WaPo Links Guatemalan Migration to Falling Coffee Prices

Wait, I thought this is about asylum?

By Andrew R. Arthur on June 13, 2019

On June 11, 2019, the Washington Post published an article captioned "'The migration problem is a coffee problem'". Wittingly or not, that article undercuts the claim that massive numbers of aliens who are exploiting our immigration laws to enter the United States illegally in order to live and work in this country are "asylum-seekers".

That article focuses on Rodrigo Carrillo, a 48-year-old Guatemalan national who owns 60 acres of land on which he grows coffee in the town of Hoja Blanca, Huehuetenango. Carrillo previously lived in the United States illegally for 10 years before returning to Hoja Blanca in 2012, and more recently has bribed a Mexican government official for a fraudulent "Mexican identification card with his name and photo on it", that he plans on using to illegally transit Mexico. He will then pay $2,000 to a criminal to smuggle himself and his five-year-old child, Marvel, into the United States.

Although the article does not expressly state this fact, it appears that he plans on utilizing that child as a pawn that will allow him to be quickly processed by the Border Patrol and released into the United States after making an unspecified "asylum" claim to rejoin his wife and a younger child who have already made it to South Carolina.

And he is the hero of the story, curiously enough. The villain? A world-wide decline in coffee prices that has in the short term made his crop unprofitable. Maybe "Brazil — the Saudi Arabia of coffee — the strength of the U.S. dollar and increased production in Vietnam, Honduras and Colombia" are culprits, too, but they more play the role of precipitating factors than intentional actors.

In addition, Carrillo's crop is affected by "coffee rust", which the author of that piece describes as "a fungus believed to be associated with climate change." "[B]elieved to be associated" is one of those phrases that, when used in Wikipedia normally merits the note "[by whom?]". I will note that the American Phytopathological Society states, with respect to that fungus:

The "coffee leaf disease" was first reported by an English explorer on wild Coffea species in the Lake Victoria region of East Africa in 1861. In 1869, the Reverend H. J. Berkeley and his assistant, Mr. Broome, reporting in the Gardeners' Chronicle, described the fungus they found associated with the disease on some dried coffee leaves sent from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Plainly, "climate change" started much earlier in Lake Victoria (coordinates 1°S 33°E) and Sri Lanka (coordinates 6°56′N 79°52′E) than in Hoja Blanca, Huehuetenango, Guatemala (coordinates 15° 35' 0" North, 92° 1' 0" West). It must be moving quickly, though, because according to the Washington Post, "Carrillo made a nice profit" in 2012, when the market price of coffee was $2.00 a pound.

The American Phytopathological Society suggests that there may be more mundane reasons than climate change for the spread of coffee rust:

Thanks to a vigilant quarantine, the Americas remained free of coffee rust until 1970, when it was discovered in the state of Bahia, Brazil. Since virtually all of America's coffee had descended from a single rust-susceptible plant [from the conservatory of Louis XIV], the fungus, flying on the winds, raced through the coffee-growing areas of South America and Central America in less than a decade. H. vastatrix is now found in nearly all the coffee-producing areas of the world, with the exception of Hawaii. [Emphasis added.]

And note that I used the word "affected" to describe the consequences of coffee rust on that crop. The rust can be "combat[ted]" by use of chemicals, according to the Post. Those chemicals cost money, however, which raise the costs of coffee production.

I have been related to farmers, and such booms and busts in commodity prices are part of the costs of doing business in agriculture. The Washington Post, however, treats a swing in the value of a coffee crop as an existential crisis that justifies some fairly calculating and reckless behavior, as discussed below.

Interestingly, although we learn a lot about Rodrigo Carrillo's life and crop, the reader is never given any insight into the nature of that coffee farmer's planned asylum claim, only that he plans on making one in the most calculating and craven way possible:

Carrillo and his wife, Marbel, started planning their own migration route. He still had contacts in South Carolina. He knew how much they could earn there — roughly $8 per hour. Marbel migrated first, with their youngest son, in March. She sends Carrillo videos and photos from her job, painting an apartment complex near Greenville.

"Hello my love, I'm leaving for work," she texted him one morning in English.

"Que inglés me salites, mami," he wrote back. "Now you're speaking English."

Now it's Carrillo's turn to migrate. He's planning to claim asylum. He has picked out a black tie for his son to wear when they turn themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol. He'll wear a new yellow backpack that says "America."

So, he has done the math, divided his children up with his wife to make sure that each has the best chance to get in, and is planning a photo-op for which he has picked out clothes and bought a messaging backpack that will adorn his kindergartener when they get arrested.

Fear of gangs? No indication. Corruption? No suggestion. Extortion? No threats are apparent, or even suggested. The "unprofitability of coffee production" appears to be the sole factor driving Mr. Carrillo and his son to the United States (following his wife and other son). That is not a basis for asylum.

Not that the coffee farmers in Guatemala have not tried to make coffee commodity prices the United States' concern, according to the Post. You will note that the headline in that article is a quote. Here it is in full:

"What we've seen is that the migration problem is a coffee problem," said Genier Hernández, the head of Hoja Blanca's coffee cooperative.

