By J. Emilio Flores
Editor’s Note: Each day, the United States sends plane-fulls of undocumented immigrants back to their countries of origin. Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported nearly 20,000 undocumented immigrants to El Salvador. La Opinión boarded one of these flights and followed a deportee home to meet his family.
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador “When you get out off the bus, everyone put your hands on your head,” says Francisco Carranco, an immigration agent.
The men and women who get off the bus silently, almost indifferently, and walk up the ramp into a white airplane are undocumented immigrants who were arrested on the border. Their “American dream” ends today: This plane ride is not for tourists or pleasure; there are no flight attendants and there is no pleasant destination awaiting them on the other side. This is a flight of deportees being sent back to El Salvador.
The plane waits on the runway of the Harlingen, Tex. airport, to pick up its human cargo. The flights operated by the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leave daily. They go to Central and South America as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border plan, in order to “protect the border and reduce illegal immigration.” This time, the flight is considered “low risk” since the passengers have no criminal records: their “crime” was attempting to cross the border.
Eighty men and 39 women board the airplane. For many, this is the beginning of another journey, one that offers them little hope and an uncertain future.
Before disappearing into the stomach of the airplane, some throw their hands into the air in a salute, saying goodbye to no one, giving thanks for nothing. Others make the sign of the cross. After being escorted to their red seats, each with the insignia of ICE on the back, they fasten their seat belts.
“Your attention please: this flight will take two hours to arrive in El Salvador. After half an hour, those who want to go to the bathroom please raise your hand. One by one, women first. Please be respectful.”
When the turbines start to accelerate, some of the women hold each other’s hands and close their eyes. Many here have never flown before. Some men fall asleep. Others joke:
“Hey you, what movie are you going to show?” “‘The Great Escape’?”
As the plane climbs higher they look out the window to get one last glimpse of a land they will never see again.
“As you can see, we try to make sure they leave as comfortable as possible, in a very humane way,” says Michael Pitts, head of ICE’s deportee flight operations unit. “For a lot of them, this is the end of a long journey; they have been in detention centers and they are relieved to know that they are going home,” Pitts adds. “We give them food and even take them to a doctor if anyone gets sick.”
The passengers are in the custody of private contractors of PTS of America, a prisoner transportation service, based in Tennessee. Their agents watch the deportees’ every move. One of the agents, George Morales, 61, flies four times a week.
“The young people are the loudest; they don’t go easy like the adults and the women. Ninety percent are people like you and me, who have dreams of a better life,” says Morales. “Sometimes they want to tell me their stories but I don’t want to hear them, they are very sad.”
Everyone has a story, but few respond to our questions.
After various “no’s,” several people dare to speak with La Opinión, but not without first signing a consent form in the presence of an ICE agent that absolves the U.S. government of any lawsuit that may result from the interview.
María del Carmen Valiente gives thanks to God for being alive. She was abandoned on “the hill” by a “coyote,” or smuggler, and wandered lost for four days.
“I was very cold and thirsty. God helped me. I only thought of my three children. Other (immigrants) that had come with me were raped and one saw a cadaver being pecked at by animals,” says Valiente, who finally found a ranch and turned herself in. To come to the United States, she says, she had to sell two plots of land. She paid the coyote $6,000.
“After so much crying, now the tears don’t even flow. Sometimes you have to take a risk, but I won’t go back again. I was saved this time, but next time I might not be so lucky. I’m staying here, with nothing, but I’m staying. For me, the ‘American dream’ is already dead.”
Hernán García is another one of those who had very little and risked everything, only to return with nothing.
He was detained crossing the border into Texas and was imprisoned for 135 days, longer than anyone else on the plane. “I tried to ask the judge if I could pay a fine but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and I signed the deportation (order),” he says. “My idea was to make a little money to fix my house so my children could have what I never did.”
He seems to be smiling, but soon his tears reveal a broken heart. “My poor children, I left them at my brother’s house.”
He beats his chest with his fist, saying, “There are hard paths and life hits you hard, dreams are lost, illusions don’t come true. Now I’ve been asking God for a lot of things, for Him to give me the strength to go on. I haven’t seen my family for so long!”
After two hours the plane lands in San Salvador and when members of ICE applaud, some immigrants join in. The detainees get off the plane and enter a room where they will continue to be detained.
Hernán García and the others are received with pupusas, weak coffee and an anti-tetanus vaccine. Before they are set free, they must complete two interviews with the police and local immigration authorities. In the waiting room, they watch a welcome video that invites them to “unite with the forces of good and work hard to make El Salvador a safe and developed country.”
They receive six dollars, courtesy of the government, to take the bus.
Hernán García leaves, carrying his only possession: a folder filled with the songs he has written for his children. His final destination is the furthest point of the country: Santa Rosa de Lima in La Unión, near the Honduran border. The four-hour bus ride winds through green landscapes past volcanoes, on streets crowded with aggressive drivers and street vendors selling coconuts.
In the neighborhood where Hernán lives, there are no paved roads only landfills and a river of sewage. But here, even if for a moment, he doesn’t think about his debts or the future. With a smile on his face, his chin held high, he knocks at the door of a house and wakes up the chickens and the dogs.
Behind a gate, small voices are joyfully shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!”
They open the door and four little ones crash into Hernán. “Daddy, I passed second grade!” one of them says. Another says, “And the cat had kittens!” Hernán’s children have been living with his brother in a house with a dirt floor and clothes lines drying in the open air. Everyone hides their tears over the fruitless sacrifices of the man who has returned empty-handed.
But Hernán García doesn’t stop smiling and hugging his children. Here, where the American dream has ended, where he has nothing, he feels free.
Translated by Elena Shore. Photos by J. Emilio Flores / La Opinión.