Monday, November 1, 2010

One of the next topics I planned on writing about was immigration.  Ironically GAD, the Gender and Development Committee, just released this month's Gender Blender newsletter on the exact topic.  There are an estimated 13.5 million Guatemalans in country and somewhere between 1 to 1.5 million living in the U.S.  Here are two interesting articles by fellow volunteers touching on issues related to immigration in two different respects.

All In: Immigration with High Stakes
When Your Last Chip is Your Life
-Aliyya Shelley

What pops into your mind when you hear the words ―asylum seeker- or ―refugee? What color is their skin? What features are prominent on their face? What gender do they identify with? What is their name? There exists a plethora of adjectives to describe them, but really when it comes down to it ―they are no different from you or I. In fact, here in Peace Corps-Guatemala, a number of our brethren have family members or indeed, they themselves have been a refugee or asylum seeker in the past.

The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him-self of the protection of that country…" and an asylum seeker as, “who has left their country of origin, has applied for recognition as a refugee in another country, and is awaiting a decision on their application.”
For more information on the difference between the two, visit the UNHCR website

The United States is no stranger to refugees or asylum seekers, and while our system is undeniably far from perfect, it isn‘t a total failure: refugees make-up around one-tenth of the total number of immigrants, and more than two million refugees have been given legal status over the past 30 years. Different from those who emigrate of their own accord and personal preference, asylum seekers are often left with no options in their country of origin. Frequently, female emigrants are forced to leave due to reasons pertaining to gender – domestic violence, persecution, sex trafficking or sex slavery, rape with impunity, honor killings, forced sterilization, and so on.

One such asylum-seeker is Rodi Alvarado.

Rodi’s Story:
Rodi Alvarado was born and raised in Guatemala. In 1984, at the age of 16, she married Francisco Osorio, a former soldier, who was five years her senior. Almost immediately after they were married, her husband began to threaten her, and to carry out violent assaults. Those assaults continued without respite over a ten-year marriage. Osorio raped and sodomized Rodi, broke windows and mirrors with her head, dislocated her jaw, and tried to abort her child by kicking her violently in the spine. Besides using his hands and his feet against her, he also resorted to weapons — pistol-whipping her, and terrorizing her with his machete. Rodi’s repeated attempts to obtain protection failed. The police and the courts refused to intervene because it was a "domestic" matter. When she ran away, Osorio found her and beat her unconscious. He told her that she could never get away from him, because he would "cut off her arms and legs, and...leave her in a wheelchair, if she ever tried to leave him."

Desperate to save her life, Rodi Alvarado finally fled to the United States — a difficult decision because she was forced to leave her two children behind with relatives. Shortly after arriving in the United States, she was fortunate to obtain the help of the San Francisco Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, who arranged for Rodi Alvarado to be represented by volunteer attorney and domestic violence expert Jane Kroesche. These legal efforts were successful, and in September 1996, a San Francisco immigration judge granted her political asylum.

Unfortunately, the grant of asylum was not the end of Rodi’s ordeal. The Immigration and Naturalization Service appealed the grant to a higher court, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). And in June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, by a divided 10-5 vote, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala. The judges on the BIA did this even though they believed her testimony that Osorio had sworn to "hunt her down and kill her" if she returns to Guatemala, and that Ms. Alvarado could not get protection from the government in Guatemala.

Thankfully, after close to fourteen years of legal struggles, Rodi was finally given permanent asylum status on December 10th, 2009. She was one of the lucky ones. Whilst the help she received is truly exceptional and her legal team went above and beyond the call of duty, sadly her story is not an exception; women like Rodi Alvarado are being raped, mutilated and murdered here in Guatemala every day. More than 3,800 women and girls have been murdered in Guatemala since the year 2000 and activists have called for international support to end what is commonly referred to as ―femicide.

The widespread slaughter of women and girls in the form of femicide is not unique to Guatemala however; the murder of women and girls in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina (and beyond) is all too common. Though impractical to give carte blanche to all international victims and/or survivors of gender-based violence, the global community clearly has responsibility. But what does that responsibility entail…granting asylum status to the (at least) one of every three women globally who will be beaten, raped, or otherwise abused during her lifetime?! Is more flexible immigration policy the key?! A ―safe house‖ in Switzerland?!

Half the Sky : Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Nicholas Kristof‘s new book (co-authored with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn), highlights three particular abuses across the globe: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and mass rape; and maternal mortality. In their book, they also provide tangible solutions on how to address all three – I recommend reading it, then reading it again, and keeping a copy for reference as it does what all of international development needs, and is sometimes lacking: the presentation of both problems and solutions. It does not suggest that all op-pressed persons should flee their homeland for the United States – the puritanical land of milk and honey and golden opportunity – but rather it is a call to action for all members of the globalized world to battle gender inequality around the world and to push for education and opportunities for girls around the globe.‖

On International Refugee Day (June 18th), Secretary Clinton shared the following, and though vague, and not specifically pertaining to gender-based violence per se…, it IS a starting point,
"It‘s a question of better governance, more accountable governance, of political and diplomatic efforts, of reconciliation and peace, of the growth of democracies and economies. But that doesn't in any way undermine the importance of meeting the day-to-day needs of those who have been displaced by conflict, by terrorism, by natural disaster."

