September 19, 2009

Another Day of Mass Deportation - 280 Deportees Arrived in Guatemala City Airport on Friday

On Friday morning, I went to the Guatemala Air Force Base again. There were three planeloads of deportees scheduled to arrive – with a total of 280 deportees for the day. The first plane, with 104 deportees on board, had already arrived.

The room was packed with people, waiting to be called by the immigration officials, standing in line to change dollars or to call their relatives, and going to see the Health ministry officials.

This plane had arrived from San Antonio, TX, and nearly all of the passengers had been caught attempting to cross into the United States. Only three of the passengers had been deported on criminal grounds – the rest for lack of legal papers.

One young man told me it was his second time being deported. He had moved to the US when he was sixteen, and had lived there for ten years. In Michigan, he had a wife and two kids waiting for him. He planned to visit his family in Xela, and try again. With two small children in Michigan, he didn’t see any other option. His main concern was that he might be kidnapped in Mexico. Apparently, kidnappings are on the rise. The kidnappers hold you and demand six thousand dollars from your family. If you don’t come up with it, they kill you.

A young deportee from Guatemala considered himself lucky he had not been kidnapped. It was his first time trying to go to the US. He went alone, with 5,000 quetzales on him – about US $800. Halfway through Mexico, he was attacked by armed gunmen and robbed. Despite being penniless, he decided to keep on going. With the kindness of a few Mexicans, he made it to the border, and almost into the US, before he was nabbed by the Border Patrol.

I was surprised to see two dozen women among the passengers on the first plane. Nearly all deportees are men, and this is usually reflected in the people arriving on the planes. I asked the women why there were 26 women on their plane, and they shrugged their shoulders. The women told me they had all been accosted at the border, but had not traveled together. One petite woman told me she had been hit on the head by Border Patrol agents, even though she had already surrendered. Many of the women were headed to the US to join their partners, who were already there. Some intended to head back to the border.

The second planeload of deportees came from Mesa, Arizona, with 132 deportees. Nineteen of them were women. One young man on the plane stood out because of his sharp clothes, sparkling clean tennis shoes, fat wad of bills, street demeanor, and fully tattooed upper body. I noticed him going around talking to quite a few of the other deportees. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was arranging a group of people right there at the airport to attempt to re-enter the US. Just before leaving the airport, he changed shirts with another deportee. He traded his fresh T-shirt for a long-sleeved shirt that covered up his tattoos. Not a bad idea in a country where people with tattoos are automatically presumed to be gang-members, and where social cleansing is common.

The third planeload was much smaller, 21 passengers, and from the interior of the US, meaning most passengers would have been long-term residents picked up by immigration agents on the streets of the US.

280 deportees in one day is a lot for Guatemala to absorb. The few services they usually offer deportees – a meal, a ride to the bus station, a ticket home for some, currency exchange – were thinly stretched, and many people weren’t able to get any of them.

Watching mass deportation in action never ceases to amaze me.

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