Guatemala City, Guatemala
MIGRANTS AND ASYLUM seekers have been crowded into filthy cells at the US/Mexico border and denied showers and toothpaste. Children have been separated from their parents. Three Guatemalan children have already died in US custody. Yet President Trump seems to think that even harsher treatment is what is needed to stop the flow of migrants into the United States.
Just this week, the Supreme Court allowed the administration to enforce a new rule that will prevent most Central American asylum seekers from seeking refuge in the United States.
But desperate people will not be deterred.
What would you do to escape hunger? Would you rather be locked up with your children, or see them murdered, kidnapped, or turned into sex slaves?
These are the real choices many in my country face. People beaten down by poverty and violence will risk almost anything for a sliver of hope.
I learned about the depth of this longing from a nurse I knew and respected who came to my clinic at the end of the day and knocked timidly on my door. She had come to ask me for a very special favor.
“How are you? What can I do for you?” I asked. Her answer stunned me. She explained that she had decided to go to the United States. Her visa application had been turned down, so she made the difficult decision to go illegally.
The reason for her visit was not to ask my opinion. She was there in front of me with only one request; she knew that the road to arrive illegally was very dangerous. She knew she was going to be sexually abused and raped, probably several times during her journey. What worried her most was that she would also end up pregnant. She was there to ask for contraceptives.
I thought my head would explode. How can someone take such a risk? Why did she want to expose herself to something so horrible that she knew was going to happen?
I tried to persuade her that this was a mistake.
She explained how hopeless she felt, how she had recently found that even after saving as much as she could, she could not even afford to buy her mother a handbag for her birthday. In a broken voice she said, “Doctor, you have no idea how it is to know that it doesn’t matter how much I break my back working, I will never be able to buy that present for my mom. You cannot imagine being forced to choose between paying the bus fare to work or buying food. You don’t know how often I have to smile for my patients, when I am dizzy and have a stomachache because I had no money to eat before the shift. You don’t know how shameful it feels to sneak food that a patient left on a tray.”
Her story opened my eyes. I explained contraceptive options to her, and she decided to use one. Three years have passed and I never heard from her again. I have asked, but nobody knows whether she reached her destination. No one knows if she still lives.
But ever since then, the number of women coming to my clinic with similar requests grows. They came last year after the rain stopped falling and their corn — their only source of income — would not grow. They came to save their children.
One patient was eight months pregnant when a gang killed her 16-year-old son. She asked me how soon after giving birth she would be able to walk long distances to cross the border illegally. She wanted her new baby to have a chance to live.
Women also came to save themselves, from rampant domestic violence, and from a justice system that allows men to kill with impunity.
The Trump Administration’s answer has been to choke off routes to asylum (including claims of domestic abuse), to deport as many Guatemalans as possible, and to divert asylum seekers from other countries to Guatemala. Under a “safe third country asylum agreement” signed in July, migrants from El Salvador and Honduras crossing Guatemala on their way north,would have to claim asylum here, instead of in the United States. US negotiators bullied Guatemala into signing, by threatening new tariffs on Guatemala’s exports and taxes on remittances it relies on.
These policies are not only cruel. They are based on a fundamental miscalculation, the notion that people abandon their homes casually, and will stop if you just find enough ways to punish them. No one leaves their family, country, culture, food, language, and all that they know, unless they are desperate. The vast majority do it because it is their last option.
Let’s be honest, who wants to put themselves in danger of being raped or killed or facing rejection and discrimination?
People leave because they believe what they are escaping is worse. Like the nurse who once came to me for help, these are good, honest, hard workers who are only looking for an opportunity for a safe, dignified life. Like the majority of the ancestors of non-native Americans, they are escaping perils and following dreams. Most of all, they are fellow humans who deserve better treatment than this.
Dr. Michelle Dubóna, a 2019 Aspen New Voices Fellow, is a Guatemalan gynecologist and obstetrician who has been caring for patients in cities and rural villages for 18 years.