In Guatemala, A Debate On The Merits Of Illegal Immigration
Three Guatemalan coffin builders, who make $7 a day, debate the risk of moving to the United States illegally. Marvin Gomez (far left) was deported after spending five months in an American prison. Jose Rodas (middle) is considering the voyage north. Americo Barahona says it's not worth the risk.
Peter O'Dowd
August 23, 2011

Life After Deportation

Go to our special page for more on the multimedia series following deportees from Arizona to Guatemala.

San Lorenzo El Cubo, Guatemala -- Jose Rodas Carmargo builds coffins for a living. With small hands, he gathers long sheets of silk and stitches them to the inside of a pine box.

For his work, he earns $7 a day.

Each box, when it's lacquered and finished, is stacked against the wall. A corrugated tin roof covers the workshop, which fills with the sound of busy hammers when the artisans are working.

But for Rodas, 23, this job doesn't cut it. He's a quiet man, and like so many others in this country, he wants to go north.

"I'd like to try my luck in the U.S.,” he said. “I think about it when I get desperate and there’s no work."

Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. Its malnutrition rates are abysmal. It's wracked with corruption and violence. So Guatemalans face a constant question. Should I risk leaving?

Many already have.

About a million people of Guatemalan descent live in the United States, and most of them arrived in the past 20 years, according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center.

There and Back

Marvin Gomez, 30, has been to the U.S. and back again. Gomez’s job in this workshop is transporting the lumber.

In 2008, he spent five months in an American prison for identity theft. He and nearly 300 other Guatemalans with fake documents worked at a meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa.

Photo by Peter O'Dowd
Marvin Gomez, 30, was deported after working illegally in Postville, Iowa.

They were eventually deported after the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. Since then, deportations have gone even higher, and the border keeps getting harder and harder to cross.

In 2010, the U.S. government said it deported 31,347 Guatemalans. At the beginning of last decade, it was only a few thousand.

"I know exactly why he wants to go," Gomez said, referring to Carmargo's ambitions for the U.S. "But there’s so many details he hasn't even thought about."

In Iowa, Gomez made 10 times the amount he earns here. He sent more than $20,000 to his family. It was a dream realized. He bought a car for his wife; he put an addition on his house. But Gomez spent every day looking over his shoulder. Outside of work, at the grocery store, he'd worry. Is that a cop behind me?

And then, one day, it was.

"My advice: give it your best and don’t get caught," he said.

Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Jose Rodas Carmargo, 23, doesn't make enough in Guatemala to support his family. He's wants to go to the U.S.

Risking Everything

The old man in the workshop said it's better not to go at all. Americo Barahona, 43, uses a chisel to etch floral designs into the caskets.

Barahona has spent decades watching men like Gomez and Carmargo come and go. They go with high expectations and come back with problems. It takes more than $5,000 to make the trip north, and who has that kind of money around here? You’d have to mortgage your home. And then what happens when you get to Brownsville or Tucson?

What if you don't find work?

What if your wife in Guatemala decides to leave you because she’s bored or you don't send enough money?

What if you come back and what little you had is gone? He's seen all this before.

"A coin has two sides," Barahona said. "One side is the dream. The other is the risk of losing everything. (Rodas) is too young to lose everything."

And so it is that in this workshop you’ll find three men of different generations, debating three views of the world. It’s a conversation you can’t ignore in this country.

Photo by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez
Americo Barahona, 43, says going to the US illegally is too risky.

Gomez said it’s all around you: People come back from the U.S. with money. Even if you don’t want to go north yourself, you’re only human. You think about it, he said.

As for 23-year-old Rodas, he thinks he can make it.

"If I ask her. My aunt will give me the money I need," he said.

If he leaves Guatemala, he said he'll return someday to build a home. For these men, the dream has less to do with the United States, than making a life in Guatemala.

Until then, he’ll line caskets with silk, and dream about his chances.

San Lorenzo El Cubo, Guatemala

Location of San Lorenzo El Cubo, Guatemala.

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