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

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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.

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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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/23/2019 - 08:49 am.

    We have 90+ million not in the labor force, many of whom are able to work that could be doing the jobs that foreigners are now doing. We don’t need them as they drive wages down and end up using the welfare state. If we keep them out, businesses will have to raise wages to fill the jobs. That means better pay for Americans and less poverty.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/23/2019 - 09:41 am.

      I don’t understand. The usual defense of the Trump regime involves claims about low unemployment numbers. Now, you’re telling us that all these people are not in the labor force, and that is caused or exacerbated by
      los extranjeros. Which is it?

      Or do you not appreciate the distinction between “unemployed” and “not in the labor force?”

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/23/2019 - 09:56 am.

        This is not difficult. Most of the people that want to be employed, or that are employable are employed. These unskilled migrants are undermining the economy from the bottom. It works it’s way up, and we see it in stagnant wages.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/23/2019 - 10:11 am.

          “Most of the people that want to be employed, or that are employable are employed.” So the economic argument fails? Color me surprised.

          “These unskilled migrants are undermining the economy from the bottom. It works it’s way up, and we see it in stagnant wages.” How does paying a seasonal agricultural worker low wages affect the wages of a skilled machinist or computer professional?

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/23/2019 - 12:01 pm.

            It’s simple. The consumption of goods, things produced with machines machinists build, and programmers program, are dependent on a consumer base with the disposable income to buy them.

            When the low paid workers are paid even less, they don’t buy as much stuff. When they don’t buy stuff, machinists and programmers get laid off. When enough are out of work, employers don’t raise salaries and hire at lower salaries. Then those folks don’t buy as much stuff.

            This stuff isn’t hard to understand for those with a basic grasp of economics.

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/24/2019 - 09:57 am.

              As seductive as sticking with the basics may be, sometimes you need to go a little deeper, Sure, it’s hard, but you have to do it to get an accurate picture.

              Empirical studies have shown that immigration has no or a minimal effect on wages. As the beyond-the-basics economic people would say, the effects are clustered around zero. Some studies have even shown a net positive effect (e.g. Basso and Peri, The Association between Immigration and Labor Market Outcomes in the United States, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2684246).

              If you’re more comfortable sticking closer to the basics, the Cato Institute has nicely summarized the academic research in this area. Try Immigration’s Real Impact on Wages and Employment, https://www.cato.org/blog/immigrations-real-impact-wages-employment.

              “When the low paid workers are paid even less, they don’t buy as much stuff . . .” It has just occurred to me that you have set out a good argument for increasing the minimum wage.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/23/2019 - 01:48 pm.

      Literally every single point made in your comment is false or completely unsupported by actual evidence.

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/23/2019 - 09:51 am.

    Can we take a minute for a few hard, cold facts?

    The people massing at our borders have an average of a 5th grade education. Many of them are illiterate in Spanish. The people leaving Guatemala, El Salvidor, Panama and Mexico cannot find work because the have no marketable skills, and there are so many pea pickers the pea picking wage is a pittance.

    Just how many pea pickers do we need in America? And if we really need lots of pea pickers, why not give them a temporary work visa (that excludes any kids born from citizenship)? These countries encourage and facilitate these migrations because it helps their own economies.

    Leftists are quick to observe that while we have full employment, wages have been stagnant. But they are completely blind to the effect a huge influx of illiterate migrants have on employment.

    When did looking after the citizens of your country first become a bad thing?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/23/2019 - 01:47 pm.

      No, “leftists” aren’t blind to anything. They just understand the facts. They know that migrants are not massing at our borders, and despite the nonsense coverage of the caravans, migration is at its lowest point in decades (and was even before Trump took office). They understand that there is little to no effect on employment. They understand that immigrants are a net benefit to the economy and a boost to state and federal budgets.

  3. Submitted by Tim Smith on 01/23/2019 - 11:12 am.

    Why not come in to the Country legally and apply for a job? We have plenty of workers here already.

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