ILLEGAL MIGRATION TO THE USA: Costs and Benefits

Contrast in rural housing: mansions and mud huts. As I traveled in the hills north of Cuenca, I was astounded by the abundance of lavish, modern, brightly colored two and three story homes. They stood out in ostentatious grandeur among the many small dung-colored adobe shacks.

"I thought most people in rural areas were poor," I said. �How is it so many houses look so opulent?"

"All those big homes belong to men who migrated to the United States, got rich by Ecuadorean standards, and then returned," I was told. "It has caused a ghastly stratification in our society."

The "Migration Problem" was a major issue at the Cuenca Forum. Several speakers addressed health, equity, and human rights issues related to illegal migration from Ecuador to the US. Since the early 80s at least a million people from Ecuador have gambled their limited resources and sometimes their lives to live and work in the �land of plenty.� Some succeed and some fail.

Getting into the US from Ecuador is arduous and risky. Poor farmers must raise or borrow up to $9000 to pay a coyote (professional people-smuggler). Most travel by land, passing illegally from one Central American country to the next and then Mexico. Many are arrested along the way, die of hardships or hunger, or are �disappeared,� sometimes by the coyotes themselves.

The sacrifices and risks that people take to get to the US are a measure of the desperate socioeconomic situation in Ecuador. Until recently, most migrants were poor Indians from rural areas. But with the current economic crisis, more and more professionals�frustrated by falling real wages and seeing no future in their country�are migrating. Doctors and nurses often go to Chile, Venezuela, Spain, or even El Salvador. This exodus of professionals is not only a brain drain but also an economic drain since the state pays a large part (though recently much less) of the cost for their education.

To raise the money to pay the coyote, often the father of a poor family will hock or sell his land or borrow from relatives, with an agreement that from the US he will send back funds for another family member to pay a coyote and travel North.

Some of the migrants make good. Others lose everything, including their ancestral homes and land. However hundreds of thousands of the illegal migrants do manage to get into the US and get jobs. Since Minimal wage in the US is 30 times that in Ecuador, many undocumented workers manage to save and send money home.

It is common for migrants in the US to work hard for 10 to 15 years, save what in Ecuador is a small fortune, and then return to Ecuador as the "New Rich." They build two or three large, colorful modern homes in the countryside, move their family into one, and rent the others. They live off the rent money, a small shop, or by loaning money to the poor at usurous interest rates (5% a month).

It can be argued that to a debt-burdened country like Ecuador, the influx of so much money from abroad is a vital boost to the economy. But there is a negative side. The return of the New Rich has widened the divide between the Haves and Have-nots. While some families come out ahead, others are driven into destitution. The numbers of malnourished children have increased, as have homeless people, street children, beggars, petty thieves, and glue-sniffing youth in the cities. (Sniffing glue muffles hunger and despair.) Most delinquents in the cities are "losers" from rural areas.

Another problem, especially in rural areas around Cuenca, is that the mass exodus of men (sometimes over 70%) has left many communities with only women, children, and old folks. As we drove through the countryside we saw mostly women�sometimes with children�plowing the fields, shoveling sand, and doing all sorts of labor.

Anthropologists have found that, with boys, the lack of close contact with a male role model can lead to socially dysfunctional and aggressive behavior. In some areas, gangs of adolescent delinquents are becoming a serious problem.

To migrate, a woman must belong to her coyote

Most Ecuadoreans who try to migrate to the US are men. But some are women (sometimes following in the footsteps of their husbands). For women it is a nightmare, almost without exception. At the Cuenca Forum, Dr. Miriam Maya Herrera, a women's rights activist, presented chilling testimony of indigenous women who dared leave their families to migrate to the North.

When a coyote shepherds a group of 8 or 9 illegal migrants toward the US, often he tries to include at least one woman, preferably young and pretty. The coyote--who demands absolute submission and obedience to his every command--not only uses the girl for his own pleasure (and that of other men in the group) but also uses her "services" to bribe immigration officials at the numerous border crossings and check points. In exchange for a night with "the coyote's girl," the officials are requested to give the whole group free passage. The 2 faces of rural Ecuador: poverty and wealth, side by side.

Coyotes are reportedly among the wealthiest people in the Ecuadorean countryside. Those who have a reputation for successfully delivering their wards into the US charge US$9,000 or more. Those with more doubtful reputations may charge as little as $5,000 or $6,000. A portion of the money goes for counterfeit visas and bribes. It is illegal in Ecuador to work as a coyote, recruiting people to migrate to the North. However, if arrested, most coyotes are wealthy enough to quickly buy their freedom and return to their work.

A coyote who recruits a young woman, invariably assures her and her family that she will be safe. But she must prepare herself. To escape detection as an illegal alien, she is required to change her appearance. An Indian woman who has all her life worn her hand-woven tribal dress is required to dress and look like "a middle class city girl." She must cut her hair and use lipstick and make-up. She must also begin taking "the pill." The last thing the coyote wants is for a girl to become pregnant on the long trip north. If she does become so, he will likely abandon her mid way�or worse.

Dr. Maya, who described these events at the Forum, told of one teenage girl who, in preparation for traveling north, was told by her coyote to start taking "the pill." The coyote did not explain what for, but through her friends the girl found out why. She told the coyote that since she was a virgin and was determined to remain one, she had no need for the pill. The coyote assured her that in his group she had nothing to fear, but that she still must take the pill, "just to be sure." The girl had no idea what was in store for her, or why the coyote had chosen her over other women who had applied.

Sexual violence related to migration is rarely revealed. In the indigenous culture any discussion of sexuality is taboo. Therefore the vast majority of women who are violated on their way north never breathe a word of what has happened to them, even to their husbands and families. But they live, and sometimes die, with the trauma and unspeakable shame. Only when pregnancy or an STD (sexually transmitted disease) appears is the secret outed and the woman punished accordingly.

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