Sin País

PBS Premiere: Aug. 9, 2012Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

Until 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau did not record the number of immigrants from Guatemala, but it is known that from 1967 to 1980 close to 109,000 Guatemalans immigrated to the United States, due largely to political conflict and a devastating earthquake in 1976. The number has remained steadily around 40,000 in subsequent years. In 1992, Sam and Elida Mejia, featured in Sin País, left Guatemala during a civil war and illegally immigrated to California with their 1-year-old son, Gilbert. While the United States offered asylum to Guatemalan civil war refugees in the 1980s, the Mejias arrived a few years too late to qualify.

Based on results from a U.S. Census Bureau survey, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2006 that there were 320,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the United States. The International Organization for Migration believes an average of 2,500 Guatemalans are deported from the United States every year. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), the annual number of deportations has been stable in the past few years: 370,000 in 2008; 390,000 in 2009; 393,000 in 2010; and 397,000 in 2011. An I.C.E. spokesperson recently stated that that body is "Congressionally funded to remove 400,000 a year."

Illegal immigrants detained by federal officials are usually deported back to their home countries without being informed of their legal right to counsel or being put in touch with their home country consular officials. As punishment for unlawful presence in the United States, undocumented immigrants must return to their native countries to wait out bans lasting three to 10 years before applying for legal residency (assuming they have legal ways to immigrate, which many do not).

While there has been an absence of comprehensive federal immigration reform in recent years, it has been a frequent subject of state-level legislation and has already become a hot-button issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. Many states have advanced laws similar to Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070, which in 2011 made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant. In late June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against much of SB 1070 but did uphold the provision allowing police to check the immigration status of people they detain.

Caption: Sam packing up in the preparation for deportation
Credit: Photo still from Sin País

» CBS News. "Illegal Border-Crossers Rarely Prosecuted."
» Eastman, John C. "Arizona Leads U.S. in Real Immigration Reform." Bloomberg, April 29, 2012.
» Harvard University.
» Jonas, Susanne."Increasing Visibility of Guatemalan Immigrants." Harvard Review of Latin America, Fall 2010/Winter 2011.
» Migration Information Source. "Guatemala: Economic Migrants Replace Political Refugees."
» Migration Policy Institute.
» The New York Times. "Immigration and Emigration."