Exploring the Human Impacts of Deportation in Guatemala

July 9, 2020

Guatemala team.
Meeting with one of our team’s main in-country partners, Jose Andres Ordoñez Taracena of Te Conteca (Photos: Maria Ramirez, far left)

By Maria Ramirez (Master of Public Policy ’20)

In a world where social distancing is now the norm, the trip to Guatemala that my Bass Connections team took in early March feels almost impossible. Though most of our 12 team members did not know one another well before the trip, we quickly became close, sharing not only dorm rooms, bus rides and meals, but also stories, laughter and updates about our gastrointestinal health. 

This motley crew that spanned academic disciplines, professional backgrounds and ages spent every waking (and sleeping) minute in close proximity for nine days. Just days before COVID-19 brought major changes to Duke’s campus and most of the world, our trip was an incredible chance to celebrate the power of human connection and experiential learning – connecting with Duke classmates and Guatemalan community members and learning about deportation and migration from those who experience it first-hand. 

In January 2020, our project team was created to explore the human impact of deportation among Guatemalan communities in North Carolina and Guatemala. We began the semester analyzing a large-scale survey of deportees in Guatemala City while also dissecting data from other migration-related surveys in Central America. Even after working closely with this data, we recognized that we could not make any substantial claims about the Guatemalan deportee experience without actually speaking with the people who knew it best: Guatemalans. Hoping to go beyond the survey data, 12 team members embarked on a week-long trip to Guatemala to meet with community organizations and government entities across the country.  

Guatemala team.
Exploring a remote Mayan heritage site that members of the municipal government hope to develop as a tourist site

After arriving in Guatemala, our team hit the ground running. During the first two days, we conducted our in-country orientation at the family home of our Guatemalan team member who graciously volunteered to host us. We were even more fortunate that our team member’s mother happened to be a prominent Guatemalan archeologist and scholar who offered her expertise to help us understand the cultural and historical context of the country and the areas in which we’d be working for the week. Also, during this time, we had the chance to get to know one another and recognize the wealth of experience, diverse perspectives and various skills that each team member brought to the trip. 

While three team members focused their efforts on meeting with government agencies and intergovernmental organizations based in Guatemala City, the rest of us traveled about five hours northwest to Quetzaltenango, locally known as “Xela.” At first, those of us in Xela were a bit nervous about our week’s schedule, as the emails we had sent to local organizations had only yielded one or two confirmed meetings per day. Yet as soon as we threw our U.S.-centric task-oriented planning approach out the window and adopted the “snowball” approach, we realized we had nothing to worry about. Simply asking each contact if they could introduce us to someone else in town proved effective. From the members of the local police force to representatives of intergovernmental organizations to directors of local nonprofits, we were fortunate to meet with a variety of people representing diverse perspectives on migration, return and deportation. 

Guatemala team.
Left: A mural created by Jóvenes Artistas por la Justicia Social that illustrates the risks of irregular migration; Right: Testing out our tortilla making skills during a cooking class

Though these conversations, one phrase was repeated again and again: “El Derecho de Migrar; El Derecho de No Migrar.” The phrase represented two sides of the same token. First, individuals should have the right to migrate; if someone desires to seek opportunity outside of the country, they should be able to do so in a safe and orderly way. The second part of the phrase, the right not to migrate, is where most of the organizations that we met with had been focusing their efforts. That is, they worked to ensure that Guatemalans could live safe and prosperous lives in their home communities. 

One organization, ACD Guatemala, worked to prevent children from migrating by creating a safe space for children to play and learn. This space included a classroom in which the organization gave lessons about the dangers of children migrating alone. Another organization, La Red Kat, was working to serve multiple groups touched by the cycle of migration, including returned migrants, children of migrants in the U.S. and wives of men who lived abroad. A municipal government agency called “La Ventanilla de Atención al Migrante” partnered with the International Organization for Migration to provide services to migrants in transit through Guatemala, Guatemalans who were planning to migrate as well as those who had returned from abroad. During each meeting, I was humbled by the passion and pride that each organization displayed in building strong and healthy communities and in keeping those who choose to migrate safe and informed.

