For Guatemalan migrants, life without papers is very expensive
Life without immigration papers can be expensive. Aurora, a Maya woman from Guatemala, knows that well because of her own finances.
She would like to have a legal job, but employers will certainly ask her for her Social Security number, which comes with a U.S. work permit. Lacking that number because of her status as an undocumented immigrant, she has resorted to work in agriculture, earning $60 a day.
By the time she pays for all her expenses, little is left. Her biggest charge: transportation to get to immigration appointments.
By train, the roundtrip ride costs $22. But out of fear, not knowing the area and not speaking English — sometimes neither Spanish — many Guatemalan migrants hire drivers in the community who charge as much as $350 to take them to immigration appointments in Miramar in Broward County or other meetings in Miami-Dade, wait for them and return home.
The Guatemalan Maya Center, which helps migrants in the Lake Worth area, has documented many cases of gouging. The Guatemalan consulate, which recently opened an office in Lake Worth in Palm Beach County, also confirmed that drivers are charging between $150 and $300 for the trips.
Aurora, who declined to give her full name for fear of reprisals, has made the trip several times to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in Miramar. She started making the trek seven months ago and after much negotiation managed to get the price down to $200 per trip.
ICE initially required her to check in every 28 days, but it later reduced the time to every 23 days, and now it’s every two weeks, she said. Each trip costs her the same as a month's worth of food for her and her two children. If she were to send the $400 to her family in Guatemala, it would equal more than one minimum monthly salary for them.
And that's not counting the fact that she misses a day's pay when she checks in with ICE.
Immigration experts say Aurora and other Guatemalans in Lake Worth — a community of at least 50,000, almost all of them from the Huehuetenango region, according to the consulate — use the expensive transportation service for the same reason that landlords, lawyers and even relatives take advantage of them: They are vulnerable because they don't know the system.
Manuela, also from Guatemala, was cooking as she listened to Aurora's story, and asked if she could interrupt to share her own tale. The two women live in a small two-bedroom apartment with six other people. They split the $1,200 monthly rent, plus the light bill. There is no air conditioning.
Manuela's expenses are even higher than Aurora's.
ICE requires her to check in every eight days “and I have to go because if I don't they put me in shackles,” she said.
“Even if we were beasts, they should not do that,” Aurora added.
Manuela said ICE officials told her during her most recent visits that she could be deported unless she finds legal assistance. One lawyer told her his services would cost about $7,000.
Micaela Martin and Evelin Santana, who work at the Guatemalan Maya Center, help guide the migrants through the system. They said they have heard many similar stories. Martin recalled the case of a woman who needed help filling out a document changing her registered address from Texas to Florida. Martin filled out the document and returned it to the surprised woman.
“Is that all?” asked the woman. “A lawyer told me he would charge $3,000 to do that.”
Out of fear
As she recounted her hardships, Manuela shut off the stove so she could continue with her story. She criticized President Donald Trump's immigration policies, and complained that it's making her life more difficult even though no one else is willing to do the work she does.
But at least Manuela and Aurora have an advantage over many other Guatemalans in Lake Worth. They speak Spanish, while the others speak only Maya languages like Quiché, Kanjobal, Poptí’ or Mam.
Many have turned up at the Guatemalan Maya Center with documents they said they were told to sign by ICE agents. The documents, according to Martin and Santana, agreed to voluntary departures, which eliminates the need for a hearing before an immigration judge.
An ICE spokesman said: “It is very difficult for ICE to properly respond to these allegations when the names of those individuals have not been provided to the agency.”
The Guatemalan consulate in Lake Worth, which opened in April, has helped make it cheaper for the migrants to renew their passports, obtain Personal Identification Documents and process other paperwork.
But Consul Mario Azmitia said that the consulate so far has not assisted any Guatemalans who do not speak Spanish. Plans are underway to hire at least one person who speaks Kanjobal, one of the more dominant Maya languages.
He added that the consulate for now is focused on making its presence known, and has not tackled ways to help the migrants avoid the exorbitant costs of transportation and other fees.
Azmitia said he's also witnessed how some Guatemalan migrants take advantage of others. He recalled that a woman turned up at the consulate recently to certify a document empowering relatives in Guatemala to obtain her identification document. Told that she could obtain the ID at the consulate, the woman cried and said she had already paid thousands of dollars to the relatives back home.
There are many stories like that in Lake Worth.
Francisco Rodríguez, an investigative journalist with elPeriódico in Guatemala, is in Miami as a fellow with the D.C.-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).