In November 2017, then-United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, gave a blunt report about his visit to Guatemala, a country that he described as amazing and diverse, but where also exists, he said, two realities.
As if he had done an x-ray scan of a good part, if not all, of the nations in Latin America, the official mentioned one by one the lamentable aspects that define the reality of this Central American country. He said, among other things, that “for a small minority, Guatemala is a functioning, modern country where economic and political power is concentrated.”
But without wasting time in his discourse, he entered completely into what has made this country a constant producer of migrants who, not finding the bare necessities in order to survive, undertake —without any goal other than that of helping their families— a dangerous and uncertain journey north with their own hope as their only protector.
Al Hussein said without hesitation: “For the rest of the population, in particular for women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, migrants and persons with disabilities, it is a country in which they have faced a lifetime of discrimination, marginalization, and the pernicious effects of corruption and impunity.”
It is precisely this other reality —that which harms even the most vulnerable of human rights— from where all of those young people who have died in custody of U.S. immigration authorities originate. From Guatemala we have counted five deaths, but just this week we came to know the case of a young Salvadoran girl, just ten years old, who lost her life in September 2018 in Nebraska, but whose death had been hidden, making a total of six deaths in similar circumstances. For now.
And it is worth listening to the testimonies from the family members and friends of the victims, reported by different information sources —from Jakelín Kaal, 7 years old, who died in 2018, to Carlos Hernández, 16 years old, who died just a few days ago— to realize the terrible reality of this situation, the same one that, despite the voices that rejected them throughout their journey, forced them to give up their loved ones in search of a more fertile environment to preserve their existence —as humankind has done in all of history; beyond the impediments to legal migration, xenophobic attitudes that have never been new, and theories about the superiority or inferiority among cultures.
The United States is not the migration destination per se; it is human need that has made it, just for now, the north star of salvation. When no key opens that door, new migration routes will look for other destinations, as long as the economic disparity that no society has been able to resolve persists.
It’s both simple and complex at the same time. Simple, because one doesn’t have to ruminate too long to understand the reasons behind the Central American exodus taking place these days; complex, because those who have declared themselves to be the custodians of the border they wanted to make impassable make no other argument than that of “merit” and who deserves to have access to some semblance of the “promised land” in this chapter of history we are living in today.
If there was no merit in knowing that, also according to UN data from 2017, some 83% of the Guatemalan population lives in absolute or extreme poverty, then I don’t know what “merit” is.
In effect, out of this cloud of Central American regional despair come the majority of the migrants who have dared to request asylum in the United States, knocking on the right door, of course, but at a time when we have locked it to those “tired and poor struggling to breathe free” like the poem by Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, says —so often cited but also so poorly understood these days.
That is what Jakelín Caal (7), Felipe Gómez Alonso (8), Juan de León Gutiérrez (16), Carlos Gregorio Hernández (16), and many others who have lost the battle along the way represented, also. And never forget in this brief account Claudia Patricia Gómez González, the young Guatemalan girl assassinated by a bullet to the head exactly one year ago by a Border Patrol agent in Texas.
At the end of it all, the languages and contexts may differ depending on which terrain one walks, as President Trump has shown with his immigration plan based on a merit system, which leaves behind Dreamers, TPS beneficiaries, and the 11 million undocumented immigrants who already live here, paid taxes here, and have formed families who know no other home than this one.
A home to which those six young people who died in the care of this country, considered to be the most powerful on the planet, certainly aspired to be part of in this 21st Century of our confused era.
You can find the Spanish-language version of this column here.