The Unique Struggles of Indigenous Migrants

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Date: Jun 03, 2021

Author: Jasmarie Hernández-Cañuelas

This article was first published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Advocate.

The Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA), in collaboration with Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim, Asociación Pop No’j, International Mayan League, LAWG, American Friends Service Committee, the Center for Gender and Refugees Studies, and other U.S. and Central America-based organizations, held a webinar in March 2021 addressing the root causes of indigenous migration, the unique struggles of indigenous migrants, and  indigenous organizing strategies and demands. 

Root Causes

Luis Marcos of Q’anjob’al Maya, Ambassador of the Akateko, Chuj, Popti, and Q’anjob’al Maya to the Omaha Nation, discussed the historical significance of the root causes of migration. Beyond the unspeakable atrocities forced upon indigenous groups, Marcos introduced the Doctrine of Discovery, a racist international legal construct that dehumanized indigenous peoples, and consequently, all of humanity. He explained that the doctrine was used by colonizers and newly built governments to claim indigenous land and acted as the racist foundation for the following centuries of indigenous abuse.

Giovanni Batz of K’iche’ Maya, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis, discussed the arrival of extractivist and green energy industries in Guatemala under the myth of employment and economic development. These industries, in collaboration with the state, “use the politics of terror to prosecute community leaders who are just trying to fight for the rights to exist with dignity.” 

As Juanita Cabrera López of Maya Mam, Executive Director of the International Mayan League, put it, “For centuries, indigenous peoples have been excluded from a government that never saw us as part of its framework and that only saw us as labor and only wanted our lands. So indigenous peoples have been the most marginalized, the most excluded, and through state sponsored genocide, we were attacked.”

Batz spoke of settler colonialism as a “structure” that brought about forced indigenous migration and explained that the Guatemalan government, in its collaborations with large industries and U.S. interventionist policies, has repeatedly abused indigenous rights, displaced them off their land, and systematically erased indigenous peoples’ history. 

The Plight of Indigenous Migrants

Once indigenous migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, they are met with obstacles and even violence. Not only are migrants from Guatemala among the highest number of migrants being deported, but indigenous identity is also consistently erased when indigenous migrants are miscategorized as Hispanic or Latino. There are few interpreters who speak native languages, creating threatening language barriers leading to a lack of due process. 

The U.S. immigration system is based on “prevention through deterrence and necropolitics,” observed Batz. “Title 42 [barring migrants and asylum seekers from crossing the border during the pandemic] is health law, not immigration law,” he remarked, adding that the immigration system acts “sin vergüenza” or, “without shame.” Cabrera López added,“When the government says don’t sacrifice your children, they’re washing their hands from the responsibility that they have to afford a basic system of dignity.” 

Organizing Strategies / Call to Action

Indigenous peoples have used different organizing strategies for resistance. Luis Marcos centers his resistance on upholding his Q’anjob’al Maya culture and values. This includes teaching children their native language because “the philosophical understanding of our ancestors are embedded in our language.” Juanita Cabrera López has called for the government to, “create with us, not for us, an indigenous human rights framework that would add to a comprehensive reform and that would recognize our sovereignty as indigenous people.”  

LAWG is proud to continue to stand with the indigenous communities and indigenous advocates defending their lands and environmental rights in Guatemala and across Latin America. We urge the United States to protect indigenous migrants arriving at our border with humane and welcoming policies and to implement policies in Central America that respect indigenous communities’ rights to be consulted and their rights to their lands and communities. Check out NISGUA’s petition we’re supporting calling on the Biden Administration to consult with and support Black and Indigenous migrants and watch the recording of the webinar here.