Central American migrants: Who are they?

In 2001, Guatemalans processed after a Funeral Mass to bury their loved ones, whose remains were exhumed from Mass graves. The deceased, indigenous Guatemalans, were victims of genocide in the early 1980s perpetrated by the Guatemalan military. The foreground shows a mountainside scorched during the attacks. (Photo Special to The Record by Shannon Lockhart)

By Marnie McAllister, Record Editor

Pope Francis, the bishops of the United States, Catholics in the pews and thousands of others are calling for the U.S. government to recognize the God-given dignity of immigrants who cross the Southwest border of the United States.

But who are they, these tens of thousands who make the dangerous trek from Central America to the border between Mexico and the U.S.?

They are people who have suffered.

Guatemalan immigrants are survivors of genocide, civil war and gang violence coupled with corrupt government, military and police officials who do little to curb gang activity or domestic violence.

They can differentiate between the sound of a handgun and a gun capable of penetrating the walls of their homes.

They come here, along with their peers in Honduras and El Salvador who suffer in similar ways, in order to live — or at least hope for life.

Such hope is sometimes elusive on this side of the border. Local therapist Shannon Lockhart, who provides free therapy to immigrants, shared the struggles of one traumatized Guatemalan mother seeking asylum during a recent interview:

She already purchased the poison. But she vacillates. Killing herself would mean she has control over how she dies. Control is rare. Death’s constant threat would no longer suffocate her. Deportation means certain death, too; waiting, in the meantime, would be torture.

But the children. It’s hard to show them affection and encourage closeness, though she loves them. Violence will separate them eventually. She’s always known that. Better not get too close, too dependent. They’ll be better off that way when she dies, one way or another.

This is the thought process of one particular mother from Guatemala who fled her violent homeland, carrying decades of trauma along with her children, in search of safety in the United States.

Now she’s caught in the promised land’s legal quagmire.

She recently shared her story — and her suicidal thoughts — with Lockhart, who spent more than a decade living in Guatemala until she returned home in 2009. 

Lockhart, a graduate of Sacred Heart Academy, witnessed the exhumations of indigenous genocide victims on behalf of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. She also accompanied the survivors, first providing the benefit of an international witness to their resettlement and later as a mental healthcare provider.

Back in her hometown, she provides free therapy — supplemented by private donations — to immigrants who suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of multiple traumas experienced over years or decades.

“You’ve got whole generations who have known nothing but violence,” said Lockhart, noting that stress hormones sometimes saturate the bodies of traumatized people. “Women in Guatemala say, ‘Our children have nursed on our trauma.”

Lockhart’s experience in Guatemala from 1997 to 2009 helps her understand her clients’ particular traumas, she noted during an interview last week.

“Most of my clients have no school or may have gone up to sixth-grade,” she explained. “They lived in one-room houses with eight or nine people.”

They are also typically malnourished and their bodies are continuously flooded with stress hormones.

Impoverished children, facing malnutrition and high stress, she said don’t have “optimal brain development.” And it’s typical for children to begin working at age 7.

Their fathers, beset by all of these stressors, turn to substance abuse, Lockhart said. From substance abuse and stress flows domestic violence. Sexual abuse is prevalent, too — typically women are abused by a family member.

And almost everyone has seen a dead body in the street. Many have lost at least one, if not more, loved ones to violence.

Gangs — much like the mafia of the early 20th century in the U.S. — demand business owners pay “taxes” (think “protection”) and force young men and women to join them.

The boys, Lockhart said, are pressured to become drug runners. If they refuse, they or their families are threatened with beatings and death.

Girls targeted by gangs are forced to become “girlfriends” and submit to gang rape. Traumatized and trapped, they’re coerced into taking drugs and forced to try to get others addicted, too.

“You have no control over your fate,” Lockhart said. The notion, “I’d rather kill myself painlessly than go back” becomes reality.

Some people in the U.S., she said, believe that migrants crossing the border illegally are thinking, “I’m poor and happy but would rather be rich and happy.”

“That’s not the case,” said Lockhart. “You’ve got these traumatized and terrified people who are saying, ‘I’m just trying to survive. I want to be alive. I want my children to be alive.’ ”

Guatemalans along with Salvadorans and Hondurans — who have similar problems in their countries —  account for a large part of Southwest border crossers, according to the Pew Research Center.

Those who crossed in late spring were traumatized once again, said Lockhart. This time their distress was caused by the U.S. government’s forced separation of families for more than six weeks in May and June.

The American Psychological Association issued a statement May 29 urging President Donald J. Trump to end the separations (which he did on June 20 after more than 2,000 children had been taken from their parents and placed in warehouses). The association cited the “traumatic effects” of separating families.

“Psychological research shows that immigrants experience unique stressors related to the conditions that led them to flee their home countries in the first place,” said the statement made by the association’s president, Dr. Jessica Henderson. “The longer that children and parents are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression for the children. Negative outcomes for children include psychological distress, academic difficulties and disruptions in their development.”

Lockhart added that children who are traumatized and separated from loved ones also are at higher risk of exploitation. 

During a trip to the U.S,-Mexico border in early July, the U.S. bishops said reunification of these families is an urgent need. And they re-issued their call for humane immigration reform during a July 2 news conference in San Juan, Texas.

According to Catholic News Service (CNS), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said at the news conference that the church supports the right of nations to protect their borders. But having strong borders and having compassion are not mutually exclusive, he said. A solution with compassion can be found, he said.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores, who heads the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, said there’s a need to address the “push factors” driving immigration from Central America, CNS reported.

The U.S. border bishops frequently communicate with bishops in Mexico and Central America, he said during the news conference. The problems driving immigration to the U.S. are complex, he said.

Bishop Flores said he has spoken with parents in Central America about the danger of the journey but recalled a conversation with mothers in places such as Honduras and Guatemala who have told him: “My son will be killed here, they will shoot him and he’s 16. What am I supposed to do?”

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