August 26, 2009

Ups and Downs of the Migrant Trail

This afternoon, I met Edison, a Guatemalan in his mid-thirties from a poor suburb of Guatemala City who has been deported twice from the US. His story is one of struggle and perseverance, with a few twists of bad luck.

Edison has worked since he was twelve years old. He worked and studied throughout high school. At 17, he left school and worked two or three jobs to save up money to buy a car and a piece of land. He married at age twenty, and had two children with his wife. Things were going fairly well for them, but they were still poor by most standards.

Shortly after Edison’s second daughter was born, his uncle came to visit from the US. He told Edison about all of the opportunities in the US, and suggested Edison accompany him to the US. Edison thought about it, and decided to give it a shot. He and his uncle were robbed after crossing the border into Mexico, and spent six months in Mexico with no money trying to get across before being caught and deported to Guatemala.

Back in Guatemala, Edison couldn’t stop thinking about going to the US. Having tried for so long, he became more determined to make the trip. Edison talked about it with his family, and his mother and brother lent him the money to pay a coyote the $5,000 it costs to get to the US. That was in 2003.

Edison made it to Los Angeles with the coyote. A friend of his came to pick him up and took him to Oakland, CA. Edison worked for the first couple of months as a day laborer. He barely made enough to get by and contemplated returning to Guatemala to be with his wife and kids. But, he had the debt to repay. Plus he was already in the US and figured if he just tried harder he could make it.

Edison befriended an African-American painter who gave him a permanent job in painting. From there, he learned electricity with a Mexican electrician. Soon, he had a small business of his own installing electricity. Edison was making good money, and sent between $1,000 and $2,000 home each month to his wife to build their house and for her to buy what she needed.

Things were going well for Edison, but he missed his family. He asked his wife to come with the kids. She said she would only go if he came to get them. Edison thought about it, and decided to fly back to Guatemala. It had been three years since he had seen his family.

Back in Guatemala, Edison bought a pick-up truck. Two months later, it was stolen from the city center. He bought a taxi to rent out to earn extra money. A month later, it broke down. Nothing was going right for Edison in Guatemala. He still had $5,000 saved, so before he lost that, he called the coyote who had taken him the first time and told him he was ready to leave. It took the coyote a while to get ready. Once they did, they set out for the US. Edison made it to Ciudad Juarez, on the US/Mexico border.

There, the coyote passed him on to someone else, and went back to Guatemala. Things went wrong from there, and Edison was picked up and deported back to Guatemala.

Back in Guatemala, he sought out the coyote and told him he had to take him again. Coyotes usually give you three chances to get to the US for your money. It took the coyote a few months, but he finally took Edison back to the US/Mexico border. Once they got to the border with Mexico, though, the coyote told Edison he didn’t have any more money, and that Edison needed $2,000 to cross over to the US.

Edison called his wife and she sold the taxi to send him the money. The coyote lied to Edison and said the money never came. Then, he took off, back to Guatemala. Edison was still in Juarez. He was in a house where migrants stay waiting to cross over. The owner of the house called his wife and told her to wire another $2,000, as Edison was already in Texas, and owed the money. If not, she would bring him back from Mexico. His wife sent the money.

When Edison found out, he approached the woman about her lie. She gave him back $1,000, and disappeared. He decided to try it alone. Edison met up with two Mexicans and a Colombian who also wanted to cross over. They went through a tunnel, and were picked up on the other side by a coyote. As they were driving on the freeway, four cars surrounded them and pulled out huge guns.

The driver stopped the car and they got out with their hands up. One of the officers threw Edison on the floor and pointed a gun at his head. Each of them was put into a different car and taken in for questioning. The officers told them that if they didn’t say who the coyote was, they would be put in jail. Edison spent over a month in prison, on a human trafficking charge.

After a month in prison, the officials came to him and told him that if he admitted that the driver was the coyote, they would put him on a plane to Guatemala the next day. He agreed to make a statement. Instead of putting him on a plane, however, he spent two weeks in a halfway house. From there, he went to immigration detention, where he spent two weeks before being deported to Guatemala.

Back in Guatemala, Edison works day and night to provide for his family. He rents a taxi to drive, and told me he earns about Q500 ($75) a week. He earned more than that in a day in the US.

Edison is not sure if he will make the trip again. Here, his family has a tenuous future. But, they are all together and none of them is going hungry. With him working so much, he can’t see them as often as he’d like. For now, he will continue to work hard, so long as his health permits.

I asked Edison what changes he would like to see in US immigration law. He told me he thought there should be a temporary worker program. He doesn’t want to live permanently in the US. But, he knows there is work for him in the US, and that he could live comfortably in Guatemala if he could work six months out of the year in the US.

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