In 2001, the first time I walked out of the Guatemala City airport terminal into the sunshine, I was unprepared for the swarm of beggars crushing in on my wife and me. As I looked around nervously for the cab that would take us away to our hotel, I felt a tug on my jeans, down at the ankle.
I looked down and saw a withered, dirty woman with no legs whatever, just a torso, arms and a head, somehow fused onto a wooden platform with skateboard wheels. I can still see her hopeless face sometimes.
We were there to visit the infant who would become our adopted son, whose mother had traveled from Guatemala’s Pacific coast to deliver her baby and give him up for adoption in hopes he could avoid the fate of her two other young sons. Their father had left her without knowing she was pregnant for a third time. She made less than $30 a month as a household servant, and she was afraid that if she kept her third child, he wouldn’t survive her poverty.
We met the baby’s foster mother, who gave him to us for the few days of our visit, until we could complete the mountainous stack of adoption paperwork that would make him our son four months later. We walked around Zona 10 – the safest of the city’s zones – visiting restaurants and buying food. We had been advised not to bring our gold wedding rings, not to wear any jewellery at all, nor expensive-looking clothing. As Anglos, we already would be potential targets for robbers or kidnappers. So we did our best to blend in.
The Chinese restaurant (and all the others catering to turistas) employed two young teenage boys to stand guard, with machine guns, at either side of the front entrance. The biggest grocery store in the neighborhood was the size of a gas-station convenience store in Texas. Mothers sent their youngest children inside to beg from shoppers in the aisles. Teenage employees also brandished machine guns outside this place.
Even in Zona 10, the crushing poverty was evident in the constant presence of beggars, street vendors selling single cigarettes because no one could afford a whole pack, youths with automatic weapons patrolling any cash business. And this was the “wealthy” part of town. Tin and cardboard shacks were the norm elsewhere; we’d seen hillsides covered with them on the flight in. And it was worse outside the city – more crime, no jobs, only the food one could grow or hunt, or steal.
Thirteen years later, Guatemala is an even poorer and more dangerous country than when I last visited. Government corruption is rampant and the country has become a major staging area for drug cartels moving cocaine through Mexico into the United States.
According to the CIA World Factbook, “…concerns over security, the lack of skilled workers and poor infrastructure continue to hamper foreign direct investment. The distribution of income remains highly unequal with the richest 20% of the population accounting for more than 51% of Guatemala’s overall consumption. More than half of the population is below the national poverty line and 13% of the population lives in extreme poverty. Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up about 40% of the population, averages 73% and extreme poverty rises to 28%. Nearly one-half of Guatemala’s children under age five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.”
The U.S. State Department rates the threat level of violent crime in Guatemala as “critical,” and warns travelers that high murder rates “mark Guatemala as one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere. While the vast majority of murders do not involve foreigners, the sheer volume of activity means that local officials find it difficult to cope with the caseload and many homicides never result in a persecution or conviction.”
Meanwhile, in Honduras, “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that the level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high…crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country, and the Government of Honduras lacks the resources to address these issues. Since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world. The Honduran Ministry of Security recorded a homicide rate of 75.6 per 100,000 people in 2013…
“Members of the Honduran National Police have been known to engage in criminal activity, including murder and car theft. The government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime, or may not respond at all. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.”
In Guatemala, kids are dying because they have no food. In Honduras, kids as young as 9 or 10 are being murdered for refusing to join a gang. These kids and their parents or other family members are representative of the “illegal immigrants” desperately hoping to find a hiding place north of the U.S.-Mexico border where, maybe, they can remain alive for a little while longer.
Just as the English, the Czechs, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish and the rest of white America did before them, the Central Americans and Mexicans who risk it all to get into the United States are fleeing crushing poverty, crime and persecution. The mostly white people (poultry plant and home-building company owners notably excepted) who work so hard to block their entry hide behind their mantra that these are “illegal” immigrants.
Yet the numbers are skewed so that only a tiny handful of the best-connected Latinos can “legally” gain entry to the U.S. each year, while the fact is largely ignored that a high percentage of the men, women and children coming across our southern border deserve to be granted asylum, because they literally face death upon return to their failed-state nations.
And we have room for them, just as, despite protests to the contrary, we had plenty of room for the Germans, Italians and the Irish.
When my wife and I traveled to Guatemala City a second time, we brought our completed paperwork to a local lawyer and stood at the end of a line at the U.S. embassy to obtain our new son’s American passport. We felt lucky to be the last couple to be served at the embassy that day, and we packed up for the return trip home the next morning.
Those plans went awry.
It was Sept. 11, 2001. Crazed terrorists from the Mideast commandeered commercial airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York as we watched the aftermath from our Guatemalan hotel TV. All U.S. international airports shut down, and we remained in Central America far longer than we’d planned.
This last wouldn’t be of much consequence to my story, unless one considers: In the years since 9/11, U.S. military forces have crippled the terrorist group responsible for that mayhem, and have vastly improved security procedures for entrance to this country.
At the same time, relatively nothing has been done to address the fact that powerful crime organizations have embedded themselves within Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and a chain of countries down to Columbia and Peru. In my opinion Honduras has become a failed state, Guatemala isn’t far behind, and Mexico teeters on the brink.
And instead of dealing with the disease – powerful criminal narco-terrorists acting to essentially take over entire countries just south of our doorstep – our political leaders spend their energy focused on the symptoms of that disease: the people fleeing from the death and destruction fomented in large part by the cartels.
Granted, by all accounts ISIS is a horrible terrorist group, and al Qaeda remain dangerous. But neither of them are causing the harm to our country that’s being directly and indirectly foisted on the U.S. by the terrorists in Mexico and farther south.
The only way we’re ever going to achieve a meaningful immigration policy in the U.S. is to first address what needs to be done to restore democratic governments on our immediate borders. Of course, I have almost no hope that such a thing could be accomplished, looking at the government’s record for (ahem) “fostering democracy” in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
But I can still dream.