It is difficult for me to celebrate a joyous new year when harsh immigration policies have created a humanitarian crisis at our southern border. There, children were being separated from their parents, detained in camps, and now two Guatemalan children have died. 

Lindsey Graham, the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would focus on the root causes of such families’ journeys, as well as investigating the border conditions and why Jakelin and Felipe died. It is in this statement that I find hope. I recently returned from my third volunteer trip to Guatemala to help build schools in remote Mayan villages. My opinion is filtered by working with Guatemalans.

Root cause 1: Admitting the U.S. is complicit. Why? Because in 1996 Guatemala emerged from a 36-year civil war made worse by U.S. intervention. War-torn areas occurred mostly in Mayan rural areas where many villages and indigenous populations were annihilated, and the countryside left with uneducated, unskilled subsistence farmers and very few school buildings. Work is scarce, pay is $2-$7 per day. Poverty and corruption leave people living on dirt floors with no plumbing, electricity, healthcare or clean water. In the three communities I have worked in, there was little hope of work.

Root cause 2: The pull to the U.S. is strong. On each volunteer trip, a community member speaks to us about illegal immigration. Each journey was physically horrendous and exorbitantly expensive paying smugglers. Their experiences were emotionally draining and required much bravery knowing they would be many years away from family. Their dream is to work hard for a few years, send money home, and return to help their families, buy a little land, a house, or start a business. In my last trip, an elderly grandmother answered in Quiche (one of 13 Mayan dialects) saying, “Please tell the Americans that we are good people with the same dreams for our families as everyone else. We are poor and do what we must to live.”

Root cause 3: Lack of schools. Educated children will grow to have the skills to find jobs in their own country, so the need to migrate north will be mitigated. My volunteer trips are organized by Hug It Forward, a nonprofit that uses Guatemalans to run projects. One-hundred and twenty schools have been built. Ecobricks (plastic bottles villagers stuff tightly with inorganic trash) are used instead of cinder blocks, creating a structurally sound conventional wall. This method is eco-friendly, economical and relies on community labor. The last school I worked on will benefit 43 middle school students, three teachers and 397 families. Helping a whole village build a school and rejoice in the education their children will receive has been a highlight of my long career in education. An educated populace is what Guatemala needs.

I suggest that as a nation we have a responsibility not just to stop immigrants looking to enter illegally at the border, but to reduce the conditions that attract people here. Education and building schools is a critical start.

Julie Dahlgren, a former Wood River Valley resident, lives in Mackay.

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