“Altar, Mexico. That town is crazy,” says Kyle De Beausset ’08. But De Beausset is not talking about the kind
“Altar, Mexico. That town is crazy,” says Kyle De Beausset ’08.
But De Beausset is not talking about the kind of Mexican crazy that happens when you mix margaritas in your mouth on the beach at 10 a.m.
Instead, he’s referring to the last stop on his journey documenting the experience of South American migrant workers trying to make it to the United States.
De Beausset is a native South American, fluent Spanish speaker, and an adventurer at heart. But towns like Altar will unnerve even the bravest among us.
A JOURNEY THROUGH HELL
When Hurricane Stan struck Guatemala last October, De Beausset decided to take a year off from Harvard to help with relief efforts.
“With all those things happening, I felt really helpless,” he says. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything at Harvard.”
So De Beausset returned to his father’s shrimp farm on Guatemala’s Pacific coast. He spent his time ensuring the accountability of the non-governmental organizations that had raised money for the relief effort.
But in December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would tighten American borders and force employers to verify prospective employees’ legality. Outraged by the House’s plan to increase the hardships faced by South American immigrant workers, De Beausset decided to take action.
“I always wanted to try to migrate to get closer to what it’s like to be an average Guatemalan, an average person in this world,” he says.
Hoping to publicize the plight of ordinary Guatemalans, De Beausset hatched a plan to document the journey immigrants face from Guatemala into the United States. Getting to the U.S. would mean hiring a pricey smuggler, and weeks of jumping on moving trains, dodging the Mexican police, and avoiding the stream of muggers who prey on the vulnerable travelers.
De Beausset attempted to tag along with a smuggler—known by locals as coyotes. However, for fear of participating in an illegal operation, he refused to pay them. When all the coyotes turned him down, he decided to make the journey alone.
He traveled for weeks, mostly by bus and train, encountering international travelers, Guatemalans looking for a new life in America, and Mexican military officials who harassed him for taking pictures.
In Arriaga, a town in Chiapas, Mexico, De Beausset spent the day meeting and talking to migrants.
“All of them had been mugged several times and had everything taken from them,” he says. “That was pretty heavy emotionally on me. They had been traveling three weeks and they still had months to go.”
SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR
Traveling primarily by bus, De Beausset eventually reached Altar, a city close to the U.S. border.
“I was in this town that I knew nothing about at 3 a.m,” he says. “This green van came up to me and said, ‘Taxi, taxi.’”
De Beausset got in, noticing another man sleeping in the back seat, and asked to be taken to the nearest hotel. But the driver passed by several hotels without stopping, promising that their destination was only several minutes away.
“I knew they wanted money from me,” says De Beausset.
He believes the men were working with coyotes to pick up migrants and force them to pay a fee to be smuggled across the border.
After convincing them that he did not need their services, De Beausset drove with the men to various buildings that he believes were migrant safehouses.
“It looked like a pigsty,” he says. “They give you a carpet. The bottom levels were just filled with people.”
Back in the van, De Beausset said he was an American journalist and demanded to be taken to a hotel. But the men refused and instead made a swipe at his wallet. After a struggle, De Beausset jumped from the van and walked for three hours back to the city.
Two days later, he crossed the border legally into Arizona and eventually made it back to Harvard. But the memories of his journey were intact.
THE FIGHT FOR GUATEMALA
After returning to the United States, in order to document his experiences, De Beausset started a blog with Raquel O. Alvarenga ’08, a co-chair of the Immigration Policy Group at the Institute of Politics (IOP). According to Alvarenga, the blog, which is accessible on Harvard’s CampusTap network, has seen a rise in readership since De Beausset posted his pictures and stories.
“We’re trying to keep this blog going until a just policy is passed,” Alvarenga says.
De Beausset hopes to change the American approach to illegal immigration, particularly from South America. He wants to see a temporary worker program established that will allow for immigrant workers to eventually return home.
But De Beausset believes the best solution to the illegal immigration problem is for the U.S. to spend more money on the development of countries like Guatemala.
“I see the U.S. border policy as the tip of the iceberg. The only way we can get people to stop migrating is to develop the countries where they are from,” he says.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
De Beausset inherits his sense of social justice from his parents, who first went to Guatemala in order to help develop its economy. The couple moved to the country from Ecuador while they were pregnant with De Beausset—his dad is from Taiwan and his mother is American.
“People have the education but there are no opportunities for work,” says De Beausset’s father, Alexander M. De Beausset. “They want something better from life and they go the states.”
Although both of his parents said they were very proud of Kyle for publicizing an important social issue, they were extremely worried about his safety. Before he left, his mother, Jennie L. De Beausset, sewed hidden pockets in his clothes for money and other valuables.
“I was terrified at the risks that he took,” she said.
But Jennie De Beausset says that Kyle has made her more aware of the immigration issue and that he has become somewhat of a celebrity among Guatemalan workers.
“It is really important that he brought this to light and that he takes this issue very seriously,” she says. “I think it’s really important that he did this as a Guatemalan to see this from their point of view. To figure out what it’s like to leave your family...I really respect him for taking that stand.”
Alexander De Beausset says that his own activism has helped to instill in Kyle a “tremendous sense of social responsibility.”
But he now jokes, “I wish I didn’t—then I wouldn’t have to worry so much.”