Abby Weil

Abby Weil (ADIVIMA): Abby completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where she had the opportunity to serve as a tutor in Lima, Peru. At the time of her fellowship she was pursuing a master of arts in public anthropology at American University in Washington, DC. Abby also interned for the Guatemala Human Rights Commission-USA, promoting human rights in Guatemala through research, educational outreach and advocacy.

30 Jul

Ever since arriving in Guatemala I have had many people ask me to help them to learn English, which is to be expected coming from a foreign country. However, I have certainly been surprised by the English that they have wanted to learn. Take for example the teenage boys that are friends with the kids who live at my house. They are fun-loving adolescents that like to play soccer, hang out, and listen to music. When they asked me to help them with their English I figured they would want to know phrases like, “What is your favourite kind of music?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” However, what I was asked to teach them is, “I am looking for work.”

This led into a discussion that I have had multiple times with many people here in Rabinal. They wanted to know what kind of jobs they could find in the US if they are undocumented, if it was dangerous to go, and of course, how to ask in English for work. This always puts me in a very awkward position and it has been difficult to know the correct way to respond. I always say that it is very dangerous to cross the border illegally, that the United States is really cracking down on illegal immigration, and that the type of work they would be doing would be backbreaking and probably without any benefits. However, I cannot deny the fact that the opportunities for work in the US are much more plentiful than the dismal job market in Guatemala, and they would probably be paid five to ten times as much for the same type of work they would be doing here. I would never want to encourage someone to illegally migrate to the United States, but at the same time, I have seen the realities of Rabinal and I know that for many residents here it is the only option for survival.

When I first called the ADIVIMA office, a woman who worked here immediately recognized my area code as being from Nashville, Tennessee. As far as I know, most people in the US do not know the area code for Nashville, let alone people in Guatemala. However, she has a family member that is in prison in Nashville for having illegally immigrated to the United States looking for work. This family member’s daughter is in state custody, and they are both awaiting deportation. This woman explained that her family member migrated to help support the rest of the family here in Guatemala, because she could not find work here. So, why do people risk their lives, their freedom, and the possibility of never again seeing their family members to migrate to the United States?

In order to understand migration we have to look at larger economic processes of neo-liberalism, structural adjustment policies, and free trade agreements like the recently enacted DR-CAFTA which allows free trade between Central America and the United States. While these trade agreements are supposed to be mutually beneficial to each country, it is most often only the more economically powerful country that benefits from the agreement. Take for instance, the agricultural sector in the United States. While the international agricultural market is supposed to be considered a free market, in the US it is heavily subsidized by the federal government. How are Central American farmers supposed to compete in a “free market” with the subsidized prices of products from the United States flooding their markets?

One of my former professors challenged me to consider immigrants from the Third World to more developed countries not simply as migrants, but as economic refugees. They were literally fleeing their desperate economic situation in order to try to survive and make the future for their families a little brighter. In understanding migrants as refugees, we are then forced to reanalyze how we define violence. While during the 36 year internal conflict here in Guatemala over 200,000 people died, it would be interesting to consider how many have died in Guatemala from hunger, sickness, and malnourishment, all of which are preventable. Over 50% of all children under the age of 5 in Guatemala are malnourished.* Guatemala has the most unequal land distribution in the entire Western hemisphere, in which over 70% of all usable land in Guatemala is owned by less than 2% of the population.** This is a direct result of colonialism and later corporate imperialism from banana (United Fruit Company) and coffee plantation owners. We must consider this kind of institutionalized inequality as a form of structural violence that kills millions more in the world than war or violence every single year. These inequalities are not simply the magical hand of the free market dealing Guatemala, and countries like it, a bad lot. They are the strategic offensive moves by corporations and national governments to exploit the vulnerable of the world for their own profit.

I know that the United States cannot simply open its borders and let everyone that is in dire poverty enter, and I am certainly no expert on immigration policy. However, I do see the inequalities in the world for what they are, and believe that we as citizens of the United States must demand a more socially conscious and just form of capitalism and international policy. We cannot continue to deny our involvement in the impoverishment of the world’s most vulnerable simply because it is too painful to face the truth. The poverty of the world is appearing on our doorstep and at our borders and we must look at it straight in the eyes, acknowledge our involvement, and begin the journey to find solutions.

*2006 United Nations Development Program Report


Posted By Abby Weil

Posted Jul 30th, 2007


  • Mary

    July 30, 2007


    I think it is a really interesting point to consider immigrants from the Third World as economic refugees. By looking at individuals, their situations and the reasons they have risked so much to come to our country, maybe we can start to examine our national policies that may contribute to the destitution of so many – and approach immigration from a more productive angle that doesn’t include building a wall.

  • Sarah

    July 31, 2007


    I think that if we help people in third world countries, then maybe we wouldn’t have as many illegal immigrants. But that by itself is an almost crazy idea. I just wish that something would happen.

  • CWA

    August 8, 2007


    Foreign corporations are not the only ones to blame for poor economies in Guatemala. Years of violence and repression by military-dominated regimes in the government as well as a civil war have taken their tolls on Guatemala and its citizens. If anything, foreign corporations are probably helping with the redevelopment of the Guatemalan economy by teaching and employing Guatemalans.

  • Amy Burrows

    August 9, 2007


    There are no words to describe how much I appreciate this blog, Abby. The best I can say is “thank you.” Thank you for braving the topic of border policy and immigration. More than that, thank you for bringing to light the root causes of “illegal” immigration: free trade, corrupt foreign politics, capitalism, etc etc etc. To clarify, I put “illegal” in quotes because, in my opinion, no human being is illegal. It’s dehumanizing to refer to people as illegal. But isn’t that what we do? Dehumanize undocumented people in the US? We say they drain our economy… Hmm… not true. The majority pay taxes using taxpayer identification numbers, but will NEVER be able to file for a tax return.. they pay into our health care system, into social security, they pay sales taxes… they contribute billions upon billions of dollars to our economy, and we continue to dehumanize them and crack down on border policy. So not only are our foreign policies the root causes of their migration north, we make their lives living hell when they get here… IF they get here. Most people don’t understand the deadly journey that migrants endure to “safely” arrive in the US.

    But that’s all for one day… sigh…. Again, Abby, thank you for braving these very important, very complicated, very controversial subjects… You are to be admired!

  • Jared

    August 13, 2007


    I beleive the question of illeagal immigrants can be contrversial. People need work, and the United States is full of oppurtunities. Neverthelss, undocumented workers come to our country, and since they are not citizens, do not pay taxes. They send their children to our schools, and in turn, our taxes are raised to support thier children. All the while, they send the money to support their country, not ours. It is understandable if a father needs to feed his children, or if children need shelter, it is economically wrong to leech off another country, this is the land of oppurtunity, not the land to exploit it. Aside from that, I don’t understand how any country in general can condone such an action to its people. If a country tells its people to go to another country to support their families, that country clearly doesn’t care enough for its own people, especially when they ask them to commit a federal crime.

  • Han Jun

    August 16, 2007


    I am frustrated that when this issue comes up, peolpe don’t have the heart to say that we should help them. Seeing how this country’s imperialistic capitalism and foreign policy was the root cause of corruption and chaos for many of these countries, I am disheartend when I hear people say it’s not our problem. Great blogs!

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