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Guatemalan refugees: We need them as much as they need us

Our economy relies on manufacturing, agriculture and hospitality, skills these asylum seekers have to offer.

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Martha Bordwell
On the 22nd day of the government shutdown, ostensibly caused by the amassing of legal asylum seekers from Central America on our southern border, my husband and I landed in Guatemala City. Although we joked about whether we were going to be allowed to enter, given the actions of our leaders, we sailed through security and were greeted with the friendliness and professionalism we have come to expect during our 40 years of visiting. The Guatemalan people are too pragmatic to risk offending the tourists on which their economy depends. And too wise. They know better than to hold individuals responsible for the bad deeds of the powerful few. They certainly don’t hold themselves accountable for the actions of their own government.

But we in the United States need these Central Americans as much as they need us. Our economy relies on manufacturing, agriculture and hospitality, skills these asylum seekers have to offer. With our 3 percent unemployment rate, we must look for workers outside our borders to keep our economy buzzing. Instead we are willing to furlough thousands of our fellow citizens just to keep these people from coming here. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot.

What about these people sparks such drastic actions? Although there are a multitude of cultural differences between our two countries, many important similarities exist as well, similarities that ought to appeal to both conservatives and liberals. Guatemalans are by and large devout Christians, primarily Catholic. In Antigua, where we often stay, one of the most iconic sites features a large wooden cross set on a hillside, visible from all vantage points, a perennial draw to believers. The most important event of the year is Semana Santa, beginning on Palm Sunday and drawing Christians from all over the world.

Resilient, industrious people

The people are resilient and industrious. I am awakened early every morning by the sound of delivery trucks revving their motors and the voices of workers beginning their daily hustle to survive. And Guatemala is a family-oriented society. Children are everywhere, accompanied by both mothers and fathers. They are valued. I seldom have overheard a harsh word from a parent to a child, such as I often witness in the U.S. Parents are bringing their children with them to the border out of love, not to exploit them.

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In recent years I have noticed more of an emphasis on saving the environment among the people here. Given their level of poverty, Guatemalans can’t be accused of wasting resources. Their homes are tiny and their clothes worn. True, air pollution is bad, due to lack of regulation, but most Guatemalans move about on foot, not motors. Yesterday I read a placard in a restaurant explaining the environmental reasons why plastic straws would no longer be offered. Because of their own changing climate, Guatemalans “get” global warming. And they are worried.

Is it racism, fear?

So, again, given these positive qualities, what about these people provokes such drastic reactions? Is it racism? Are we really so afraid of these people with dark skin? Are we afraid that they will take the jobs of our native-born citizens? Does that make sense with the current strength of our economy? Or are we afraid they will receive services that we as taxpayers will be on the hook for, services not available to the native born. That overlooks the fact that most Guatemalans don’t trust government, due to the corruption of their own. They would rather rely on their own strong backs than intimidating bureaucrats. Are we afraid they are bringing drugs or terrorism? But the evidence is that drugs and terrorists are being found at other ports of entry, including our border with Canada. Is the focus on drug smuggling a red herring,  which is merely distracting us from finding effective solutions to our drug problems?

In this current crisis, which people are behaving sensibly, even courageously? The people seeking work and safety in a large, nearby country with a low unemployment rate? Or the government officials who are willing to withhold the pay of their own workforce, to furlough people tasked with keeping us safe, just to make a spurious point. Just to build a wall that is unlikely to solve any real problem and is enormously wasteful to boot.

I am grateful that the Guatemalans I am encountering don’t view me as a hate monger and racist. That I am not seen as a stereotype, but as a human being worthy of respect. And I wish that our leaders in the United States would have the opportunities I have had to get to know these people. Perhaps their eyes would be opened. And the government would be reopened as well.

 Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel.

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