Gabriel Morales turned 18 in February, but unlike many teens in America, he didn’t celebrate with zombie tag or a Fortnite marathon. Instead, he spent it in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in New Jersey.
Gabriel’s story is one that’s all too familiar: He arrived at the US border alone two years ago, after traveling through Mexico by bus from Guatemala. When he attempted to cross into America, he was detained and later transferred to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearney, New Jersey. “It was a lot of unaccompanied minors between 13 and 16,” he says of what he saw when he got there.
Gabriel was arrested in the first month of Trump’s presidency. About ten months later, in October 2017, it’s likely that he began to mix with boys who had been separated from their families at the border by the US government.
Like many of his cellmates, detention served as the latest chapter in his story of political and personal turmoil. Gabriel is one of the millions who fled their homes in Central America’s Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — in an attempt to to escape gang violence and economic strife. Of the 303,916 border apprehensions made last year, 52 percent of them were from Northern Triangle countries, according to US Customs and Border Protection reports.
Refugees seeking asylum and a better life have been met with a changing US immigration policy under President Donald Trump that’s led to multiple high-profile US immigration scandals; the family separation crisis of this summer being the most recent.
Experts on the region say there’s little hope that the crisis will die down in the near future. With Trump’s isolationist economic policies, Central American countries in need of economic collaboration will continue to struggle without support that would create a stabilizing middle class. As a result, young people will continue to seek a better life elsewhere, and the future Guatemala of 2038 or 2048 doesn’t look bright in 2018.
Perched 8,200 feet above sea level, Totonicapán was home to the last Mayan ruler, Tecún Umán, who lived from 1485-1524. Today, the city is a hub for Guatemala’s agricultural labor force, which comprises nearly a third of the country’s workers.
Gabriel’s journey, which has now lasted for years, began here. As a teenager, he worked as a farmer in what many view as a picturesque countryside, but the daily wage of $4.67 per day ($7.37 behind Guatemala’s official minimum wage of $12.04 an hour for agricultural work) often failed to cover necessities for Gabriel and his six siblings. “There were times where we weren’t able to eat or buy clothes,” he says.
Economic strife is typical in Guatemala, despite the country’s growing GDP and wages. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, more than half of its population falls below the national poverty line, and 23 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. The richest 20 percent of Guatemala’s population accounts for 51 percent of the country’s total consumption, making Guatemala one of the most unequal countries in the world.
“I want a better future. I want to work and study and make money,” Gabriel tells Inverse when asked why he made the long journey for a slim chance at refuge in America. He’s part of a larger trend: “In 2013, as many as 2.7 million people born in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were living in the US, up from an estimated 1.5 million people in 2000,” reported the Rio Grande Guardian this month.
While the problems that are causing massive levels of migration from Central America to the US are easily identifiable, they’re not so easily fixed. Crime, poverty, and systemic corruption are problems that have existed since Ancient Greece.
Papademetriou says the only hope is commercial engagement with Central American economies: “The way that we hope that we can get out of this sorry cycle of violence is money, but we put a mere pittance there, and that pittance is more directed toward trying to reduce unwanted migration to the United States through state power rather than toward goals that could create jobs and a middle class.”
Papademetriou, who was also a NAFTA negotiator, argues that as trade increases and economies grow, populations are able to secure more liberal reforms from their governments and reduce corruption while redistributing wealth. Papademetriou cites Mexico, which just elected leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as an example, but looking at the US, which has consistently become more equal since the 1970s shows that liberalized reforms that accompany economic growth must be intentional and fought for.
“No End in Sight”
The entrenchment of the Trump administration on issues in Central America make the future hard to predict, “unlike 20 or 30 years ago, where we believed that this sort of internal chaos had an end, these countries have come to be defined by there being no end in sight.”
Gabriel was released on July 2 after receiving bond money from American relatives. His situation sums up the tough reality that immigrants and policymakers face. Despite calling the politics and policies of the current administration “horrendous,” and spending over a year in ICE detention, he’s still glad he’s in the US.
“I’m relieved,” Gabriel told me while waiting in the office of a non-profit for a bus that would take him to California. “It feels better being here, where I’m still able to have my own life and have the opportunity to pursue a better future.”
This photo of Gabriel was posted on July 3 on the Facebook page for First Friends of NJ & NY with this caption: “Last night an unaccompanied child from Guatemala was released from Hudson County Jail! A First Friends volunteer picked him up & brought him to the Refugee Lighthouse, where he stayed the night before getting on a bus today to be reunited with family in California. An aspiring artist, he was impressed with all of the detainee artwork in our office. Here he is with volunteer Mike McLean.”