The Asociación de Retornados Guatemaltecos, (Association of Guatemalan Returnees) is the only civil organization that welcomes Guatemalan returnees who have been deported from the United States. What happens to the returnees immediately upon arrival in Guatemala? What are some of the challenges they face? Latina Republic interviewed Lesbya Espinal, the co-founder and vice president of the association to find out what happens to returning migrants immediately upon arrival on Guatemalan soil. Lesbya Espinal knows the process well. A returnee herself, she rebuilt her life following a painful family separation and today she is part of a dedicated organization that welcomes returnees to Guatemala and helps them find their way home. Below, Lesbya Espinal offers a rare glimpse into what happens in the first hours and days after landing in the Fuerza Aerea Guatemalteca.
Latina Republic: What has been your personal experience as a returnee to Guatemala?
I will tell you from the beginning.
I migrated to the US in 2005. I traveled for family reunification reasons, since my husband had been in the United States for 2 years. My husband left to provide a quality of life for us. In the first 2 years he was in the US, we did not achieve the goal that had motivated us. We had been unable to save enough to purchase a home and that’s when I decided to travel to the US and join him with my children.
Once in Florida, I worked very hard for 8 years until I was detained in 2013 due to my irregular immigration status, not because of a strong felony or a driving infraction.
The arrest blindsided our family and the deportation process was a shock to all of us. Once again, our family was separated. At the end of the process, I was the only one who was sent back to Guatemala. My husband and son are still in Florida.
My daughter returned to Guatemala, voluntarily, two years ago. She is with me now, but before she arrived, I spent about 5 years alone here in Guatemala.
When I arrived in Guatemala, I didn’t know what my challenges would be. I had already acculturated into American way of living and had stabilized in the United States with my children and my husband. The goal had been to go to the United States so that one day, we could purchase a home.
Years later, we accomplished that dream, purchasing a house here in Guatemala. And this is where I am now with my mother and my brother who has down syndrome.
The return to Guatemala was a difficult process. I entered through immigration which is a process that takes place through the air force. Upon arrival, I learned about a project by the migration organization, OIM, which focused on labor reintegration for migrants who had lived in the United States for some time. It was a pilot project that benefited 18 people.
Part of the project was to identify my abilities so I could restart my life in Guatemala. I had worked in the hotel industry in Florida, but my technical profession is in the beauty industry. Thankfully, the reintegration project provided me with additional training here in Guatemala. That’s how I started my training in March 2013. I trained while working for a salon owner who allowed me time to study and to work.
Latina Republic: Was your training covered by the organization?
The courses, yes, searching and finding a job, I did on my own, out of my own initiative. At that time, I wanted to keep my mind busy, so as not to think about my family. This way, I supported myself and the organization also provided me psycho-social support which is very important.
We attended workshops to learn how to cope with grief and loss. There were 2 or 3 workshops given by OIM then. The organization retired from Guatemala that year and moved to El Salvador.
The Birth of the Asociación de Retornados Guatemaltecos
Through the workshops, I met a group of about 30 returnees. The consultant for this project proposed an initiative to form an association of returnees, and many of us took him up on the initiative. Without any knowledge on how nonprofits operate, I said, yes, and a provisional board of directors was formed.
To cover the startup costs, were provided with OIM funds for the legal proceedings that allowed our organization to be legally constituted here in Guatemala. They also supported us with finding a space and donated computers and desks to our organization in Guatemala. By March 2014, we were legally constituted.
Latina Republic: How many board members do you have?
There are 7 members in our board of directors. I am the co-founder and vice president of the Asociación de Retornados Guatemaltecos. My partner Gustavo Juárez is the president and legal representative and Mario Rene Ramírez holds the position of Secretary of the Board of Directors.
Latina Republic: Through what steps do you support the returnees?
We started inside the immigration room 3 ½ years ago.
We are the only civil organization that welcomes Guatemalan returnees. We do not provide returnees with direct financial support since our work is ad honorem and we do not receive a salary. Our governing statutes were designed without consideration for the growing demands on the organization’s daily work and did not make room for salary considerations. This has been limiting in what we can do to support returnees, yet it is what currently governs us. As an organization, we have presented our projects to international groups. The support that we have received assists with transportation charges and food, which is a very minimal amount.
To give you an example, the tasks related to supporting returnees take between 9 to 10 hours daily, Monday through Friday, and sometimes, Saturdays. We provide support for each daily flight bringing returnees. We assist each returnee with making a call to their family members, accessing remittances for travel to their homes, connecting them with transportation, finding hotels if they cannot get home, and helping them access other services, such as where to get clothes, and food. We also follow up and participate in invitations for proposals, or projects related to migration. We give talks to sensitize the public of the issues related to returnees and social reintegration and participate in workshops, follow up on returnees’ welfare and invite them to participate in certifications.
I have been able to actively participate in our organization because my husband supports me financially from the United States. This is why I have been able to continue with this project.
Latina Republic: Without your family’s financial support, it would be very difficult to carry out these daily responsibilities.
