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  • Writer's pictureCecilia Markley

Life in the shadows

Guatemalan immigrant recounts fear during Trump years and new hope under Biden

Written for American University course Communications 544, April 2021

Editor’s Note: The interview with “Gabriela” was conducted in Spanish and translated to English

WASHINGTON — Guatemalan immigrant Gabriela has lived and worked in the United States for 17 years since 2004 when she fled with her young son from an abusive husband who “beat, me, hit me, threw food in my face,” she said.

She now lives in the nation’s capital, where she has built a new life for herself and her son. But she left behind much of her family in Guatemala. Two of her five siblings also live in the United States, but the rest of her family remains in her home country. She said she hasn’t been able to return since her arrival in the United States.

“It is very, very difficult because this country is very nice because it gives opportunities to work and overcome, but it is very sad [that I cannot see my family],” Gabriela said in a phone interview. “We are here permanently. We cannot leave because if we leave, we can no longer return.”

Gabriela’s name was changed to protect her identity, due to her immigration status. She lives in the United States without legal permission. She said it is hard knowing she can’t see her family in Guatemala again or take her children there to visit.

Her mother, who lives in Guatemala, recently had coronavirus, and Gabriela said she felt “helpless” that she could not be there to take care of her.

Born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala as one of six siblings in a poor family, Gabriela said her mother washed clothes and her father worked as a carpenter. She said her earliest memories of childhood came after she moved to a farm with her uncle and aunt at the age of six or seven because her family was so poor. She said she worked on their farm where they raised cows for a living, and she received just two years of formal education in Guatemala.

At 19 years old, Gabriela gave birth to a son. Due to what she described as the custom in Guatemala, she was forced to marry the father of her child against her will. But her husband was abusive, Gabriela said.

One of her brothers already lived in the United States, so she decided to reach out to him for help.

“I told my brother that I suffered a lot and didn’t have anything to eat,” Gabriela said. “I had to ask people who understood if they could give me cheese or eggs, and I would pay later.”

Gabriela decided to move to the United States because she was living in “misery.” She said she made the decision not only for herself but for her son because they were being abused and were often without food. She paid a coyote, someone who brings immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, to bring her son and her into the United States.

Robert Albro, who works at American University’s Center for Latin American/Latino Studies in Washington, explained why the historical and political situation in Guatemala leads those like Gabriela to immigrate to the United States.

He described the governments in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as “ineffectual” and “dangerous[ly] criminal.” These countries also experience increased gang violence. Albro said that combination often makes for an unlivable life in failed countries.

“But also, where Guatemalans specifically are experiencing extreme hardship [is] around food security and other issues,” Albro said. “And so, there really isn’t a choice. You’ve got to leave.”

Since living in Washington, Gabriela has cleaned houses for a living. She now lives with her boyfriend, and the two have a young daughter together. Her son from Guatemala also lives in the Washington-Maryland-Virginia area and, like Gabriela, is in the United States without legal permission.

When former President Donald J. Trump was elected in 2016, Gabriela said she and her friends also in the country without legal permission were very afraid, citing his rhetoric of calling immigrants “killers” and “bad people.”

“There are a lot of bad people, but there are many, many people coming to work,” Gabriela said. “We don’t have education. We simply want to have an opportunity to work.”

Of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States without legal permission, 8 million work jobs, which added $13 billion to Social Security and $3 billion to Medicare in 2016. However, because these immigrants have no Social Security numbers and no legal authorization to work, they receive none of the benefits that citizens and immigrants in the country with legal permission receive.

Gabriela believed it to be unfair that, despite paying taxes and contributing to the American workforce and economy, she does not enjoy the same benefits of American citizens.

“For example, I comply with the rules of this country,” Gabriela said. “I pay my taxes every year, and nothing comes back to me. I work. I contribute to this country, but nothing comes back to me.”

While becoming an American citizen would allow her to receive the financial benefits she pays into, and she wants to become a citizen, Gabriela said it is not that simple. She said she hasn’t tried to become a citizen because she hasn’t found anyone to help her understand the process of applying, and she doesn’t understand how to do it. However, she said that her son has applied for political asylum.

Albro shared his thoughts on the likelihood of passing a bill to provide a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal permission, like Gabriela and her son.

“I think it’s one of those kinds of policy blackholes that successive administrations, with the exception of the Trump administration, have always attempted to articulate an agenda around,” Albro said.

Now, that “policy blackhole” will fall to the administration of President Joseph R. Biden.

When Biden won the election, Gabriela said she felt relieved and hopeful for her future.

“It was like having hope that things changed for the better,” Gabriela said.

Gabriela may not be alone in this viewpoint. The months since Biden’s inauguration have seen a surge in immigrants crossing the southern United States border, and some Republican politicians and analysts have attributed this surge to Biden’s more friendly rhetoric and policies towards immigrants than his predecessor.

To this, Albro said that the words and position a president presents do matter, even if most immigrants coming from Central America don’t have specific knowledge of Trump and Biden’s policy differences.

Albro believes that the person in the executive office can affect the number of border crossings and understands why immigrants like Gabriela are more optimistic with Biden as president.

“It’s not that the Biden administration has made [entering the United States] any easier than it was previously, but that’s the perception,” Albro said.

Gabriela’s point of view seemed to reflect that opinion. She said that since Biden took office, she felt safer and less worried about her community.

“In that sense, for example, that [immigration enforcement] will not follow us, and that we will have opportunities to work without disruption, without being pursued,” Gabriela said.

In the near future, Albro said he did not see the United States finding creative solutions around immigration.

“Instead, what I [expect to] see is a hardening of borders, a doubling down on—if not draconian immigration policy—immigration policy that is unsympathetic to the predicaments of migrants, does not care about their wellbeing, and fundamentally disregards why they might be on the move, and is uninterested and incurious about the suffering of those populations,” Albro said.

Gabriela had a more optimistic outlook when she described how she felt when she heard Biden say he was going to tackle immigration reform.

“When he said he's going to deal with immigration reform, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s hope,’” Gabriela said. “We won’t feel like we have to live in the shadows, hidden.”

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