By Jesús de la Torre

Recent attention has focused on the increasing number of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border. For some, these numbers demonstrate a failure of the Biden administration’s policies. Others argue this change in migration flows was a predictable consequence of the change in policies.

Jesús de la Torre

Yet, the exclusive focus on the numbers overshadows what happens to people at the border, their migration journey, and why they had to migrate in the first place. Most importantly, it obscures the desires and joys of migrants and people in communities of origin, effectively curtailing transnational solidarity.

Last week, we learned with horror about how the new buoy barrier that the Texas governor installed had killed two people, one of them a child from Honduras. Encounter numbers will not reflect their deaths, the result of deterrence policies, and nor can they capture the joy and resiliency that is present in the act of migration 

Migrating is an act of personal agency and an expression of hope. Those who migrate also make a difference in their communities of origin through remittances. 

For those who remain, hope can also prosper amidst hardship. The case of Guatemala is telling.

Guatemalans represent one of the most common nationalities in the monthly number of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border. They flee deep economic inequality, corrupt leaders, and a lack of educational and labor opportunities.

For the first time in a decade, Guatemalans see a window of opportunity for change in their country. Against every poll, a strong anti-corruption and democratic candidate, Bernardo Arévalo, passed the first round of the country’s presidential election and will run in a second round to become president. 

Attacks from the Guatemalan establishment didn’t take long to arrive, including fierce actions by Guatemala’s corrupt Prosecutor’s Office to undermine election results and disqualify Arévalo’s party. 

Guatemalans want to believe that Aug. 20, the day of the presidential run-off, will become the moment to reverse years of impunity, corruption and exile of the judges and journalists who investigate these crimes. They are organizing so that elections are transparent and the results are respected, with many members of the diaspora playing a crucial role. 

Guatemalans need support and our international solidarity more than ever. By the end of this month, we will visit the country to accompany civil and faith leaders to understand their concerns and share their joys. 

At the same time, the U.S. must strongly sanction those who are trying to attack the already weak Guatemalan democracy, as we recently emphasized in this letter from faith-based groups and leaders from Central America, Mexico, and the United States. Strong targeted financial sanctions can be a deterrence for corrupt economic and political leaders acting to weaken the democratic process. 

While fluctuating numbers of arrivals at the border are important, looking upstream to the issues driving people to flee can be more effective than deterrence in addressing forced migration over the long term. By doing so, we can better understand people’s hopes and struggles, and connect in building a world where migration is not the only option. 

Jesús de la Torre is a research fellow at the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based advocacy and research organization based in El Paso.