NENTON, Guatemala (AFP) – The death of two Guatemalan children in the United States (US) within weeks of each other has highlighted why there are so many children among Central American migrants heading north: smugglers tell them families have a better chance of being allowed in by US border guards, witnesses told AFP.
Agustin Gomez was one such migrant who decided to risk the trip.
Gomez’s relatives in his western, mainly indigenous municipality of Nenton near the Mexican border said he had heard rumours that bringing along his eight-year-old son Felipe might ease his way.
Felipe died in a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Day, only a week after they were both detained by Texas border guards after crossing the border illegally. US authorities investigating the case say Felipe died after presenting with flu symptoms.
Just two weeks earlier, Guatemala had been rocked by the death of seven-year-old indigenous girl Jakelin Caal, admitted to hospital suffering from dehydration.
She made the journey alongside her 29-year-old father Nery from the Mayan town of Raxruha in northern Guatemala.
Though the surge of Guatemalan migrants to the US-Mexico border is caused largely by the country’s dire poverty and violence, Guatemalan migration activist Roxana Palma, told AFP there are messages circulating on social media that carrying children gives a greater “guarantee” of establishing themselves in the US.
There seems little doubt that the main spur for the migrants is abject poverty at home. But taking children with them is also a way for their parents to prevent them being recruited by gangs, migration experts told AFP.
Smugglers – nicknamed “Coyotes” – blatantly lie about immigration procedures in the United States and do little for migrants beyond holding out the prospect of a better life, said Palma.
“Unfortunately, they are the ones who misinform people about how to get to the US ‘safely’,” she said.
According to another expert, “there was special treatment for parents who came with children” to the US under the previous US administration of President Barack Obama, but that ended with Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House.
“The smugglers continue to say that you can enter with children; that’s no longer valid,” said the expert, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the subject.
“We are also seeing how networks of coyotes recruit, how they make people pay and then deceive them,” said Danilo Rivera, Coordinator of the Central American Institute of Development and Social Studies (INCEDES).
Rivera said they were aware of cases in the indigenous western Guatemala where networks use local radio to make announcements of false offers of visas and travel to the US “immediately and safely”.
Guatemalan authorities “aren’t doing a lot” to thwart this false and misleading travel information, nor does it do enough to root out the causes of emigration, said Rivera.
According to studies by the International Migration Organization (OIM), the majority of Guatemalan migrants sent back by Mexico and the United States come from western Guatemala, the country’s poorest region.
Pascual Domingo’s father and two brothers, who previously set out from little Felipe Gomez’s home village of Yalambojoch, managed to get to the United States and now send money to the family back home.
“All those who go there, it is because they have no money, because they can’t find any work,” said Pascual. In this department of Huehuetenango, nearly 74 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, government statistics show.
Maria Lucas, 40, is happy to show her concrete house, built from the money sent home by her son, Juan, who has been living in the United States for the past three years.
“My child left because of poverty. We are in need, that’s why he had to leave,” said Maria.