A Rural Guatemalan Town With Young U.S. Citizens
American-born children living in Guatemala are caught between two worlds
The Guatemalan government estimates several thousand American children move to this country each year after their parents are kicked out of the United States.
Sixteen of them live here, in a tiny town called San Jose Calderas.
The community is nestled deep in the mountains of Guatemala. Those rugged hills are steeped in green and shrouded occasionally by clouds. The peaks loom over the center of town, where a group of men play soccer on a recent Sunday morning.
Nearby, children entertain themselves in the bed of an old truck. Most just moved here a few years ago with their parents, who were among nearly 300 Guatemalans deported from the United States after a workplace raid in Postville, Iowa.
It was the largest raid of its kind in U.S. history.
Christopher. Jared. Anthony.
In a place so foreign, it’s disorienting to hear such familiar names.
Sixteen children, who now live in Calderas, were born in the U.S.
"They're from over there," one mother said. "Of course they have American names."
But they live like so many other Guatemalans. To get to Calderas, you must travel narrow gravel roads that wind through the countryside for miles. Plots of farmland cut into the hillside, yielding just enough carrots, cabbage and cauliflower for the residents to live on.
"He's been sick ever since we came back here. He can't keep food down," said Debora Junech Pastor, of her 4-year-old son Edwin.
Until recently, government clinics refused him care and vaccinations because Edwin only had American citizenship documents, she said. The child was living illegally in Guatemala.
Another mom, Maribel Hernandez, said she also struggles to feed her daughter, 4-year-old Jeydi.
The United Nations reports that 51 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty, with 15 percent of them in extreme poverty. Nearly half of all children under five are malnourished.
'We Have To Respond'
Last year, more than 30,000 Guatemalans were deported from the United States, according to U.S. government statistics.
Thousands will come home with children. That leaves the Guatemalan government in a bind.
"We know that we have to respond, but how? This is the problem," said Alejandra Gordillo, who heads the National Advisory Council of Guatemalan Migrant Affairs.
Finding the resources to help them adjust is almost impossible considering the grave economic conditions of the country, she said.
"The best place for the children is here in Guatemala," she added. "The circumstances are very hard. We don’t want them to grow up in dirt, but I can’t say it’s good for them to grow up and live their lives trying to fit into a society that rejects them."
Gordillo is referring to the debate over birthright citizenship brewing in the United States. Do you deserve to be an American just because you were born on American soil?
A Ticket Out
Back in Calderas, the children are living in a sort of limbo. On the one hand, they’re stuck in poverty, like so many other Guatemalans.
On the other, they have a ticket out.
Before they left the U.S., each family made sure to get their children’s American documents in order. Each mother unwraps a tightly knotted plastic bag and shows us what’s inside. Birth certificates, social security cards and U.S. passports stamped with a picture of a baby.
"When my son is 10 we'll send him to the US if we can find someone to take him," said Junech, the mother of Edwin.
Every family expects their children to return to the U.S.
But how can a 10-year-old go north on their own? Calderas resident Marco Tulio Guerra leads the country's only organization that helps young Americans living in Guatemala.
"Look what these children can expect here if they don’t get an opportunity,” he said. “They live in extreme poverty."
Tulio wants the U.S. government to allow one parent to return with the American child so they can go to school. Short of that, he wants help in building a school so the kids can learn English in Calderas.
Right now, the 16 children with U.S. passports in Calderas hardly get enough schooling in Spanish to advance in Guatemala, let alone the United States.
The parents know that if the children go north, they will lead the same life they led. They’ll work in minimum-wage jobs, and they won’t know English. They’ll likely be targets of anti-immigration forces.
But unlike the parents, these children will be allowed to stay.