By Stan Santos
For a few days in December 2018, the newsgroups announced again and again variations of the lead “Migrant child dies in custody,” “7-year-old migrant girl” or, simply, “Guatemalan girl.” Most of the articles did not immediately say her name; one criminalized her, stating, “Guatemalan child entered illegally…”
Her full name was Jakelin Amei Rosemery Caal Maquin. Where did she get her name? The phonetic spelling recalls actresses, singers and personalities such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Amei and Rosemery, popular American names, somehow bring to mind the image of a smiling little girl, jumping up and down happily, when they told her she would be coming to the United States.
“Caal Maquin” are paternal and maternal surnames, a mix of Mayan and Spanish from the conquistadores who subjugated the Mesoamerican civilization of Guatemala. The Mayans were builders, astronomers and philosophers with a rich culture dating back more than 4,000 years.
Q’eqchi’, the language and people, represent one of the largest Mayan subgroups, located in the central highlands and northern lowlands of Guatemala. They were conquered along with their neighbors, the powerful K’iche’ Kingdom of Q’umarkaj in the 1520s by Pedro de Alvarado, who was sent by Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Tenochtitlan.
Like many of the vanquished first peoples of the Americas, the Mayans of Guatemala were dispossessed of their communal lands and food sources and converted to slaves and plantation workers. They were only allowed to cultivate maize and frijol for their subsistence.
But the Mayans continued to resist, causing land dispossession and violent repression up to the 1960s, then came the brutal civil war. The Guatemalan military clung to power until 1996 with more than 200,000 people killed or disappeared. More than 83% of the victims were identified as Mayan. (Congressional Research Service, March 2018)
In recent years, the Mayans of Guatemala continue to suffer from the destruction of their natural habitats by extraction operations such as mining and deforestation. In 2016, a group of activists, including elder members of the Consejo Maya Mam or Mayan Governing Council, was arrested by police for protesting the Hidrosalá hydroelectric dam.
The Consejo May Mam declared that ”the communities do not agree with the construction of Hidrosalá because the private megaproject is taking virtually the entire flow of the river in order to maximize their profit, affecting not only the ecosystem and the life of the species that depend on the river, but also displacing the communities that have lived and used the river since time immemorial.”
Indigenous people, about half of the population, experience extreme rates of economic and social marginalization. Almost half of the country’s children, again mostly indigenous, are chronically malnourished. (CRS, 2018)
Many continue to live like the family of Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose father earned $5 a day harvesting corn and beans. The family home is a “tiny wooden house with a straw roof, dirt floors, a few bed sheets and a fire pit for cooking, where Jakelin used to sleep with her parents and three siblings. The brothers are barefoot, their feet caked with mud and their clothes in tatters. A heart constructed out of wood and wrapped in plastic announces Jakelin’s death.” (A.P.)
Will they bury Jakelin in the traditional Q’eqchi’ manner, her body wrapped in a petate (a straw sleeping mat), with a hat, sandals and a net to help in the journey to the afterlife? Will she have to pass through the various levels of the Mayan afterlife journey? Or will she go straight to heaven, like those who die at birth or in battle?
Mariee Juarez, a 19-month-old toddler from Guatemala, died from a respiratory infection that her mother, Yazmin, alleges she contracted during their 20-day detention at the ICE facility in Dilley, Texas. Besides receiving substandard medical care, no medical personnel examined or cleared Mariee upon release. Her condition worsened in flight and she was taken immediately to a hospital emergency room. She died of viral pneumonitis six weeks later.
Human Rights Watch, the prominent international research and advocacy organization, concluded that half of the 52 deaths in ICE custody since 2010 were linked to substandard healthcare. In Tucson, Ariz., an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, extremely cold and lack necessities such as blankets.
What is the response?
Across the United States, immigrants, activists, lawyers and faith congregations seek a response: a magic bullet that can kill the monster that is consuming lives on both sides of the border. In the Central Valley, the “heartland of oppression” and destination for many hopeful immigrants, there is a vibrant immigrant rights movement, facing the same crisis.
However, there does not seem to be one unifying coalition, or for that matter, a common strategy. Immigrant rights groups in Fresno and the Valley either use a service model, a protest/advocacy model or seek immigration reform through legislation, which means electoral politics.
The service model mostly relies on nonprofit agencies and steady infusions of funding from private foundations, which already have poured millions of dollars into the Valley. Many are “building capacity” through training, legal rights and application workshops, in anticipation of comprehensive immigration reform, with no defined time line.
Due to the complex nature of immigration, pro-bono attorneys are not available for the massive number of cases. Most immigrants who need a lawyer must pay $5,000–$7,000; costs are much higher if they are in deportation.
The protest/advocacy model can apply effective pressure on elected bodies and educate the public through media coverage and telling the stories of immigrant families. This is critical because the current conditions do not allow the undocumented to advocate for themselves. But this can also bring legal costs for the advocates, as already has happened in Fresno, for relatively minor acts of civil disobedience.
The electoral approach, as seen during the recent elections, requires substantial inputs of after-hours volunteers, fund-raising and the precise synching of the demographic and candidate. Nonprofits do not always play, fearful of jeopardizing their funding, unable to pivot out of their daily routine. Winning campaigns and enduring legislative solutions require “all hands on deck”!
But the movement must hold elected officials accountable with consequences when they side with conservatives, such as when the Fresno City Council voted against the Immigrant Legal Defense Fund in 2017.
That leaves two other issues: There are no demand, or immigrant-led, membership organizations. The marches that numbered thousands are gone, the people are disheartened. The leadership has forgotten the lessons of the early days of the Labor Movement and the United Farm Workers.
The demands will not be won by well-meaning social workers, lawyers or advocates; they require a critical mass of the community, that is, groups such as the Pacific Institute for Community Organization–Faith in the Valley, models the multifacet, strategic organizing necessary for change, based on the 1960s method of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Area Foundation in Chicago.
But what is the demand? Strategic demands must fulfill real needs and be achievable; they should be easy to articulate and attract the support of large sectors of the community. A halt to ICE actions in the workplace, including I-9 Employment Authorization audits would ease the fears of immigrant workers and their employers. Also, ICE must not act as a domestic police force, threatening immigrant families in their homes, the courts, schools and clinics, or engage in hot pursuits in their neighborhoods.
Finally, the movement must demand fair trade and respect for labor and human rights for people in their home countries. Remember her name: Jakelin Caal Maquin!
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact Stan at firstname.lastname@example.org.