At his office on Broadway Street in the Texas border town of McAllen, Guatemalan consul Allan Perez said the illegal influx of his countrymen is nothing new, even though the numbers have jumped in recent months.
Indeed, said Perez, the Guatemalan consulate was established here in 2011 because the number of illegal border crossers had already begun to spike, as can be seen in this graph.
Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans form the largest group of OTMs – people from countries Other Than Mexico – who continue to cross the Rio Grande in rubber rafts. Once on U.S. soil, they then start searching for the Border Patrol – la migra – which no longer needs to search for them. Now it is the Border Patrol that is demoralized by the new ritual. Now it is the illegal border crossers who have the satisfaction of mission accomplished.
They know they will be given "permisos" – official documents that allow them to travel on to relatives across the United States and assign them a date before an immigration judge in that area. Most are adults, including many with children. Some children make the harrowing journey across Mexico alone.
Said Perez, "The message that has been received by our people in Guatemala is that if they get here, if they come here with little children, they're going to go ahead and get permits, legal status. And [as for] unaccompanied children, that they are going to enter some sort of – they're going to be allowed to unify with their families and they're going to be able to stay here and study and everything."
Part of the draw, said Perez, is a widespread misunderstanding of the program established by President Obama to provide temporary legal status for persons who were brought to the U.S. as children. That program, which is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is limited to persons who have lived in the U.S. since June of 2007.
Perez said that in Central America, where U.S. immigration policies are a matter of constant discussion and frequent rumor-stoked misinformation, many people are unaware of the DACA eligibility standards.
"They think that if they come here with little children, their little children will get a permit because of the deferred action," he said. He added that the excitement has been fueled by news accounts of the Guatemalans and others who cross the border illegally, are arrested by the Border Patrol, but then are released because the Border Patrol lacks the facilities to detain them until they have their day in court.
Perez said only a small percentage of such persons show up in court. He provided this summary view of their decision-making, often done in consultation with friends, relatives, or immigration attorneys.
"You ask them, 'Are you going to go to court?' And they say 'yes'. Most of them are sincere and they ask you, 'What if I don't go to court?' They have heard, I mean, let's complete the rumors – 'you're going to get a court date but we're going to move and you're never going to show up.'"
Perez said the Guatemalans being released by the Border Patrol are travelling to destinations across the United States, many on the Greyhound bus with tickets paid for by relatives waiting for them at the end of the journey. The relatives also frequently pay smuggling fees of $5,000 or more for the trip to the border.
The most common destination states for the Guatemalans, he said, are New York, California, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Iowa.
While Perez acknowledged that many of his countrymen say they are fleeing gang violence, he said the fundamental motivation is often a romantic view of life in the United States.
"I think they are trying to see what the American dream is all about. You hear those rumors [about the] the American dream, that if they could come here they would make it. But, no offense to anyone in this country ... But there is also poverty here. There also violence here. There are also gangs here. So they argue they are leaving our country from those perils, but those perils are here too."
The biggest draw, Perez said, is the opportunity to earn in a single hour what many could accumulate only in an entire day back home.