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Local immigrants, living in fear, since election of Donald Trump

These young Guatemalan men speak to me now because President-elect Donald Trump has instilled a fear that was previously limited to the dangers of crime and corruption in Guatemala and those desperate trials at the border.

Note: All names have been changed in this story.

Great Barrington — Seven years ago Luis walked the desert for a full week without food or water to cross into Arizona from Mexico. That was after a month of traveling by foot, bus and train from his Guatemalan village.

The Mexican immigrant smugglers, or “coyotaje,” who guided him charged him $7,000 that would take Luis, now 29, one and a half years to pay back. When I asked him where in Arizona he crossed, Luis said he forgot the name of the town.

“I don’t want to remember,” he said of that harrowing time. “There were 30 to 40 of us and many got caught by border patrol. We never know the names of the ones who bring us over, they just help you. They know the routes to safety like they know their hands.”

Angel, 21, hasn’t been here long. It took him a month and five weeks to get here from Guatemala. He paid his smuggler $9,000 and is working two jobs to pay it off. His older brother Xavier, 28, has been here for about five years. Like Luis, it also took him about one and a half years to pay the smugglers back.

I’m sitting with Luis, Angel, Xavier and the American woman who owns the south Berkshire County house where Xavier and Angel live. Luis and Xavier knew each other in Guatemala. The woman who rents to the two brothers loves them and they love her. They call her “Mama.”

These young Guatemalan men speak to me now because President-elect Donald Trump has instilled a fear that was previously limited to the dangers of crime and corruption in Guatemala and those desperate trials at the border.

The three are soft-spoken, they smile a lot, and their sense of humor has remained intact.

They each tell a similar story. They come from families with eight or nine children, and the elder siblings are expected, with the parents, to pay for high school for the younger ones. Xavier said he came to the U.S. in part to help pay those school bills. He and Angel both went to school for 12 years. Angel graduated last year.

President-elect Donald Trump stoked fear in the U.S. population of undocumented citizens with xenophobic campaign rhetoric and policy platforms. Photo courtesy Immigration Impact
President-elect Donald Trump stoked fear in the U.S. population of undocumented citizens with xenophobic campaign rhetoric and policy platforms. Photo courtesy Immigration Impact

All three say they came here for work, opportunity and to learn English.

“It’s a better life here,” Xavier said. “It’s hard to live in Guatemala, hard to find work.” There, he said, the available work was six days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day, for $200 per month.

The other problem, Xavier said, was crime and police corruption. He said his father has to pay protection for his exotic fruit resale business.

“I don’t feel safe there,” Luis added. “Lots of extortion, robbery, gangsters. I saw three men try to kill a man in front of my house. I was lucky I came to the U.S. right after that. Because I was a witness, my cousin told me, ‘they are looking for you.’”

Despite this, Luis says his misses his “little hometown” and the “place his great grandparents came from, near a lake.” He says it’s a beautiful country. He misses his family but says his mother recently reminded him that, since he was 8 or 9, he wanted to come to the U.S. to study English. “She is happy,” he said, adding that he does sometimes send money home, but that he will do less of that in this new political climate.

Xavier and Angel miss their families and friends, too. Xavier says he particularly misses his “grandpa, who is now very old and can’t work—he almost died.”

Luis explains the nuts and bolts of being undocumented. He gets paid under the table by a man he’s worked with for 6 ½ years, and he opened his bank account using his passport and consul identification. Luis and Xavier have cars and Guatemalan driver’s licenses.

The only way to get citizenship, Luis says, is to marry a citizen, and that’s just for a green card. “The law says you have to wait five years, then apply.”

They have fun. All three are soccer-obsessed to the point that Mama had to help them get the full soccer cable package. They play pick-up games wherever they can find them.

unknownBut they’re nervous about what’s just happened.

“The election shows what the people want, right?” Luis asks us.

Mama explains the electoral college versus the popular vote, and she says there are a lot of people who are angry about Trump’s ever-shifting campaign rhetoric about sending immigrants back to their countries, building walls and ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She talks about statements from several city police departments saying they won’t be rounding anyone up, and how employers will put up a fight over losing their good workers.

“My boss is angry,” Luis said, about the possibility of losing a hard-working labor force. He said one of his American co-workers told him: “‘We love you because you work hard, you are available when we need you when people from here don’t want to work, we have problems with Americans with drugs and alcohol, and people don’t like to work.’”

“I will protect my boys,” Mama says. “It’s personal for me now.” She asks them what Americans can do to help.

Luis says it’s about having the “community” get to know and understand them. “We are always exposed. You can see when people don’t like you or get you.”

She asks them if they ever feel like they want to go back to Guatemala.

“I don’t want to,” Luis says, “but in this situation…I was not normally worried except after the election.”

Xavier and Angel say they are worried about it, too.

images“There’s a fear and an uncertainty of not knowing,” said Brooke Mead, the program coordinator at Pittsfield-based Berkshire Immigrant Center. She said BIC sent an email to clients to help them understand what’s going on and let them know what their rights are, and to give them the phone number for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s hotline for reporting incidents of “bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence.”

She says BIC is helping clients with practical matters amid this unpredictability, like advising those with permission to travel or study abroad to return to the U.S. before Trump is in office.

But Mead says she is “heartened” by some things. One is The Trump Memos, an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) analysis of Trump’s policies that show how they violate the U.S. Constitution and are “overall, logistically impossible.”

“Quite frankly,” she said, “what he is proposing is stupid and bad for our economy and immoral.”

Deporting 15,000 undocumented people per day in two years, as Trump proposed, “is not possible,” she said. It could also take an unpopular toll on the national pocketbook to the tune of $400 to $600 billion, according to this article in the Atlantic Monthly.

She also said that, locally, BIC has received a lot of calls since the election from people who want to volunteer. It is “important to remember that, around eight years ago, North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington passed Welcoming Resolutions, and we have a good relationship with local police departments.”

Mead said it is important to reduce panic. “It’s understandable that people are upset and afraid. We are, too, and ready to fight. The part that I hate the most is that the real point of [Trump’s] was to inflict fear.”

Angel told the story of how he had been robbed in Guatemala and how terrifying it was. And now, he says, since the election, he’s not he’s not feeling particularly tranquil.

Same with Luis. “I felt free before the election,” he said. “I’ve been almost all over the U.S. I felt like I was very comfortable in this country.”

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