Exactly. That is why most of our volunteers have withdrawn, due to the economic situation. They cannot contribute without earning an income because they don’t have a way to cover their own expenses.
Latina Republic: Can you detail your journey from meeting the returned migrants in the immigration room until they reach home?
Communication with the returnees begins immediately. We are in the immigration room and as they enter they are welcomed and supported through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We also help keep the space clean because we receive 2 to 3 flights, daily. It takes from an hour to an hour and a half for them to legally enter the country. During that time, they chat with us in that room and we support them with national and international phone calls. We help guide them to their places of origin.
Latina Republic: Do you provide the phones?
Yes. I use my phone in my immigration room and share it. Now we are receiving international cooperation and we are being supported by a Guatemalan society called the Guatemalan Bible Society. They are helping us with a telephone, and they are supporting us with paying the monthly payments.
Latina Republic: When the returnees call their families are family members expecting the call or do they come as a surprise?
Sometimes they surprise them and sometimes they have called their relatives from the United States and have been communicating with the families to let them know they are coming. The only thing is that sometimes they say that they will arrive one day and they arrive on another day. Most of the time the trip to pick up a returnee at the airport is long, expensive and uncertain. Sometimes a whole family will travel for hours on their way to the airport to find out the returnee did not arrive. This is a very challenging expense for the family because sometimes several relatives make the trip.
To give you an example, families travel from Acatenango to pick up their relative and this is a 6- or 7-hour bus ride. Most family members come from villages or very distant communities that are hours away.
As an organization, we have identified the geographical areas from where Guatemalans migrate the most.
Latina Republic: What are those areas?
San Marcos, Quiche, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango.
Latina Republic: What happens to returnees that arrive at the airport without documents or remittances, and have to wait for their relatives?
That’s where we support them as an association.
I ask them, what is your place of origin? Sometimes relatives in the United States can send them a remittance to pay for the transportation charges, or a relative here in Guatemala can make a transfer. We support them with this process because they come without documents. To help them, I support them with my document.
I accompany them to the bus station to ask them how much they charge them and sometimes at the bus stations they do not want to sell them the ticket because they do not have the proper identifications.
In these cases, I tell the bus station about our organization and that as a representative of the returnee I want to help them to buy a ticket. I found out that this was a problem, when returnees told us that bus companies would not allow them to purchase a ticket without an i.d. So now we accompany them to the bus station to purchase those.
Latina Republic: What document is required to purchase a ticket?
The DPI. Many who arrive in Guatemala do not have documents. Fortunately, the National Registry now has a space in the immigration room and we have asked this institution to provide returnees with a paper version of the i.d. showing their name and number so they can travel and have a form of identification on their way home. This is a paper document but at least it tells you who they are.
Once they arrive home, in any region of Guatemala, they will be able to go to the RENAP center, present that paper and the process of getting an i.d. will be facilitated.
Latina Republic: How long does the process take?
The DPI takes a long time because there has been a lot of fraud and forgery in past years with Guatemalan identifications. The new i.d. now has 6 stages of processing before being delivered.
Latina Republic: Why was there so much i.d. fraud?
Before, i.d’s used to be issued freely. With more i.d.s people could collect more benefits. Now there is a process and the i.d.s have a chip. That is why the situation in Guatemala is now more controlled.
Latina Republic: How do relatives send remittances for travel when returnees have no accounts or proper identification?
I have an account at the bank where relatives can transfer a small amount to cover the transportation charges. If it costs 100 quetzales to travel home, we ask them to transfer no more than that. We keep detailed records of who sent the remittance, and how much was sent and we give a copy of the receipt to the returnee, together with the funds. We also keep copies for our records.
A month and a half ago we went through audits to assess how we were managing funds and thank God everything went well. That is why international organizations have supported us.
Everything we do is handled transparently.
Latina Republic: How do you help so many people arriving in one day?
Approximately 135 people arrive per flight, and we aim to help all of them but could see as many as 500 people when there are 4 flights on a given day.
The migratory room is being remodeled. There is a lot of dust that we deal with, too. Construction only stops when the planes land.
When the returnees arrive, they receive a light meal like bread with beans, a cookie, a juice, a water and a sabrita. With the deportation process, the detention center meals are meant to be light and easy to digest, so that it does not harm the stomach. Being able to add new things to the diet will take time. For a while, returnees can get a stomach upset.
For me, I would like to help everyone, but the person I am able to support typically has to wait until the end of the second or third flight. Because I can’t leave the room to do paperwork and help them get to their place of origin because it’s a bit complicated with another flight coming.
So if the person is in need and can wait, I can help them.
The people with the most opportunities to receive help are the people who come on the 3rd flight. I help with the phone calls, remittance for travel home, walk them to the bus stop to purchase the ticket, and pass on information for how to get from the capital to their home.
Latina Republic: How do they navigate transportation home?