Though Secretary Clinton‘s words didn‘t explicitly address femicide here in Guatemala, they are certainly relevant to it. The days of impunity for gender-based violence and femicide can only be ended with more accountable governance to chaLlenge the status quo; and even "out in the sticks" in our rural aldeas, that is some-thing we, as volunteers, can be a part of. No, we cannot form an independent government firmly rooted in fair and equal human rights to topple the current administration, but we can participate in the empowerment of the people, of our communities, to expect and demand more from their governments. Perhaps, in time, through this practice the need for asylum seeking will lessen and the violence contained in stories such as Rodi‘s will be less frequent and ojala, eventually eradicated.
Christian-- Our waiter from Livingston, Guatemala who has been in the states since 1996.
By Devon Baird
It happened as a result of what would normally have been a typical afternoon conversation with my Guatemalan coworkers. Characteristic of most PCGMs, it hit me like a ton of bricks and caused me to sit in silence and reflection for a moment.
PCGMs, aka Peace Corps Guatemala Moments, happen sporadically throughout service and are familiar to all volunteers. You might be talking with the leader of a coffee cooperative, eating tamales with one of your neighbors, or sitting through a COCODE meeting when it strikes: a feeling of “getting it”, when you never quite understood something about Guatemala, its culture, or its complexities before.

In my case, this latest PCGM came about as a result of talking about immigration with my counterpart. “I’ve been missing my boyfriend so much lately,” I lamented during one of our typical girl chats in the Oficina Municipal de la Mujer y la Juventud. “He’s still not sure when he’s going to be able to come visit, and he hasn’t even gotten his passport….”  I noticed my counterpart’s eyes begin to water. Hmm, I thought. I didn’t think she’d get so choked up about it.
Then, she started to bawl uncontrollably. “Es que...manana Andres va a ir por los Estados.”
OK, so this was definitely not about my boyfriend not coming to visit anymore. I also began to tear up upon hearing this, knowing that she had been struggling for months to keep her husband from going to the US, mojado and in search of work, leaving her and her two young children behind to await his uncertain return.
Here I was, fretting over not knowing when I would see my novio, whom I talked to often online or on the phone anyway, while my counterpart was dealing with something completely heartbreaking and life changing for not only herself, but her family.

I felt like a hypocrite. I came from the place thousands of people risk their lives to go to daily on a government-paid plane ride, and could go back on another plane ride whenever I felt the pangs of homesickness a little too strongly. I listen to co-workers, neighbors, and friends in my site talk about their loved ones in the Estados Unidos daily. I hear my favorite hairdresser, with a son of 18 months, talk about how she is saving up to pay her coyote and go in six months. We joke in the Muni all the time about who I’m going to “llevar en mi maleta” when I go back, but we all know no one is coming back with me.

Sometimes it frustrates me: Why would anyone want to risk everything to come to my problem-ridden country?! There are so many issues and it’s so complex over there. So much racism still...and no Guatemalan-style tortillas! You are comfortable and happy with your family and life here. Don’t go!!  But despite the internal confusion I’m usually faced with when thinking and talking about immigration, this time I got it. I was face to face with an example of why people immigrate to the United States as I talked with my counterpart and saw her heartbreak. I understood the pressures and factors that were pushing her husband to leave everything. My counterpart is a model of a strong Guatemalan woman, mother, and wife. If she was having a breakdown in front of me at work, that’s saying something. Illegal immigration, for my counterpart’s husband, was a last resort. This was no “let’s make some extra cash so we can buy a big screen TV and Ford truck.” This was survival. After being jobless for over a year with no prospects in sight, mounting debt, and growing children with health problems due to poor nutrition and hygiene, a decision needed to be made.

With regards to immigration, as is characteristic of many “controversial issues” as we like to so politely call them in the US, a full spectrum of opinion exists, from vehement opposition to wholehearted support. Sure, there are some families who may be milking the US for all it is worth in hopes of scoring the best Honda moto or HP Laptop in town. But in the majority of situations I’ve encountered, Guatemalans go to the U.S. because there are absolutely no opportunities here for them, and they are desperate. They want a better life for their family. They are motivated and taking initiative to “superar.” How can something that sounds so simple be the cause of so much pain, hate, and confusion on both sides of our borders?
I started writing this article a few weeks ago. This past Friday, my counterpart got a call from her husband's dad while we were in the office. “Entonces llego al fin?” she said quietly on the phone through teary eyes. Her husband had made it to Los Angeles after 8 days in the desert, incommunicado. We sat quietly for a few moments after she hung up. I asked if I could give her a hug, and she nodded. Then the tears began to flow again.
“It’s just that I don’t know whether to be happy or sad,” she explained. “Of course I wanted him to arrive safely, but part of me hoped he would get caught
and be sent back home. But now he’s actually there. Now it’s real.”

Even though her husband had gone for the good of the family, my counter-part felt conflicted. To her, after having had heard so many stories about crumbling marriages due to immigration, she knew this could be the beginning of the end of their relationship. It was goodbye to the father of her children and love of her life.

So, “what’s my stance on immigration?” one may ask, as if the answer to that question is so simple. Well, it is simple, actually: more than anything, immigration is about human beings. Every person, every “number” who risks their life and crosses that expansive desert or swims that dangerous river at night, is just that- a person. Every “one” has a story, a family, a heart and mind. That crucial fact is what’s missing from so much immigration policy, which labels these people as “aliens,” negating their essential humanity.
When it comes to immigration policy, remembering this simple concept would not be a bad idea. Even better, every American should join the Peace Corps, be sent to Central or South America, and have their own Peace Corps Moments.

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