Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala mission programs intersect with bishops’ goals for refugees

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the Aug. 21, 2014 edition of the Inland Register)

A flood of more than 50,000 young people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum in the U.S. Not since the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) has the influx been so noteworthy.

Politicians and news reporters cite various causes for the current surge of refugees. Reasons range from governmental statements suggesting that Central American children will not likely be deported, to life threatening issues like gangs and economic hardship. Available data tends to suggest that all three conditions may be contributing factors. However, the motivation for individual refugees probably varies depending upon the geographical areas from where they originate.

Some of the roots of the Guatemalan portion of the problem appear to stem far back to the mid-1950s when Guatemalans elected the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz. Governing one of the poorest countries in the Americas, Arbenz instituted some economic reforms that included taxing firms like United Fruit Company. Reducing profits of large U.S., corporations was a move that did not sit well with the major shareholders, some of whom held high positions in the U.S. Government. After significant propaganda activity, the CIA led a coup that deposed Arbenz and installed the first of a series of military dictators with close ties to the U.S.

The Guatemalan military maintained tight control, and used lethal force against any opposition, which included many of the indigenous Mayan people who constituted the rural poor. As political violence increased, so did guerilla movements, and the 35 year-long civil war ensued. Hundreds of villages were wiped out and over 200,000 people were killed. More than 80 percent of the victims were Indian, and catechists of the Highlands, where the Spokane Mission operates, were among those targeted for extinction.

The Peace Accord in 1996 brought a halt to some of the violence, but did not ensure the existence of an open, corruption-free government and economic prosperity. Some analysts feel that the carry-over impact of the Civil War on the culture has made Guatemala more susceptible to the violence stemming from drugs and gangs that has plagued Central America. These, along with other human rights issues, are seen as contributing factors to the exodus of many young people. And while drugs and gang activity may be more of a problem in the larger cities, many families in the Highlands and rural areas also have members who have left the country.

Guatemala, with its 15.1 million people, is still one of the poorest of nations. According to the Heritage Foundation, over half of the population are living below the poverty line. Economy Watch reports that migrations from Guatemala to the U.S. averaged over 40,000 per year during the 1990s. The rate has increased substantially since then. Refugees provide significant economic help to their families back in Guatemala. The Migration Policy Institute reports that the remittance (i.e., money sent back) from those who have left Guatemala now constitutes about 10 percent of the GDP of the country.

What can be done? The Catholic bishops of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and the U.S. have noted the large number of unaccompanied children detained at the U.S. border and urge parents to not expose their children to the dangers of refugee status. Beyond that, they are working to keep the current migrants safe, and to develop longer-term solutions to prevent youngsters from leaving their country of origin.

Many of the programs of the Spokane Guatemala Mission appear to be very much in line with the long-term goals of the Catholic bishops. Although they are small relative to the scope of the refugee problem, they are consistent with the needed effort identified by the bishops.

Several Spokane parishes assist with educational programs that enhance the ability of youngsters to participate more effectively in economic and community activities. In addition, parishioners of the diocese provide extensive support for training programs that enable native participants to develop a wide range of self-supportive skills, such as weaving, carpentry, growing coffee, and so on. Nearly 1,000 families have now completed one of these programs during the past 30 years. The skills they learn become a source of income for the families, so that their members need not leave their homeland in order to send remittances back to Guatemala. The programs also provide a little-recognized cultural benefit: They enable the families to stay together, foster community, and avoid the sorrows and dangers that so frequently accompany family separations.

(Monks is a member of the Spokane Diocese’s Guatemala Commission.)

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