August 21, 2009

Three planeloads of deportees in Guatemala City

Adrian stood out among the deportees at the airport. He was well-dressed, with a button-up shirt and slacks. He had a clean haircut and a recent shave. He was also a lot taller and more muscular than most of the rest.

Adrian came up to me to ask me what I was doing at the military airport, where a planeload of deportees had just arrived from Arizona. I explained that I am a sociologist from the University of Kansas and that I am writing a book on what happens to people once they are deported from the US.

Adrian began to tell me his story. He left Guatemala when he was thirteen years old. He is thirty now. When he was sixteen, his US citizen father applied for Adrian to legalize his status. Adrian was issued a temporary work permit and a social security number. He just had to wait for his green card, his proof of legal permanent residence in the US. Unfortunately, Adrian’s family moved and somehow they forgot about his pending application. Years went by, and Adrian never finished the process, never signed the papers that would have made him a permanent legal resident of the US.

When Adrian was 30 years old, he was arrested on his way to California. He told me that the woman he was riding with became jealous because of his other relationships and they got into an argument. Shortly afterward, she began to insist that she felt ill, that she had a serious bladder infection and needed to see a doctor. With no hospital in sight, he called 911 from his cell phone. The paramedics told him to meet them at the next exit. When he arrived there, the woman told the paramedics that Adrian had tried to kidnap her and had hit her. Adrian was arrested. He waited five months in jail for his trial. Adrian’s lawyer suggested he plead guilty, and accept a bargain for three years probation. After his trial, Adrian he wasn’t released; he was deported to Guatemala, leaving his wife and four kids in the US.

I asked Adrian where he was going. He told me he was going to his grandmother’s house in Guatemala City. Adrian hasn’t been to Guatemala since he was thirteen, and didn’t know what to expect when he left the airport.

Adrian was just one of the over one-hundred deportees who arrived to Guatemala today. Each day, between one and three airplanes full of deportees arrive in Guatemala. Some, like Adrian, have spent years in the US. Others were found in the desert, barely having made it to the US.

I met another young man, Gustavo, who told me the migra saved his life. He was with a group of Guatemalans that crossed the desert to get to the US. Gustavo was wearing boots, and developed blisters all over his feet. He could barely walk. In addition, he was hungry and thirsty. At one point, he could no longer take it and passed out. Lucky for him, immigration officials found him and took him to a detention center. I asked Gustavo if he planned to try again. He assured me he was not. The trip was too traumatic for him.

Today, I saw two planeloads of deportees arrive in the military airport. They come on chartered planes, at $25,000 a planeload. They arrived shackled, with just their clothes on their back. Those who were in prison usually wear all white; some of the ones caught in the desert arrived with caked mud still on their pants. One woman was wearing a low-cut blouse, stretch pants and three inch heels. Perhaps she was on her way to a night club when she was picked up. I called a taxi for her, and she went on her way to the zona 12 of Guatemala City.

Most of the deportees were young men. Less than a quarter were women, and there were two older men – maybe in their seventies. One woman I spoke to had lived in the US for sixteen years, and was crying because she had nowhere to go. She told me she didn’t have any brothers or sisters, her parents were dead, and she didn’t know any of her aunts or uncles in Guatemala. I lent her my cell phone and she called her husband in Fort Meyers, Florida. He gave her the number of his cousin, and he agreed to come pick her up.

Deportees who arrive in the military airport of Guatemala go through processing with Guatemalan migration, then talk to the Health Inspectors, the police, and are allowed to make a call to let their relatives know they have arrived. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Relations offers them a snack – a sandwich with a drink and some cookies.

A recent newspaper article in Guatemala reported that 90 percent of deportees go back to the US within a year. In contrast, none of the people I talked to told me they were going back, at least not illegally. It could be that they think they will be able to return legally, and when they realize they can’t, they take the risk again. Or, when they realize their limited possibilities in Guatemala, and decide to take the trip.

I exchanged numbers with a few deportees at the airport, and asked them to contact me in two months or so, to ask them how they are doing, how they are re-incorporating into society.

I still can’t get over what I saw today – over one hundred people brought back to Guatemala in shackles. So many dreams destroyed and hopes shattered. So much desperation.


  1. Emily: It was hard to be there. So many unmet needs - people needing bus money to get home; people needing immigration lawyers; people needing a phone to call their families. Nevertheless, it was important for me to see it, and I think I will go back. I can't believe they actually let me in!