My husband, three kids and I spent May 28, 2009 to August 13, 2010 traveling to Jamaica, Brazil, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic. During this time, I interviewed people who had been deported from the US for a book I am writing. On this blog, I reported on my travels, trials, tribulations, travails, and random thoughts.
What happens to deportees who arrive in Guatemala City?
Today was another busy day at the Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca – The Guatemalan Air Force base - where planeloads of deportees arrive most weekdays.
The deportees arrive on chartered airplanes, which charge about $25,000 per flight to Guatemala. On the airplane, they are handcuffed and shackled. If they give them food or water during the flight, the passengers have to figure out how to eat with the handcuffs on.
Once off the plane, deportees are greeted by Guatemalan soldiers and various government liaisons. They walk single file into a room, where they sit in rows of white plastic chairs. On each chair is a paper bag with a sandwich and a drink for them to eat in case they arrive hungry. The food is provided by the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Once everyone is seated, an immigration agent explains to the deportees the process they must go through in order to leave the Air Force base. He or she also welcomes them to Guatemala and reminds them to use their real name, as they have nothing to fear, now that they are in their own countries.
Each deportee is called by name to be processed by immigration agents. The immigration agents verify that they are indeed Guatemalan, and not Ecuadorian, for example. They also ask when they left Guatemala and through which port of exit. Each deportee must also be checked by the Ministry of Health officials, whose job it is to find out if the deportees have any communicable diseases. The most common problems are respiratory diseases, and the occasional case of tuberculosis. The Ministry of Health officials wear surgical masks, as do many of the immigration agents. This is especially because of the H1N1 scare. Each deportee also has to have his or her record checked by the Guatemalan police, to ensure that they do not have an outstanding warrant in Guatemala.
Deportees are also provided with a limited number of services. Banrural, a Guatemalan bank, exchanges US dollars for Guatemalan quetzals at the market rate. They don’t change any other currency, so people arriving with Mexican pesos have to wait until they exit to change money. The Ministry of Foreign Relations provides deportees with a two minute phone call to whoever is coming to pick them up. In some cases, they are permitted to call the United States, especially if they need to call the US in order to get the phone number for a relative in Guatemala. The Ministry of Employment also has its liaisons available, who can point deportees to jobs for which they may qualify. In reality, though, few deportees are able to secure employment in this way.
Finally, deportees are given their luggage, and are allowed to leave. The Ministry of Foreign Relations supplies a bus which takes the deportees to terminals where they can take a bus to their home towns. People who are unable to contact their relatives are taken on this same bus to the Casa del Migrante, where they can stay for two days as they try to locate their relatives.
Every day at the airport, a variety of problems arise. Today, two of the passengers had health problems. One woman almost suffered a stroke before being deported from the US, and came directly from the hospital. A man had a severely painful hernia that barely permitted him to walk. I met another man who thought he had been wrongfully deported. He had lived in the US illegally for six years, and then returned to Guatemala. Back in Guatemala, he had a good job and was able to secure a tourist visa to go to the US. However, upon arriving in Guatemala, immigration agents placed him under arrest for his previous illegal stay in the US. His plan to spend a month’s vacation in the US turned into a month-long stay in an immigration detention center before being deported back to Guatemala. Unfortunately for him, the US embassy in Guatemala which granted him the visa did not know that he was ineligible for re-entry based on his previous illegal stay.
Another man I met had lived in the US for eighteen years. When he first arrived in the US in 1991, he was stopped at the border and ordered deported. Once released from immigration custody, however, he did not leave the country. He was able to secure a work visa in the US a couple of years later, and continued to renew this visa until 2005, when his renewal was denied. Nevertheless, he remained in the US, with his wife and daughter who are undocumented like him, as well as his two US citizen children. One morning, he was driving on the highway in Alabama. A police officer pulled him over for speeding. The police officer also used this opportunity to check his records with immigration agents, and found that he had an outstanding deportation order from 1991. He was taken into custody and deported.
Historian Mae Ngai makes the case that, aside from murder and rape, illegal entry is the only crime in the US which doesn’t have a statute of limitations. Thus, this man was deported for the relatively minor infraction of ignoring a deportation order in 1991 – eighteen years later. Had he committed another crime such as robbery or tax evasion in 1991, the statute of limitations would mean that he couldn’t be punished for those crimes. With illegal entry however, this is not the case. I asked him what he was going to do now that he was back in Guatemala while his wife and three kids were in the Alabama. He wasn’t sure yet.
There are no reliable data on how many Guatemalans return to the US once deported, but some estimates are as high as 90 percent. People who have their families in the US are particularly likely to attempt to re-enter. The punishment for re-entry is often at least two years in jail. Deportees are well aware of this, as well as the likelihood that they will be caught crossing the border. Faced with the choice between permanent separation from their spouses and children and the possibility of jail time and another deportation, many take the risk.
A cab driver who told me that one day four deportees leaving the Air Force base contracted him to take them straight back to the border with Mexico. A religious leader told me that many of the migrants that stay at the shelter he offers use their time there to plan their return to the US together.
Deportation is costly, breaks up families, and is a waste of resources when many deportees simply turn around and attempt to re-enter the US. Those who are successful at re-entering return to their lives in the US. Those who are unsuccessful join the over two million people in the US criminal justice system.