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October 22, 2018

The U.S. immigration system is descending further into crisis, as the Trump Administration’s authoritarian and draconian policies are only increasing injustices and exacerbating the underlying problems. The Trump Administration continues aggressive deportations and detentions and the separation of families at the border, yet a massive caravan of thousands of refugees travels to the U.S. from Central America, seeking asylum and safety.

However, in this time of political crisis and gridlock, there appears to be a growing hunger among some in Congress to understand the root causes of problems and the policy steps needed to protect human rights and advance social justice. Last week, on World Food Day, we organized a briefing for the U.S. Congress and debuted this short video that explains how the U.S. and Guatemala share responsibility for the displacement of indigenous people in Guatemala and why Trump’s policies won’t work:


Over 60 people – including staff of Republican and Democratic Representatives and Senators – turned out to our event to discuss the relationship between the U.S. and Guatemala and the violations of indigenous land rights and the right to food.

Maya Mam Elder and spiritual leader Nana Maria Teresa of the International Mayan League explained the sacred relationships between people, land, and water and the importance of producing life-giving foods such as corn, beans, and squash. She described the history of land being taken from indigenous peoples in Guatemala from the time of the conquest to the present day. She spoke of people suffering hunger while land is poisoned by pesticides and destroyed by mining and while water is stolen from indigenous farmers and dried up by climate change. Indigenous peoples in Guatemala have organized and fought back against this displacement and depredation, but they have been subjected to  state-sponsored genocide as recently as the 1980s and ongoing assassinations of rights defenders, with at least 19 killed in Guatemala this year.

This loss of indigenous land rights, which gives rise to hunger and violence and forces many people to migrate, is connected to U.S. policies. Speaking on behalf of ActionAid, I traced the ways the U.S. is historically, economically and politically connected to Guatemala. Palm oil plantations that grow for U.S. companies, and other large-scale projects benefiting the elite, are the immediate causes of land loss and poverty. However, it’s the policies of the Guatemalan government with assistance from the likes of the World Bank and the U.S. government that allowed these injustices to happen. To address the root causes of hunger and displacement, we need policy solutions that redistribute land to Indigenous peoples and respect their territorial and political rights.

There is a long history of violence against indigenous peoples who try to protect their land. Annie Bird of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission called for accountability from international institutions who are funding large-scale projects that lead to the killings and imprisonment of indigenous people who object to them. She highlighted the Honduran government’s lack of will to fully investigate and prosecute those who ordered the murder of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. She also brought attention to the imprisonment of Mayan Qeqchi’  leaders Bernardo Caal and Abelino Chub in Guatemala.

There are immediate steps that Congress can take. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales visited the U.S. just a couple weeks ago seeking $15 billion in loans for additional security assistance and other projects. Meanwhile he has tried to end cooperation with the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, which has been investigating corruption and human rights violations. Congress must insist that the UN Commission be allowed to continue its work, and international cooperation should provide support for indigenous land rights, indigenous food production, and human rights.

The Trump Administration has no answers and is only making this crisis worse. U.S. Border Patrol Commissioner Kevin McAleenan flew to Guatemala last week to figure out why increased numbers of immigrants are coming to the U.S. this year in spite of Donald Trump’s border crackdown. He came back at a loss for answers as he was confronted by the scope of the structural forces driving migration: hunger, joblessness, and gang violence. Instead, the Administration plans to deport the three young indigenous Maya Mam men who are the only witnesses to the unjustifiable killing of Claudia Gomez, a 20-year-old Maya Mam woman from Guatemala, by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Investing in the military and police repression of people in Guatemala or of immigrants here in the U.S. only takes us further from a world where everyone can claim their right to a life of dignity. As Trump threatens to close our southern border, we stand with people in Guatemala having to leave their homes for another country in search of safety. We stand with Nana Maria Teresa and indigenous peoples in Guatemala in their struggle for land rights. Indigenous land rights must be respected if we are to have any hope of restoring the planet and ensuring the right to food for all.