense of the world through their stories. The stories we heard and those that we have written about are a reminder that there’s often more to a story than we think we know.
Miguel Casar is Mexican student, teacher, and writer who believes in the transformational potential of re-claiming and re-imagining schools as public spaces of justice, community, and liberation. His work focusses on: understanding and challenging the role of schools in social stratification and both ideological and social reproduction; and in exploring the intersections of education, migration, criminalization, and the broader pursuit of economic, racial, environmental, and other forms of justice. He is a PhD student at the University of California Los Angeles and a doctoral researcher at the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA.
Pedro A. Noguera is a Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and founder of the Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS) at UCLA. His scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions and demographic trends in local, regional and global contexts.
Note: Re-imagining Migration would like to thank Lindsey Michell Williams for allowing us to use her photographs. For more of her work, visit https://www.lensymichelle.com/