Offering Sustainable Solutions to the Issue of immigration
According to data from the US Customs and Border Protection, the largest percentage of people crossing the US border is from Guatemala, with almost 43,000 families being taken into custody in 2018 to date, which is a sharp increase from the almost 25,000 apprehended for the entire year of 2017.
It is not a result of rising violence that is driving people to emigrate. Violence in Guatemala is actually at a 17-year low. It is the decades-long issue of extreme poverty that is forcing people to leave their homes in search of a better life. With a population of 17.25 million, a staggering 60% of the country lives in poverty, with the majority being the indigenous population of Mayan descent. 79% of the Maya population lives below the poverty line. The child malnutrition rate is 80%, the highest in the Western hemisphere.
Guatemala is a country with a painful past, that now lives with a wounded present. They had a bloody civil war from 1960-1996 that included a genocide of over 200,000 indigenous civilians being killed or "disappeared"
The province of Huehuetenango has been hit especially hard. Agriculture is the main economy of this region, especially coffee. This western province of Guatemala has the largest number of people migrating to the United States. It also has the youngest population, with 58% of the province being under the age of 19. There are few jobs, and the ones that do exist pay little. An average daily wage in Huehuetenango for agriculture or construction work is 40 quetzales, which is equivalent to $5.19. With that wage a family cannot afford to send children to school, or pay for a home with indoor plumbing.
Meanwhile, wages are 10 to 15 times higher in the United States. On the local radio stations you can hear advertisements from "coyotes", proclaiming that children and pregnant women are guaranteed entrance to the US. The trip costs $10,000 - $12,000, with no promise of entry. Most individuals borrow the money from local lenders at an outrageous 120% annual interest rate. The opportunity to make enough money to send home to their family is too big of a draw, so people continue to gamble and make the journey.
Friendship Bridge is working in Guatemala to give opportunities to these same families so they can make a better life in their own country. Our organization has identified key factors that can help alleviate the burden of poverty. First, we offer Guatemalan women financial opportunities through microcredit. We have recognized that women, on average, invest 90% of their income in their families and community. In Guatemala women see high rates of domestic violence and discrimination. Guatemala is considered one of the top-ten most dangerous countries for women in the world. The illiteracy rate for women has hovered around 65% for years. By offering women opportunities to improve their lives and have financial independence we know we are not only investing in them, but in their families and their communities as well.
Every Friendship Bridge client also receives education. When a woman takes out a micro-loan, instead of needing collateral to guarantee her loan, she forms a Trust Bank, which are groups of 7-25 women in her local community that come together to co-guarantee each other's loans. Monthly meetings with loan facilitators offer clients training on a range of topics, from business management, health, family issues, and domestic abuse. On average our clients have only three years of education, so this gives them the opportunity to gain skills and knowledge they wouldn't receive anywhere else.
Once a woman reaches a certain level in the microcredit program she is eligible to receive advanced education through three different programs. Our New Skills Training Program gives women opportunities to diversify their income by learning new trades. The Artisan Market Access Program gives artisans training on how to access new markets, develop products, and eventually reach an international market. And the Women's Credit and Agriculture Training Program teaches farmers modern agricultural practices in order to increase yields and mitigate risk of extreme climate disasters such as drought and flooding.
Ana married her husband when she was 16 years old, and had their son one year later. Their young family struggled to make ends meet. Seeking more opportunity in the United States, Ana's husband tried to emigrate. Doing so required taking out a loan, one that he knew he could pay off with a job in the States. However, he never made it across the border, and the loan quickly turned into a financial nightmare. Then their son got into a serious accident, and they couldn't afford medical attention.
After weeks of rest Ana's son made a full recovery. That gave Ana the strength she needed to carry on. In 2016, she joined Friendship Bridge, attracted to its Women's Agriculture & Credit Training program. Today, Ana works with the on-staff agronomists in a demonstration plot on her land, while she maintains her own traditional techniques on another plot.
"With one pound of my seeds, I can only cultivate one acre," she says. "With their new techniques, I can cultivate three acres. These different techniques matter. By the acre, we used to harvest 18 sacks of medium-sized onions and now, we're harvesting 22 sacks of high-quality onions and getting a better price at the market."
Friendship Bridge has been in Guatemala since 1998. Though the national poverty level continues to climb, our clients increasingly see a decrease in poverty. Huehuetenango is a newer area for us to work in. We began offering our services there two years ago, and are in the process of expanding. We expect to see similar positive results and create opportunities for families to stay in Guatemala and not feel the need to leave for the US.
We recognize the problem of migration is complex and influenced by numerous factors, and what we offer is not the solution for everyone. However, as we see an increase in need we will focus our attention on addressing these issues by offering opportunities for women and their families to build financially sustainable and healthy lives, and have the resources to stay together. To learn more visit www.friendshipbridge.org
Kyra Coates, Friendship Bridge