American-born children struggle to adapt in rural Guatemalan town | KALW

American-born children struggle to adapt in rural Guatemalan town

Apr 24, 2012

The issues of birthright citizenship, and so-called anchor babies, have a way of flaring tempers. For now, anyway, the children of illegal immigrants born in this country are allowed to live here with the same rights as any other citizen, assuming they were born in this country. But it often happens that the children don’t live here once their parents are caught and sent home. In a joint report from the Fronteras public radio project, Peter O’Dowd and Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez visited a small town in Guatemala, where more than a dozen American children live.

San Jose Calderas is deep in the mountains of Guatemala. Those rugged mountains 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 windy Sunday morning. Just down the road, 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. In 2008, the US government raided a kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa. It was the biggest workplace raid in US history.

In all 16 children – born in the U.S. – came to live in Calderas. Jeidi, Anthony, Jared, and Christopher are among them. In this place, so foreign, it’s disorienting to hear such familiar names. One mom says the names make perfect sense; after all, these kids are Americans.

Calderas is a town of about four-thousand people. To get there 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. Returning to this way of life so soon was not part of the plan.

Debora Junech Pastor says her four-year-old, Edwin, has had stomach problems since returning. "He's been sick ever since we came back here. He can't keep food down," says Pastor. And here’s the irony: until recently, government clinics refused him care and vaccinations because he was a U.S. citizen living illegally in Guatemala. Another mom, Maribel Hernandez, says she also struggles to feed her four-year-old daughter Jeidi. She’s not alone. The United Nations reports that 51 percent of the Guatemalan population lives in poverty and 15 percent in extreme poverty. Nearly half of all children under five are malnourished.

"We know that we have to respond, but how? This is the problem," says Alejandra Gordillo, who heads the National Advisory Council of Guatemalan Migrant Affairs, a government agency. Gordillo estimates that every year about two- to three-thousand American children come to Guatemala with their deported parents. And finding the resources to help them adjust is almost impossible, considering the grave economic conditions of the country. "The best place for the children is here in Guatemala," she says. "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."

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. Every family expects their children to return to the U.S. Junech Pastor says she’s willing to send her son north when he’s 10 years old.

But how can a 10-year-old go north on his own? Calderas resident Marco Tulio Guerra leads the county’s only organization that helps young Americans living in Guatemala. "Look what these children can expect here if they don’t get an opportunity. They live in extreme poverty," he says. Guerra wants the U.S. government to allow one parent to return with the American child so that he or she can go to school. Short of that, he wants help 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.

This story was originally aired on Fronteras: The Changing American Desk.