I’ve spent the last year reading, hearing and writing about the issue of deportation from my vantage point in the United States. My colleagues and I at Univision have covered ICE check-ins gone wrong, brutal traffic stops and racist cops, legal battles, divided families and Trump’s threats of “mass deportation” for “bad hombres.”
I wanted to know what it all looked like from the other side. What happens when these people arrive back to their countries of birth?
Among the places I’ve reported from during this fellowship, I had the opportunity to spend time at the Centro de Atención al Migrante in San Salvador and the Fuerza Aérea in Guatemala City. Both are deportees’ first stops after stepping off a plane from the United States. (The deportees I met had come in planes from Texas and Louisiana, transporting hundreds of people each.)
I spoke to a number of deportees, or retornados, as they’re called here in the Northern Triangle. Their situations varied widely. Some were caught while in transit, crossing the border. Others after many years in the United States. Some felt upbeat, resigned to life in Central America but okay with it. Others were heartbroken and disappointed. Nearly all expressed joy at being able to see family again. Yet a few had left their entire families behind. Many didn’t want to talk. Still more didn’t quite know how to describe how they felt.
Upon arrival, they were given water and snacks; a phone call. They got their shoelaces back, and laced up their sneakers or boots. A number of them carried Bibles. Doctors were available to those with health conditions or illness. In El Salvador, a psychologist offered counseling.
After about an hour of processing, they were free to go.
Just like that.
Some had family members waiting for them. Most left on foot, probably to go grab the bus.
Here are a few of the notes and reflections I scribbled in my notebook while reporting from these two places:
Nearly all young men. Some smiling. Others covering their faces. // Why no shoelaces allowed on the plane? // They became friends on the journey. // “I’m sorry I have bad breath,” he says. // Phone calls to family, locally and in the U.S. // Wives, kids, left behind. // They’ve been traveling for days. // Many caught at the border. Describe a horrible journey. // Wanted something better. American dream. Opportunity. Safety. // Many speak English. // Spent 15 years in the U.S; 19 years; 22 years. The first time back. // Never met his daughter, left when wife was pregnant. // “I failed this time.” // “I made mistakes, I got into trouble.” // “They caught me.” // “I have no one here.” // Detention was freezing. Bad food there. // Handcuffs. // Border patrol was nicer than imagined. // Mixed emotions. // “I’ll go back to working in the fields here.” // “I might try again.” // “My mom’s picking me up. I’m so happy to see her.”