He's not alone in making that connection. In working to combat migration, the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] has funded programs to assist coffee producers. Trump has threatened cuts to those efforts.

When acting homeland security secretary Kevin McAleenan traveled to Guatemala in May, he invited coffee growers, including Hernández, to meet with him. The growers showed him a PowerPoint presentation, titled "Coffee and Migration," with graphs illustrating how much farmers were losing.

"I asked him what he could do about the price," Hernández said.

The article then shifts to a different subject, and provides no answer to Genier Hernández's question, but I can tell you what Kevin McAleenan can do about the price of coffee: nothing, just like he cannot control the price of wheat, oil, or any other commodity. It is not his job, it is up to the market. A farmer can, however, plant a different crop, or sell cropland and invest in some other business. None of those alternatives are even mentioned, however.

So, to recap, coffee is, at the present time, not a profitable crop for most growers in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Although USAID is currently funding programs to help coffee growers (an effort imperiled by the Post's most consistent bad guy, Donald Trump), the Department of Homeland Security is helpless to raise market coffee prices, so it is acceptable for an affected farmer to plot a scheme to engage in document fraud in Mexico and use his child to exploit vulnerabilities in U.S. law and make an unspecified asylum claim in order to travel to South Carolina for an $8-an-hour job.

There is a lot to unpack here. The first point is that the Post article supports contentions made by Guatemalan Minister of Governance Enrique Degenhart in an interview with Stephanie Hamill of the Daily Caller (referenced in a June 11, 2019, post) about "economic migrants" from Guatemala who are coming to the United States looking for jobs, not fleeing insecurity.

The second is that U.S. immigration laws are so lax that even migrants who are planning on breaking those laws (and Mexico's, for that matter) freely discuss their schemes in detail with American reporters, even going so far as to allow photographs of the fake documents that they will use.

The third is the disconnect between the pictures of Guatemalans who have successfully made it to the United States (which are shown in Guatemala, and exemplified by the anecdote of Carrillo's wife Marbel heading out to her job in Greenville, S.C.), and the risks along the route, which are not, a point made by Minister Degenhart. What, if anything, happened to Marbel and her young child on the way to the United States? The Washington Post article offers no clue. The route is dangerous, however, especially for women and children.

The Post treats the final passage of Carrillo and his son, Marvel, in the most blasé terms possible: "When he nears the Arizona border, [Carrillo] said, he'll pay a smuggler roughly $2,000 to get him across." That's it. As if he plans on taking an Uber ride from Bethesda to a Nationals' game. Not that those dangers are a secret. Here is how Acting Secretary McAleenan described smugglers and their activities in his June 11, 2019, testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Every single day, smugglers and traffickers profit from human misery by exploiting people who are seeking a better life. These smugglers, many with ties to transnational criminal organizations, may deprive aliens of food and water, physically assault them, and place them in dangerous travel conditions, such as locking them in tractor-trailers while outside temperatures reach 115 degrees.

We've seen large groups of mostly family units from Guatemala traveling on buses through Mexico to the U.S. border in a much shorter smuggling cycle, making the journey in as little as four to seven days.

Still other migrants are trafficked or used as drug mules. Human traffickers have no regard for the health and safety of the migrants who pay them; as a result, many who make the journey become sick, injured, or traumatized.

Young Marvel Carrillo is shown in the Post article acting like any five-year-old around a camera: He watches cartoons, dons a cape and jumps around like a superhero, swings on a pole, and shows off his new "America" backpack. He likely has no idea of the perils to which his father will expose him for a job paying $8 per hour.

The fourth is the nonchalant attitude that both reporters and migrants have toward abuses of the asylum laws. We know that Carrillo plans on claiming asylum, but neither he nor the Post reporter even attempt to offer any basis for that claim, and none is apparent, as noted above. He is a farmer with an unprofitable crop, but the fact that that does not support an asylum claim is of no moment to either Carrillo or the Post. This is problematic because bad (or nonexistent) asylum claims make it more difficult for meritorious asylum claims to be heard in a timely manner, when family members abroad who may still be in danger could get visas to come to the United States.

Worse, such claims turn off at least a segment of the American people to the very concept of asylum. There are meritorious asylum claims: I have stipulated to grants of asylum when I was an INS trial attorney, and granted asylum when I was an immigration judge. In the story of Rodrigo Carrillo, however, an asylum claim is just a prop, a means to an end, that is, an $8-an-hour job in South Carolina. Stories like this sour Americans to the very concept of asylum. Aliens who baselessly claim asylum make Americans with their humanitarian laws and impulses look like suckers, and no one wants to be a sucker. So, the asylum laws get stricter, and the victims are legitimate asylees.

Farming is a speculative business, and farm failures exact a toll that cannot be overstated on those who have poured their life's savings into the land. Such economic downturns, however, are no excuse for violations of American laws, exploitation of minors, or abuse of our humanitarian forms of relief.