Guatemala team.
Learning about our team member’s NGO, Fundegua

In seeing the many ways that organizations addressed challenges related to migration, I also began to understand the depth with which migration impacts the Guatemalan experience. Migration is not simply a brief trip to seek work abroad; it is a phenomenon which touches almost every element of Guatemalan life. Seeing the selective images that Guatemalans in the U.S. post on social media, in addition to the beautiful homes that successful returnees build in their home communities, the migration experience is glorified in the eyes of young children. Boys especially express the desire to travel north as soon as they are able, without knowing the risks and dangers that exists along the journey. Women whose husbands are abroad struggle to manage a household and raise children as a single parent. 

On the other hand, migrants who return from the U.S. face their own challenges. Those who return home against their will – deportees – many times remain indebted to the coyotes, or smugglers, who led them north. Stigmatized as criminals (even when it is not the case), it is difficult for deportees to reintegrate into their home communities socially or find work. Even those who choose to return home by choice – returnees – find reintegration difficult, especially after having spent years in the U.S. and having left partners or children abroad. In fact, both groups are at risk for mental health challenges, and with additional stigma attached to seeking help, some deportees and returnees turn to alcohol. Facing such financial, social and emotional challenges upon return to their home county, many returned migrants choose to re-migrate.  

As a student of public policy, these conversations and site visits were reminders that every policy decision has a human impact as well as a ripple effect beyond its intended outcome. To truly understand the impact of a policy decision, or in this case, to “explore the human impact of deportation among Guatemalans,” Stata regressions and literature reviews are not enough. It wasn’t until I was able to speak with migrants, families and migrant-serving professionals, that I understood the way in which migration and deportation reaches both deep inwards into the Guatemalan psyche and broadly outwards, touching every element of Guatemalan life. 

Guatemala team.
Purchasing Mayan textiles at Trama Textiles, an association of artisan women loom weavers  

Beyond what I learned as a member of the research team, this trip was profoundly personally meaningful for me. When I returned to graduate school two years ago, I hoped for the chance to reflect upon the diverse experiences that I had gained throughout the previous decade. In fact, these experiences had felt somewhat unrelated: three years as a Spanish teacher in DC, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Jordan that sparked my interest in working with refugees, working briefly in international education and community engagement at Midwestern university. Furthermore, after having completed my required policy internship at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva, I had seen how policymaking happens at the global level, but lacked an understanding of how this global policy was translated at the local level.  

During our team’s trip to Guatemala, I felt that I had the opportunity to bring these experiences together. My Spanish skills allowed me to connect directly with community members, whereas my experience with refugees in Jordan helped me understand how migration in Central America compares to migration in the Middle East. After having led undergraduate trips to Latin America as an international educator, I was able to take on the logistics of our Guatemala experience, organizing everything from our group’s travel itinerary to in-country transportation to the daily budget. Furthermore, it was exciting to see how the work that I did as a policy fellow at the International Organization for Migration Headquarters in Geneva trickled down and impacted migrants’ lives at the local level. 

Even after the trip, I continued to find ways to connect my previous experiences and skills with our team’s research. A few weeks after returning to the U.S., the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies invited our Bass Connections team to virtually screen a yet-to-be-released documentary that chronicles the story of a Guatemalan teen who makes his way from Guatemala to New York City. Since then, a few teammates and I connected with the directors of this film, Five Years North, to create a discussion guide for schools, universities and community groups that view the film. 

Guatemala team
Meeting with two community activists to discuss the local impact of migration

In many ways, creating this guide was the icing on the cake for me – a chance to bring together my training in teaching, curriculum development and community engagement with my more recently-developed understanding of migration. After learning about the complex history and wide-reaching impact of migration between Guatemala and the U.S. through this Bass Connections experience, I could not be more proud to work on this project which will, hopefully, engage thousands more in the conversation. 

As a Sanford School of Public Policy graduate who was not able to experience an in-person graduation or any of the dinners, weekend trips and celebrations that accompany it, this Bass Connections trip was my final in-person celebration of Duke scholarship and community. Certainly, it would have been ideal to celebrate the accomplishment of a Master of Public Policy with my cohort, but if this week-long trip – during which I was able to learn from the fiercely ambitious undergrads, from my passionate and experienced graduate colleagues and from esteemed faculty who are also remarkable human beings – must serve as my last hurrah as a Duke student, then I am okay with that too.

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