I remember the first time I set foot in Guatemala, in 2012. I had come on a Learning Journey — an opportunity to learn about the country, Mayan history and culture, but also about myself as a relatively privileged Westerner. Upon our arrival in the rural villages around Lake Atitlan, we were greeted with wide smiles and open arms by a group of teen scholars. We walked across the onion fields to a courtyard filled with 30 smiling toddlers in brightly colored clothes. We were hugged by parents. We were welcomed by local leaders. Over the course of eight days, we met with teenagers who were defying the odds, finishing high school and inspiring generations of children to read and write. It was a view of Guatemala all too often overlooked.
Never have I been more nostalgic for that experience than when the youth of Guatemala began to show up in our headlines.
By the end of 2014, as many as 90,000 children are expected to have crossed the border alone into the United States, nearly 75 percent of them from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. With the numbers only increasing, it appears our current policies are ineffective. In 2012 alone, the U.S. government spent more than $18 billion on immigration enforcement — more than spending on U.S. Marshals, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Services and several other agencies combined. Yet the kids keep coming. They are risking their lives to improve their lot, only to end up stuck in the limbo of our legal system and deeply indebted to smugglers.
As a member of the board of directors of Reading Village — a nonprofit organization that empowers youth to eradicate illiteracy and lead their Guatemalan communities out of poverty — I believe we need to look beyond fortifying our borders to solve this immigration crisis.
Here is what I know: Guatemala is the largest country in Central America but spends only 3 percent of its GDP on education. In fact, all public education in Guatemala starting with primary school must be paid for by a student’s family. The $500 it costs to keep a rural child in high school may represent 50 percent of a family’s annual income, forcing them to choose which one of their children to send to school each year.
While the Guatemalan government fails to invest in its education system, nonprofit organizations have stepped in. For the past five years, Reading Village has provided high-school scholarships for indigenous Guatemalan teenagers. In exchange, our scholars participate in four years of leadership development and practice those skills leading literacy programs for the next generation of youth. We only work in communities where we are invited, with buy-in from local authorities and in partnership with parents and educators. In everything we do, we focus on empowering youth to achieve their full potential despite the scarcity all around them.
Reading Village’s effort to invest international resources in locally driven solutions works. We’ve worked with 75 teenagers who in turn have worked with more than 4,500 young kids. What’s more, 100 percent of teens who completed our program have graduated from high school — an accomplishment that fewer than 10 percent of their peers achieve — and more than three-quarters of our graduates are professionally employed. We do all of this by investing a meager $6,000 in each student over the course of their four years in our program. At that rate, the $18 billion spent by the United States on immigration enforcement last year would be more than enough to cover a four-year investment in each of the 3 million school-aged youth in all of Guatemala.
But Reading Village isn’t large enough to reach all the children. Our successes are isolated to one small corner of Central America’s most populous country. Right now, the vast majority of Guatemalan parents have no other choice. They can watch their children languish in poverty or send them to the United States, where they can make as much in an hour as their entire family earns in a day. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
Investment in international programs that increase access to education and give youth the ability to thrive despite limited resources can reverse this exodus. Education alone will increase earning potential and improve health. When combined with leadership skills, youth are no longer victims of a corrupt society but rather critical actors capable of changing the systems around them.
I have seen this happen. I have met those youth.
The image of a shy teenager transformed into a confident scholar and talented reading promoter sticks with me. I met his proud grandfather. I was humbled by his community’s gratitude. These youth don’t need us to increase enforcement spending — they need us to invest in local solutions to this international crisis.
Julia Young lives in San Francisco, works at Facilitate.com and has an MBA from UC Berkeley. She is a member of the board of directors of Reading Village.