|Posted by Sam Chase on July 18, 2013 at 1:15 PM|
On Friday, we were fortunate enough to accompany members of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to witness an ICE plane forcibly returning migrants to Guatemala. As anyone reading this blog likely already knows, the number of people deported from the United States has grown steadily since 2007. According to the Guatemalan Office of Migration Affairs, more than 40,000 undocumented persons were forcibly removed from the United States in 2012. This year, about 25,000 people have already been removed, and that number shows no signs of slowing. This staggering number of deportations means that multiple plane loads of migrants will often arrive every day. According to our IOM contact, four full planes arrived on the 4th of July alone. I think the irony is self-apparent. While we only witnessed one plane landing, the experience was still striking.
Gaining access to the Guatemalan Air force base was relatively easy, at least when traveling in an official IOM truck. Our guide assured us the heavy security was warranted; even though the base is near one of the wealthiest areas of the city, directly outside the barbed wired walls is among the most dangerous. Coyotes, muggers, and other people looking to take advantage of the newly returned congregate outside of the base, posing as money changers. As soon as these people leave the military boundary, they are given essentially no governmental support or protection
As we entered the base proper, a van was being loaded up with the last remnants of the preceding planeload of migrants as a hard faced solider with a baton looked on. The area was comprised of a large hall situated between the tarmac and the courtyard area of the base, almost reminiscent of a US DMV waiting room. In the courtyard we saw a sign reading “Bienvenido a su Pais”, or ‘welcome to your country’, as well as one table from the IOM offering bottles of water and packets of crackers, with another with phones for returnees to call family or friends in Guatemala, and a final table from Casa Del Migrante, a non-profit and religious organization that offers a place to stay for returnees who have nowhere else to go while they get back on their feet.
The IOM also offers free transportation to several places around the country. Tellingly, our IOM contact said that almost everyone chooses to take the buses heading to or near the Mexican border. Some legitimately have family in that direction, but most will use the opportunity to attempt to re-migrate. When the planes arrived, several young men ran for the busses, not wanting to get left behind. One man we talked to missed the bus, but said he would probably stay the night in the city and get the next IOM bus to the border the next day. We were told that for every plane load of returned migrants, only about 10 stay in the city for more than a night. Clearly, the deportation system is not working.
Some of the stories we heard were truly eye opening. One woman, with her arm bandaged and in a sling, said that she believed it was dislocated when an ICE official harshly grabbed her. Another man we talked to spoke of being treated like an animal, and kept in overcrowded and very cold holding areas for long periods of time, only being given food and water once a day. The returnees were handcuffed until the plane actually touched down in Guatemala, and when the cuffs were finally taken off, he said everyone cheered. This inhumane treatment, resulting only from not having the correct documentation when migrating, is sickening to think about.
Furthermore, these people are given almost no support. The IOM does its best, but the organization is severely underfunded, and is essentially only able to provide the transportation, water, and advice for returning migrants. In fact, the IOM’s charter in Guatemala will expire in about a month, and the entire organization will be pulling out of its operations in Guatemala, leaving an already incredibly underserved group even more adrift in a place that is unfamiliar and even hostile. Fortunately, our IOM contact, along with several of his co-workers, plan to start their own NGO in the coming months to continue to provide the help the IOM currently furnishes, and we plan to assist them with private sector contacts and whatever other help we can offer. The people at the IOM are committed and enthusiastic, but the organization itself is hamstrung by its lack of funding. It, and honestly our organization as well, are simply applying a Band-Aid to the much larger institutional problem of the system of criminalization and deportation. Change will come, but it is not coming nearly fast enough, and until elected officials in Washington and Guatemala City both begin to treat those victimized by deportation as people who just want a better life for themselves and their families, not as dangerous criminals, nothing will be done. We in the US need a drastic reformation of both our immigration policies, and the ways in which we treat those members of society most damaged by the current harmful policies. Once forcibly removed from the US, these people and their woes do not simply disappear, and if our policies continue to treat them as if they do, the current vicious cycle of deportation and remigration will never be broken. I truly wish every member of the US congress could see what we saw in that military base, and hear some of the stories we heard today.
Categories: Reconciliation (2013)