When they bring their own money, sometimes we take part of the trip together, since I don’t have a car and also take public transportation. But most of the time they are in transit from Mexico and so what they bring are pesos. This presents another challenge for our returnees. There are unscrupulous people waiting outside the immigration room urging returnees to use them for exchanging money into the national currency but that is another vulnerability that they suffer. These groups take advantage of returnees through an exchange system that is a black market. They are not the bank.
Latina Republic: Where are they?
Right outside the immigration room. As soon as the returnee steps outside the immigration room, there are about 20 people who are outside screaming “change pesos, change dollars.” This is a very ugly network that also includes taxi drivers who charge them a lot of money to transport them. Many times, these taxi drivers will take their money and not take them to the destination or the bus stations.
All this vulnerability that they suffer as they step outside of the airport, we ourselves have experienced a version of it. We have been attacked by these people telling us that we are taking away their business.
Latina Republic: How does society view returnees?
In Guatemala there is a stigma against returnees. They call you a criminal, and see you as a failure, as someone who failed to achieve their goals. Your own community rejects you. So, for returnees to participate in awareness-raising talks and share their testimony is difficult. They don’t want to talk about it.
Latina Republic: What are some of the challenges they face in the job sector?
We go to the US for job opportunities in part because working in the US does not require the number of documents required here in Guatemala to get a job.
I am going to give you an example. My daughter returned to Guatemala almost 2 years ago and has not been able to get a decent job. She is 30 years old. The reason? The same as it is for countless people in Guatemala. She does not have the proper diploma or certificate that is required by companies, such as being a graduate of a certain type of high school, or a diploma for a profession like an accountant. The level of documents and degrees required for all jobs prevents many from getting jobs. Even when applying for cleaning jobs, the documentation required is greater than the job itself.
To add to the requirements for work, those of us who return from the US with many skills and experience cannot use them because we are over 30 years old. This is another hurdle in our society. After 30, a person is not seen as valuable in the job market. Companies look for strong, young workers. I think this happens because young workers are easily overworked and exploitable.
For the Guatemalans who built businesses in the US, there are some opportunities to develop entrepreneurial projects in Guatemala. In my case, I tried to set up my beauty salon but I live in a red zone that is believed to be affected by crime so support can vary depending on location, although my plan was not to operate my shop from home. I sought out rental spaces in the shopping centers, but the rent is too high.
One of the greatest barriers that we have to cross is the stigma that private companies have against returnees. In their eyes, returnees are criminals.
The importance of certifying skills
I came from the United States with about 40% English ability, but since I was 35 years old, I struggled finding a job. They don’t want to use the capacity you bring. For example, people who lived 20, or 30 years in the US and have acquired many work experiences could be very valuable to the Guatemalan market.
In September we finished a skills identification project that will certify returnees’ talents through evaluations. The returnee does not have time to attend training full-time. He wants to work. The certification program was a pilot project we launched through Swiss Contact, which is an international organization. We had to travel to El Salvador where this project was applied and it was brought here to Guatemala. We were able to skill-certify 75 people and gained insight into statistical information on the type of knowledge that returnees who lived in the United States bring to Guatemala.
The skill certifying sessions revealed a lot of information. In the immigration room only 2 questions are asked: How long did you live in the United States and what has been your experience there?
We also ask for the name and a telephone number. We don’t ask many more questions inside the immigration room because the person does not want to give you more. What the person wants is to go home, especially after all they went through with the deportation process.
A week after arrival, we follow up with them to see if they want to participate in the workshops, the talks and most importantly, the certification of skills. At this point it is the decision of the person if they want to participate or not. The certificate is very important in Guatemala to be able to apply for work.
As for clothing needs, La Casa del Migrante assists them with a change of clothes. Returnees arrive in Guatemala wearing the clothes they wore when they were captured, like pants, or shorts, so when they arrive in Guatemala, they have nothing. That’s what happened to me with my Hilton uniform. I was wearing it the day I was detained. I still have it. I kept it as a souvenir.
Latina Republic: What type of support would you like to see happen to meet the needs of the returnee in Guatemala?
I would like the government or some institution to offer financial compensation for members of ARG. This would allow us to increase the number of active partners since there’s too few of us do the work that needs to be done. Also, that our organization has a stable space within the migratory framework, since as a first point of contact with returnees, we join the governing institutions that are also in the room, and have the power to withdraw us from that space since we are a civil organization. As an organization, we are filling a vital gap in services that the government is not currently providing.
Latina Republic: What motivates you to continue every day?
I continue with the organization because the support we offer to Guatemalan returnees is not offered by any other organization in Guatemala. It is a very rewarding and important labor. Having personally lived through it myself, the support we give the returnees is very valuable to them. Through conversation and empathy, the person opens up, describes what happened to them, expresses their anger and confront an assortment of emotions, like anger, sadness.
Fortunately, we receive psychological support because we cannot support other people if we take on so many people’s pains and problems. We receive training to learn how to differentiate how far we can support a person who will have to restart their whole lives. This is something that we have to take into account in order to do our job.
The Asociación de Retornados Guatemaltecos can be reached in Guatemala at 22966472 and 22966673.