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W.E. Gutman: Strangers in 'paradise'

Posted: February 19, 2010 5:32 p.m.
Updated: February 21, 2010 4:55 a.m.
It is in a genteel, lily-white Connecticut town, where old-moneyed gentry and upstarts coexist in mutual disdain, that I met and befriended six "illegals."

You could say it was fate that brought them together, far away from kinfolk and friends. But that would put a poetic spin on a less-than-lyrical reality. What pitted these young men against a common destiny was the urgency of survival.

In spring, summer and fall, the sextet landscaped large tracts of land, golf courses and parks. They mowed grass, trimmed hedges, pruned trees and planted annuals.

In the dark predawn hours of winter, they plowed mountains of snow; sanded driveways and alleyways. It was backbreaking work.

All will stay if they must. All will rush back home if things ever improve in their impoverished countries.

None will hold his or her breath for fear of choking on fruitless hope. Things are worse than ever in their native Guatemala and Honduras.

There are people in this genteel, lily-white Connecticut town where I once lived who would have cheerfully pushed these men into the sea. I've met their kind in California as well.

Like an itch that never seems to go away, the debate about illegal immigration keeps resurfacing, and so do the ugly welts that excessive scratching produces.

Reflected in the mean-spirited rants of so-called "patriots" and the lucid but unconvincing pleas put forward by reasonable men, the root causes of this vast migration across our borders are poorly understood - or deliberately ignored.

A couple of years ago, The Signal published a column I wrote on the subject. Taking a "devil's advocate" position, the essay was so crafted as to elicit visceral reactions from the chauvinist fringe.

I was amply rewarded. No one demurred. Instead, emotion, fear and bigotry oozed from the congratulatory comments that followed.

Between 1976 and 1983 (during the so-called "Dirty War") Honduras received several billion dollars in aid. Guatemala received four times as much while U.S.-trained Guatemalan forces were busy massacring 300,000 Mayans.

Both countries have since received massive additional assistance from the U.S. That has not prevented a large percentage of Guatemalans and Hondurans from living in poverty while small plutocratic elites thrive in Babylonian splendor.

Foreign aid does not forestall social and economic downturns. In the case of Central America, it aggravates the situation by subsidizing dictators and kleptocrats whose rule has proved disastrous for the masses.

Illegal immigration, a worldwide phenomenon, is the consequence of a humanitarian crisis, the fallout of negligence by dynasties of inept, corrupt and apathetic regimes, many installed or backed by the U.S.

Economic assistance was never intended to bolster "democracy" or help lift people from poverty, but to ensure the loyalty of America's economic vassals.

Other dynamics that propel migrant workers across our borders include soaring national debts, high unemployment, inferior education, disease, overpopulation, a church unresponsive or hostile to the existential needs of the "flock" and the re-emergence of death squads.

There is no political transparency. Leadership is dynastic and nepotism is rampant. Heads of state are ham-fisted and indifferent to the plight of their people. Where problems cannot be solved legally or through negotiation, assassination is the norm.

There is no middle class. Infrastructures are crumbling. Many Latinos survive on $3 a day.

Crime, violence and gang warfare have reached gruesome levels of butchery.

Penury, misery and persecution have spawned generations of voiceless, hopeless people who lack the muscle to fight back. Indigenous groups are being persecuted, disenfranchised and robbed of their lands. Scores of tribal leaders have been assassinated.

Churches promote large families and oppose the use of contraceptives. While religious groups clamor for the rights of unborn fetuses, no one seems to give a damn about the life and welfare of children already born.

Unable to cope with multiple births, parents often consign kids to the streets where they learn to survive through petty thievery, begging and prostitution.

Kids whom relief organizations are unable to rehabilitate land in jail or are killed by trigger-happy cops who double as state-sponsored executioners. No one ever protests this infamy.

These, in a nutshell, are the embers that spark the northward exodus of desperate people.

Exile, even in paradise where xenophobia is known to dwell, is a very bitter fruit.

Remnants of an indelible atavistic identity surge from my subconscious. "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23:9).

A sojourner in Valhalla myself, I am reminded by some of the folks who read this column that biblical injunctions, however noble, are often ignored when they get in the way.

W. E. Gutman is a veteran journalist. From 1991 to 2006 he covered politics, the military and human rights in Central America. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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