The Migrant Peacebuilding Project

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Focus Group One

Posted by Sam Chase on July 15, 2013 at 2:45 PM

Thursday night our team had the opportunity to host a focus group consisting of interested people for the purposes of discussing the issues of migration, and to allow us to better identify and address the specific stigmas and challenges faced by returning migrants. The discussion was deeply interesting, and was incredibly useful for our work and research; some of what was said allowed us to confirm what we had already suspected, but the conversation also led us to new conclusions about the nature and expression of stigmas, and should provide us with a more accurate snapshot of what many people in Guatemalan society think about migrants and politics of migration.

This focus group was our first, and consisted of mostly middle class professionals not migrants themselves, but a focus group of that type in the works, but hopefully will come soon. Although due to our privacy policy, we cannot reveal exact information about our focus group members, the conversation was joined by people working in professions ranging from business to engineering, and education to healthcare. While none of our group members themselves had migrated, many reported knowing someone who had, and a few even had parents who had migrated in the past, all of which contributed to an incredibly interesting and at times deeply personal discussion of the perceptions and implications of migration.

Everyone present agreed that migration was a huge challenge for Guatemala, a country that is estimated to receive about 10 percent of its GDP from remittances, most of which come from the United States. People seemed to agree that the motivations for migration where usually positive, being driven by factors such as a desire for a better life for themselves and their families, and that remittances were generally used for development, and constituted an important element of many family’s budgets. However, we were interested to note that people also reported that despite feeling that most motivations for migration were noble, they also felt that people who had been deported definitely faced stigmas once they returned to Guatemala. Some even admitted to harboring stigmas of their own, and could understand why some employers would be less likely to hire forcibly returned migrants than similarly skilled people who had not migrated. Particularly relevant to our work is a general feeling that while people did not necessarily consider migrants criminals, they simultaneously believed that most migrants had been deported because they had committed a crime, possibly predisposing people in Guatemala to view them with some trepidation in the workplace. An important corollary to this belief was raised by the group, as while these people may have been sent back to Guatemala ostensibly for committing some sort of infraction, in many cases it might be a common ‘crime’ which in Guatemala never would have resulted in police attention or any sort of stigma, but one which is taken seriously in the US, such as not paying taxes, or running a red light, both of which are common in Guatemala and not viewed as particularly detrimental to society or worthy of any negativity toward the individual who perpetrated them. A US parallel might be a person from a rural area coming to a large city and being charged with jaywalking, something which while illegal, many people would be loath to consider a crime at all!

More so than criminality, we were somewhat surprised to learn that the primary stigma surrounding forcibly returned migrants is one of education, or lack thereof. The stereotype many reported is that while the people who migrate may not be of the lowest socioeconomic class, they do tend to come from an economic underclass, which is perceived to put less value on education than the middle or upper classes. One of our group members summarized the issue quite poignantly when he said “education provides a future, but work provides food”. For many people, education is simply not an option, as while they may distinctly realize the value of education, and hope to provide it for their children, it is simply not an option for people who need to put food on the table for their families. This leads to a perception where people who may have little formal education will migrate to the United States, where higher wages mean that even those without a high level education are able to provide for themselves and their families. If they are returned to Guatemala, they can be stuck with few prospects as their former job in the States will either simply not pay enough, be oversaturated with domestic workers, as in the construction industry, or due to increased levels of mechanization or other factors in the US, not really be the same job at all. Compounded by the frequent inability for migrants to verify their employment history or education gained while abroad, these factors serve to contribute to a stereotype in which people who are forcibly returned to Guatemala are seen as under skilled.

Although some in the States may see the process of deportation as returning people to their ‘home’ country and culture, for many who have been forcibly removed, this is simply not the case. It is often difficult for these people to seamlessly reintegrate into Guatemala, a society which our participants reported as being fairly monolithic. People who return are often viewed as an ‘other’ and may bring with them obvious markers of this foreignness which can range from tattoos to accents to attitudes, many of which serve to out the person as someone who has migrated. These subtle social differences can lead to people not feeling welcome in their own country, and one of our participants reported that when her father returned from his migration to the states, he stated that “Mi pais ya no es el que yo recuerdo..” or “my country is not what I remember”, and this is a common theme for many returning migrants.

When a migrant returns, the social and economic pull factors which originally brought him to the states have not disappeared. Due to these pull factors, a perceived lack of opportunity, and the presence of stigmas in Guatemala, the remigration rate is staggeringly high, as we observed firsthand last week. Also, navigating the complex and sometimes unfamiliar bureaucratic process which is necessary to obtain the proper documents to work can take months, which often is not an option for people who need to provide for their families in the immediate future. Additionally, there is something of a self-fulfilling prophesy at work in the labor market, as some employers will not extend job opportunities or training to former migrants, as they are not willing to take the risk that the individual will re-migrate, resulting in an efficiency loss for the company. Many migrants are caught in something of catch 22 situation, as they cannot find sustainable employment because employers fear they will re-migrate, which itself causes them to re-migrate in search of the sustainable employment they cannot find in Guatemala, adding fuel to the fire of these stereotypes.

While these problems loom large, understanding the views people in Guatemalan civil society hold about returned migrants, and why they hold these views, is the first step to challenging and overcoming the harmful stereotypes which paint those who have been unfairly deported as unfit workers. In the coming weeks we hope to use this information, as well as data gained from a larger scale survey of employers, migrants, and the general public, to address these concerns and find ways in which to alleviate the fears of employers and prove that most migrants are productive and intelligent people who genuinely want nothing more than the same opportunities extended to others for employment.

Stay tuned for more updates!


Categories: Reconciliation (2013)

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