October 15, 2009

Ten Years after Being Deported, Jewish Guatemalan Deportee Longs to Return to the US

Don Rafael was born in Guatemala City in 1950 into a wealthy Jewish family. His parents separated when he was young, but his mother had enough of her own money to send him to the prestigious English-American high school in Guatemala City.

As a youth, Don Rafael traveled frequently to the United States to visit his brother and other family members who lived there. His first extended stay was in 1970, when he enrolled in the University of North Florida, where he studied for two years. He traveled again to the US in 1980, this time with his wife and three-year old daughter. This time, they stayed for four years, as Don Rafael had a successful Mercedes dealership. They decided to move back, as his wife yearned to be in Guatemala again.

In 1985, their second daughter was born, in Guatemala City, and they remade their life in Guatemala. In 1989, the family unexpectedly had to flee Guatemala. Don Rafael was a witness to a political assassination, and his life was in danger. He traveled to the US first, and his family came afterwards. Once in the US, they applied for political asylum, as Don Rafael would likely be killed were he to return to Guatemala.

Their lawyer advised Don Rafael not to seek employment until his work permit arrived. Unfortunately, the lawyer closed his office without telling Don Rafael, and, when the work permit arrived, it was sent back. Unaware, Don Rafael and his family lived on their savings, without working, for over a year. When their savings were used up, they ended up at the homeless shelter.

Unwilling to violate the law by working, Don Rafael decided that his best shot would be to open a business. He made friends with the head of the homeless shelter, and the two of them opened up an import/export business, bringing shoes from Mexico for sale in the US. That venture did fairly well, and allowed Don Rafael to get back on his feet.

His next business venture was a bilingual school that did asbestos safety training in Spanish and English for laborers. The school did well, and they were able to live off of that for several years. The problem was that Don Rafael worked constantly and barely had vacations. He decided to close the school went into business with his brother, who had done very well for himself.

Don Rafael’s brother, Mateo, had a successful business doing touch-up work for cars, and Don Rafael went to work with him. He had to travel quite a bit, but stayed as a business partner of his brother for about a year and a half. Eventually, he felt as though his brother was not giving him his fair share and decided to open up his own business, doing the same thing his brother was doing.

His business did tremendously well, and, Don Rafael was making a lot of money off of his new business. He was able to buy a nice house, had five cars, and had his oldest daughter in University. However, the family had never legalized their status. Their asylum application had been denied, and the lawyer was still supposed to be appealing the case, over a decade later.

Don Rafael’s brother was not pleased with the fact that Don Rafael opened up his own business, and decided to pull some strings. Mateo was friends with the then-governor of Louisiana and was able to get immigration agents to come looking for Don Rafael. One morning, immigration agents showed up at Don Rafael’s house and told them that his brother had called immigration on them, and that they had thirty days to leave the country. They could not believe that their dreams had turned into a nightmare. Don Rafael was determined to keep his family in the US, and moved to a new address in an attempt to hide from immigration agents.

Thirty days later, they were caught. This time, they were only given four days to leave. And, Don Rafael and his older daughter were taken into custody. Doña Mariluna did what she could to gather her things, but was in a state of shock and was unable to collect some of the most valuable items. In addition, as they had just finished decorating the house, it was too much for her to bring herself to take it all apart.

When they arrived in Guatemala, they did not have a house of their own. They were lucky that Don Rafael’s mother had left them a small, simple house in the outskirts of Guatemala City. It was nothing like the house they had left behind, but they had a roof over their head.

Don Rafael was not able to secure employment in Guatemala City. He was nearly fifty years old, and too old or too qualified for any position he sought. Doña Mariluna found out that, as she had worked as a teacher before leaving Guatemala, she could collect her pension. She spent a year getting the papers together before she finally was able to collect the monies. In the meantime, they depended on the charity of their family members, who lent them furniture and gave them bags of rice and beans to eat.

Their two daughters entered into a deep depression and spent their days sleeping. Doña Mariluna tried to enroll her youngest daughter in school. However, with no record of ever having studied in Guatemala, the public schools refused to enroll her. Private schools were beyond their reach. As a result, their older daughter never finished high school.

Although they have not been able to achieve financial success in Guatemala, they are not poor either, at least by Guatemalan standards. As Don Rafael and Doña Mariluna are both from wealthy families, they both have received inheritances that they have been able to turn into income. They own several properties and collect rent from those properties. They were able to take out a loan and open up a small store in the city center.

Don Rafael explained to me that he has the opportunity to move to other countries. His mother was born in Germany, and he could move there. As a Jewish man, he could move to Israel. He also could go to Spain. However, he would rather stay in Guatemala than move to a country where he knows no one. In contrast, he would move back to the United States. He loves America. In the US, he was able to build a successful business. He received help from many kind and generous people. He would love to return to the United States.

It has been nearly ten years since they were deported, and Don Rafael hopes that they will be able to return to the US some day. He plans to apply for a visa, asking for a pardon for having overstayed his previous visa. It is his family’s dream to return to the US and re-build their life there.

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