They are 13 normal kids from Worthington, and they’ve grown up in the small southwestern city doing what most American kids do. They go to school, participate in after-school activities and hang out with their friends.
But at least one thing is different for these 13 kids, and hundreds like them: They have never met their grandparents, and in some cases, their siblings.
The 13 students were born in the United States to Guatemalan parents who either came to the country illegally or overstayed visas. Their parents have worked in and near Worthington for years, laboring for factories or on farms.
Until the government agrees on overhauling the immigration system, the parents of these kids can’t go back to visit family, aware they could not get U.S. passports.
Lisa Kremer was thinking about those parents when she went on an “awareness trips” to Guatemala. Then it occurred to her: The kids are Americans, there is nothing stopping them from getting passports.
So Kremer made a plan.
She began contacting families who were interested in sending their children to meet grandparents they’ve never seen before. In two cases, the kids will also meet siblings who were left behind when parents immigrated.
Kremer worked with local churches and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota to organize the project, called Abuelos y Nietos Juntos, Grandparents and Grandchildren Together. They have raised most of the money to send the children from the parents and fundraisers.
The kids range in ages from 9-13. Their grandparents live in the San Marcos area in the mountains of western Guatemala. They leave July 2 and will stay 10 days, about six of them with their families.
Kremer said the kids are both excited and nervous. Most of them have never traveled at all and will likely be shocked by the conditions and poverty in Guatemala.
The country has had its share of violent conflict at times between the government and guerrillas — a reason many people fled — but it is now safe enough to take the kids back, Kremer said.
“The kids will learn what people have to go through who live in a third-world country,” said Kremer, the project’s director. “They will see that their parents didn’t have much opportunity for employment, and what there was wasn’t enough to feed their families.”
“They are very much American kids,” said Kremer. “They are not familiar with some of the things they are going to face.”
I have traveled throughout Guatemala, so I know they will also be surprised by the spectacular natural beauty, and the humble hospitality of the people.
Kremer says this project transcends any arguments over immigration.
“I think everybody, no matter what your religion or personal beliefs, agrees that families should be together,” she said.
Luis Argueta is a documentary filmmaker who produced a movie on the infamous raids at the meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. He learned about the trip while visiting Worthington to look into immigration issues there. He knew it could make a powerful documentary.
“I think it’s going to be quite emotional,” Argueta said in a call from Guatemala, where he is filming the families preparing for the visit. “These kids are not that old. I think they will see things that are quite surprising. I think it will strengthen their identities and help them understand their parents.”
The group traveling to Guatemala will include volunteers and priests who will help the kids with culture shock and any trepidation they might have.
“The parents had no qualms about sending their kids,” said Kremer. “But for the kids, they are meeting virtual strangers.”
Argueta is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Guatemala, so he understands those emotions.
“Some of them will never want to go back,” Argueta said. “For others, it might be the start of a lifelong relationship. I see these kids as ambassadors to Guatemala.”
Coincidentally, the kids will arrive back in Worthington on July 13, the weekend of the city’s annual international festival to celebrate the community’s diversity.