The immigration crisis involving thousands of undocumented immigrant children has fallen off the front page. But as Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank notes, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.
The mountains of northwestern Guatemala are among the most awe-inspiring places in the world. They feature lush, rugged valleys with fast flowing rivers and streams and peaks that soar above 12,500 feet. For more than 30 years at the end of the last century, these Highlands were the cockpit of a fierce civil war whose savagery stood in stark contrast to their heavenly beauty. Today, the area has been pacified, and residents have a large degree of local political autonomy. Most speak dialects of Mayan as their first, and in many cases, only language. Earlier this year, I had the extreme good fortune of traveling there with members of the Milwaukee Rotary Club to inspect some infrastructure projects Rotary has supported. To get to one, we passed through a verdant meadow that looked like it could have been in the highlands of Scotland rather than Guatemala.
Mosses and grasses covered rocky outcroppings, streams trickled through and large boulders occasionally dotted the landscape. Sheep gently grazed, and our party stopped for an idyllic picnic lunch, using peanut butter brought from the US and other supplies purchased in the mountain town of Nebaj, which served as our base. Then we saw the shepherds – two ragged children, the older probably no more than 10, and a rangy dog. It was a school day, but these children had other priorities. As we sat on boulders, eating, basking in the sun and enjoying the scenery, they stayed shyly away. Until we offered to share our lunch with them. This they gladly accepted, putting the food aside, either for later use or to take back to their homes to share. When I gave one a large, red apple, her eyes opened wide. It, too, was saved, and I heard her tell the other shepherd, in Spanish, that it was like a store had come to them.
We then said goodbye, climbed into the massive vehicles we were using to make the trip and went on our way. The World Bank says the Guatemalan Highlands are an area of extreme poverty and that is apparent to those who look. Many of the towns we went through had more women in them than men and dollar remittances from immigrants to the US form a huge part of the economic base. Almost every immigrant has a deep attachment to her homeland and when that homeland is as beautiful and family filled as the Guatemalan Highlands, that attachment is completely understandable. Yet immigrate these Guatemalans do. Recently, many young people from the Highlands and other areas of Central America have been flooding the southern US border. The trip is dangerous and at the end filled with uncertainty -- and from some, a distinctly unwelcoming attitude.
These unaccompanied child immigrants are being used by some politicians to stir up resentment in their supporters. That is an insult to the humanity of the immigrants, the humanity of the politicians and the humanity of their supporters. Put yourself in the shoes of the parents of those shepherds. Think what it must be like to agree to send such children on the perilous journey north alone. Helping to improve conditions in Guatemala is part of the solution to this dilemma, but only a very small part. Over all, I don’t know the solution, either for the Guatemalans or those of us up here. I do know then when the inspection tour was over, I boarded a plane and was back in Houston in about 3 hours, without having to bribe a border guard or risk my life on an open train. And I know some of my ancestors came to North America as unaccompanied children.
Lake Effect essayist Avrum Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than three decades. He lives in in Whitefish Bay and his freelance work has appeared in a variety of publications.