Ulster Immigrant Defense Network strained by influx from northern Guatemala
Hundreds of indigenous families from northern Guatemala, many from the same remote village, are transforming midtown Kingston.
Since they started arriving in large numbers in early 2018, assimilation has been challenging, both for the families and the nonprofit Ulster Immigrant Defense Network, which has taken the lead helping the families.
Most of the families at the UIDNs recent food and supply distribution event at Holy Cross Church are indigenous Mayans from rural communities in Guatemala's northern departments (states).
Though some of them were neighbors in their home villages, their reasons vary for trekking from Guatemala to the southern U.S. border to apply for asylum. Several families have said they were displaced from their homes by the Guatemalan government and they are escaping persecution.
Indigenous Mayans have been at odds with the government for generations. Human rights advocates and researchers have documented numerous instances of indigenous families being pushed, sometimes violently, from land they have inhabited for generations, and leasing the land to foreign companies who specialize in mining and palm oil production.
As Darli Mes sorted through bins of donated new and used clothing, she said her main goal of coming to Kingston two years ago from the department of Peten was to give her 5-year-old daughter Rosa a chance to freely go to school and learn English.
Seventh grader Sharis Mucu, who volunteers at the UIDN, arrived five years ago from the department of Alta Verapaz not knowing any English. Mucu, who also volunteers at the weekly food and supply events, said indigenous families have left their villages for the United States "for money ... and for a good life for the kids, and sometimes to help their own mother, like my grandma."
The wave of immigration to Kingston from small villages outside the city of San Luis, Petén seems to have started with positive word of mouth from some of the first indigenous Guatemalans to arrive here in the mid-2010s.The influx has worried the UIDN and other activist groups for a few reasons including the strain on the UIDN's limited resources and limited housing options.
The UIDN formed in 2017 following a change in immigration enforcement policies under the Trump administration. Since 2018, it has been helping the Guatemalan indigenous families with food, legal services, housing and transportation to mandatory appointments with immigration officials in New York City.
Keeping up this rate of assistance has been difficult. Food distribution volunteer Leslie Gallagher said the group was hoping supply chain issues and high food prices would settle down.
"But they didn't, so the number of people coming, and the cost of food has increased, so everything is increasing," she said.
The UIDN's help has proved especially important for newly arrived asylum seekers, because by law they must log six months in the country before being able to legally work and earn a steady income. Many of the asylum seekers in midtown Kingston are still waiting, years after their initial asylum application, for their cases to be heard in court.
UIDN volunteers said they are in dire need of new volunteers, monetary donations, diapers (sizes 4, 5 and 6) and furniture. Donation information can be found on the UIDN's website.