ILLEGAL MIGRATION TO THE USA: Costs and
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
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.
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.