It’s almost impossible to find a family in this little town of Nimasac (in the western highlands of Guatemala) who has not had a son or husband go to the U.S. to find work.

Boys often leave when they are teenagers (16 or so) and take the perilous route to the U.S. through Mexico, by enlisting the services of a “coyote” (immigrant smuggler)—which is a very risky proposition. If they do make it to the U.S. alive, they arrive in large cities (Houston and New York seem to be the favorites here) where they connect with acquaintances or friends who are already there. Many leave wives and young children behind. Many stay for years before they return……..some never come back to Guatemala.

In the U.S. they find work in restaurants, construction, landscaping and, most of them, faithfully send money back to their families in Nimasac twice a month. It is hard to imagine the impact of these bi-monthly “remesas” (remittances) on the families and the local economy. In fact, annual remittances from the U.S. to Guatemala are the second biggest driver in Guatemala’s economy—second only to exports, totaling $ 4.3 billion in 2008  (Sources: MIF, IMF, US Census International DataBase, Latin America Monitor).

You can look around this village and clearly distinguish between the houses that were built with American money and those that were built with Guatemalan money. (see photos below)

Families with sons or husbands in the U.S. can often afford to feed and clothe their families, send their children to school, have cement block homes with running water and maybe even have electricity. It is estimated that 43 percent of Guatemalan households receiving remittances have been lifted out of extreme poverty. (Source: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)). So, these families are still poor (especially by American standards) but no longer among the poorest of the poor.

Remittances are projected to decline by 8% or more in 2009. In data just released by Banco de Guatemala, remittances for the first two months of 2009 are down 9.6 % compared to 2008.  The impact of the decrease in remittances is profound and widespread and likely to get worse. Construction on many homes has simply “stopped” (putting those who were building the house out of work). Families can no longer afford to buy things, significantly impacting demand across the board, and especially the weaving, sewing and shoemaking cottage industries in Nimasac.

One Kiva borrower I spoke with said she used to have 35 individuals sewing/making parts for her shoes and now she is down to 15, with prospects looming of further declines. (She used her Kiva loan to pay her employees for work produced, but not yet sold due to lack of demand.)  Another Kiva borrower had originally taken out a loan for leather and other shoe making materials, but the market for his product has all but disappeared. So he bought a loom instead—hoping the market for traditional fabrics “cortes” is more dependable. This is a young, industrious, positive young man with a wife and a toddler to provide for. But, demand is down, across the board, in almost every area of the economy here.

On one hand, I understand the associated “hidden” costs of illegal immigration in the U.S. I know that some illegal immigrants do not pay taxes and often times avail themselves of the education and medical care and, with the economic downturn, may be taking jobs from Americans who need the work. I also realize that, since some illegal immigrants are paid under the table and do not pay into Medicare or social security or income tax, we all “pay the price” for their use of our services.

On the other hand, I can also understand the desire of these young men to provide for their families, to improve their lives by immigrating to the U.S. (legally or illegally) where they can find jobs and opportunity. It reminds me of the situation that Jean Valjean finds himself in Les Miserables, when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his daughter.

As with most things, there are definitely several dimensions to this illegal immigration issue. And it is apparent from the Guatemalan side, that many families who had been able to escape extreme poverty are about to be thrust right back into it as remittances from the U.S. continue to decline. And, in the absence of “demand” for products and services, the ability for micro credit to make a meaningful difference in the lives of these people may be compromised.

built with $$$

built with $$$

built with quetzales

built with quetzales

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