In front of NBC Connecticut’s cameras, Carlos Ventura Escalante appears nonchalant as he fields a slew of questions from members of the New Haven news media outside the city’s Federal building.
He’s 17. He looks even younger, and the journey that brought him from the impoverished Guatemalan town of San Marcos to where he now stands had more danger than some experience in a lifetime.
But with a group of about 30 immigration activists-members of New Haven’s Unidad Latina en Accion, (ULA)- and his lawyer, Danielle Robinson Briand, standing behind him, he is calm and collected as he tells reporters about being shoved into a box car with no food and water as he train hopped his way across the Rio Grande, courtesy of a Coyote who is threatening to kill him if he does not pay off a $6,000 debt.
This is the leap of faith that migrants like Escalante take as they flee their war torn and impoverished countries and cross the border to be greeted by the armed citizen border patrol blockades grabbing headlines from California and Texas Governor Rick Perry. But for Escalante, that leap of faith has been more like a treacherous climb.
For him, it starts in San Marcos, where mining companies have contaminated the water supply.
“There’s no water,” Escalante tells reporters through Jasmin Rodriguez, an activist who translates. “Many children are starving.”
Then there’s the gangs-namely El Maras, which tried to force him to join. El Maras threatened to kill him and his brother if he did not run drugs for them. Escalante chose instead to flee to the United States. He arrived in New Haven about six months ago. His brother is here as well, and is helping him to repay his debt to the Coyote.
With President Barack Obama requesting an additional $3.7 billion for border security, Republicans in Congress are demanding faster deportations of the 52,000 unaccompanied minors-from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras-but Escalante and his fellow ULA activists are calling for just the opposite: a stop to the expelling of refugees and non-criminal immigrants.
“We’re rallying today to stand up for these children,” said Evelyn Nunez, an activist with ULA. “No child fleeing violence should be detained and deported.”
The Department of Homeland Security can expand its Special Immigrant Juvenile Status Program, (SIJ) which grants permanent residency to immigrant minors that have been abused and/or abandoned, Nunez said.
The Department’s website says that the program is for those who cannot reunited with their parents, and that those receiving a green card through the SIJ cannot apply for permanent residency for their parents and must wait until obtaining citizenship to do so for siblings.
Briand’s hope for Escalante is that he qualifies for a non-immigrant visa under the Victim’s of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which grants legal residency on the basis of refugee status to individuals victimized by crime and/or abuse.
“Every child has an important narrative,” Briand said. “They are the most vulnerable class of migrants, and they deserve our protection.”
And often those narratives are woven into a larger fabric that is the history of the countries that they are coming from. In Guatemala that history provides the backdrop for the situation today: an indigenous majority that accounts for an Americas Quarterly-reported 80 percent of those in the country who are living in poverty. Guatemala sits at no. 11 on the CIA World Fact Book’s Gini Index-a country to country comparison of inequality in the distribution of family income-and according to Americas Quarterly, it has the second greatest wealth disparity in Latin America.
Around 700,000 indigenous people in Guatemala live without electricity, and the contamination of water that plagued San Marcos is not uncommon in a country where, according to Americas Quarterly, mining companies have seen yearly revenue hikes of 10 percent.
“A lot of our clients are coming from remote parts [of the country], where communities have been marginalized,” Briand said during a phone interview. “It has a long history that is probably exacerbated by the free trade policies that seem to benefit corporations.”
Namely The United Fruit Company, a U.S. corporation and the chief beneficiary of a CIA-backed coup that removed then-President Jacob Arbenz in 1954. Arbenz had been pushing for a policy to redistribute land-most of which United Fruit owned and operated on-to the country’s peasant population.
Arbenz’s exit, however, ushered in a 30 year period of military dictatorships-during which an estimated 200,000 people have been killed in the government’s civil wars against its indigenous population-that began with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and his support for United Fruit’s land monopoly.
“There is a culture of violence because of the wars,” Briand said.
In Escalante’s case that violence has manifested in the form of the gangs that terrorize his community, but that might result at least partially from-amongst others-a more covert war: America’s war on drugs, Briand said.
The argument-and Briand is not the first to make it-is that the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. creates a business for gangs that act as cartels for trafficking. If that’s true, it is just one component of a complicated web of factors that individuals such as Escalante have found themselves caught in.
“There’s this perception that people are leaching off of our better economy, and that there’s no need for them to be here,” Briand said. “A lot of these children are escaping really violent situations, or situations of extreme poverty.”