My Immigrant Students’ Carved-Up Bodies Confirm the Need for Asylum.
A Facebook friend wanted facts to understand how immigrants are “seeking asylum.” He believed they were just coming to the U.S. for better opportunities. As a teacher of immigrant teens, I have facts to share.
My kids who have made it across the Mexican border are carved up. Chunks of their bodies are gone, knifed out of their flesh, for refusing to join the drug cartels.
Here’s how it works: the cartels kill their siblings, making it clear they’ll do what they say, then try to force a gun into a kid’s hand: “You kill this person, or we kill you.”
Kid says no. Kid gets hacked up. Kid gets told, “We’ll be back to give you another chance to use this gun. Think hard.”
Kid doesn’t want to kill. Kid doesn’t want to be killed. So kid finds a way to get across the border and seek asylum.
I can hear the cacophony brewing: “See? Hispanics are gangsters and murderers!” Before you speak, understand these facts about both the cartels and the United States’ role in creating the dynamics Mexicans and Central Americans are desperate to escape.
• In these places, there are precious few jobs that pay anything resembling a living wage. In Guatemala, for example, the average daily pay is less than $4.00 a day for work in dangerous, unsanitary conditions.
• The jobs that do exist include picking produce for American companies like Chiquita, who sell that fruit at exorbitant U.S. grocery store prices.
• The other option for work is with the cartels, which exist to sell drugs to American citizens. We demand, they supply. Our drug-hunger supports the groups that are slicing and dicing kids.
• There’s a dark history of U.S. involvement in the Latin American politics that created today’s reality. In the 1950s, fearing that a new Guatemalan president who strove for a liberal democracy would incite the spread of communism, and spurred by lobbying by United Fruit Company (today Chiquita Brands International), the CIA installed a military dictatorship in Guatemala.
• That dictatorship went on to imprison, torture and kill its political opponents, and Mayan peoples, over nearly four decades of civil war. The death count is estimated at 200,000.
• In the 1960s and ’70s, the American government supported the Guatemalan military with $33 million, despite knowing their tactics involved the torture and assassination of people — including entire villages of Mayans — suspected of being communists.
• The notoriously violent Mexican cartel, the Zetas, was created by former elite Mexican soldiers who, in the 1990s, were trained at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, in counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics tactics. These examples are but a few of many.
Lawyer and human rights activist Jennifer Harbury summarizes it neatly in Democracy Now!: members of these U.S.-trained militia “changed their uniforms and became the head of cartel groups,” which explains their efficient ruthlessness.
Understanding that obtaining legal asylum in the U.S. is a near impossibility, instead of crossing the border, some capitulate to the cartel’s demands. It’s that or be killed. It’s that or watch your child get killed. It’s that or find a family member’s severed head outside the gate in the morning.
These details are not speculation. They’re not even based in research. They are the lived experience of young people I have taught and loved, teenagers who have borrowed and saved pennies to pay a coyote; who have walked across deserts, witnessed rapes, lived through torture to get to the U.S. I know their stories are true. I’ve seen the rough stitched flesh. I’ve held the pictures of siblings in coffins.
I offer two takeaways.
First, the immigrants who make it here are the ones who risked everything, including their precious plastic crucifix, including their children, to not deal in drugs and violence.
Second, the underlying causes to the violence they are escaping is a trail of blood and culpability that traces right back to these “United” States. We owe them more than incarceration and a tinfoil blanket.
A version of this piece originally appeared on The Progressive.