These articles first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on May 1, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Welcome Home! But Now What?

Repatriated Guatemalan deportees, often dazed and in debt, face an uncertain future once they're back in their troubled homeland

By Janelle Conaway

GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala—They walked across the tarmac and stepped into the reception center at Guatemalan Air Force headquarters, marimba music blaring merrily overhead. Across the front of the room, bright banners displayed a message in Spanish and the indigenous language Ki’che’: “Welcome to Guatemala. You’re in your country now, and with your people.”

The 104 passengers arriving on this charter flight from Texas filed to their seats, many of them looking dazed. It’s no wonder. They’d just been deported from the United States and were trying to figure out what to do next.

 Kevin Jiménez is trying to find a way to stay in Guatemala, but the financial pressures on his family may force him to head for the United States.  Click to see story .

Kevin Jiménez is trying to find a way to stay in Guatemala, but the financial pressures on his family may force him to head for the United States.
Click to see story.

“It’s normal for you to have mixed feelings,” an official from Guatemala’s General Office of Migration assured the group. But, she reminded them, they still had the greatest gift of all—life. “With life, everything is possible!” she shouted, as people clapped and cheered. “There’s a bicycle that’s called life, and we have to keep on pedaling!”

No matter how enthusiastic the pep talk, nobody needed to tell this group how rough the ride ahead would be. Many not only had failed to reach the vaunted American dream, but they were worse off than before—still unemployed and now saddled with debt.

Yolanda Rivas, 26, had borrowed 58,000 quetzales (roughly $7,500) from a bank in Huehuetenango, no questions asked, putting up the family’s rural house as collateral. That money was to pay a coyote, or smuggler, for up to three tries at crossing into the United States. With her family already burdened by other debt, she had decided the only way out was to join her brother-in-law in Virginia and make some money. This was the second time she had been stopped just over the U.S. border. Asked if she would make a third attempt, she just shook her head. “For the moment, I don’t even want to think about that,” she said.

The group included far more men than women, most of them under 30 and a few looking closer to 13 or 14—though nobody admitted to the authorities that they were minors. Álvaro Sánchez, 18, had spent the last three years in New Jersey, with his older sister, attending high school for a couple of years before he started working in construction. Marvin Mateos, 28, had spent 10 years working as a carpenter in Los Angeles and then Austin. A 23-year-old from Mazatenango said he had fled north three months earlier after receiving death threats, but U.S. officials didn’t find his story credible and sent him back.   

As Gustavo Juárez interviews a distraught refugee, 49-year-old Reyna Araca, volunteer Carmen Luca Pellecer gently rubs her hands to comfort her. Araca had been planning to join a friend in North Carolina but was caught after crossing the Rio Grande.

Standing in a line to use the phone, to let his parents know he was back on Guatemalan soil, one man tried to buck up a fellow traveler: “We can go back again,” he said.

Flights like this one, chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, land in Guatemala City most weekdays, sometimes twice a day. Last year, the number deportees arriving from the United States actually dropped nearly 39 percent from the year before, according to Guatemalan government figures; however, the number deported by land, from Mexico, rose sharply, as Mexico tightened its border controls. Deportations by both land and air are down so far this year.

Guatemala and its Central American neighbors have made a commitment to tackle the root causes of emigration, through a U.S.-backed plan called the Alliance for Prosperity. Right now, few services seem to be in place to help returning Guatemalans, but several organizations that work on the issue said they expected more funding to become available soon. President Jimmy Morales, who took office in January, has said that addressing the illegal immigration problem is one of his priorities.

A fledgling nonprofit called the Association of Guatemalan Returnees (ARG for its Spanish acronym), whose members were all deported themselves at some point, is helping a new presidential commission assess some of the needs. Members of the association ask new arrivals some basic questions (How well do you speak English? Would you be interested in a class in computing? What job skills do you have?), in the hopes of someday matching them with employment or training opportunities.

Sometimes just a little help can make a big difference, said ARG member Lesbya Espinal, 47. When she was deported from central Florida in 2013, she benefited from a now-defunct program run by the International Organization for Migration, which enabled her to update her cosmetology skills. Because of that training, she’s now able to supplement the money her husband sends her from Florida.

“Without support and guidance, people just decide to turn around and go back to the United States,” she said.

At the Air Force center, ARG members mingled with their returning fellow citizens, offering a warm handshake and letting them know this was not the end of the world. “You can accomplish a lot in Guatemala too,” the group’s president, Gustavo Juárez, assured one young man.

Once the first arrivals had finished the registration process, they headed out the door, where a handful of organizations had set up tables, most of them unstaffed on this recent day. One banner advertised jobs for English speakers at call centers; another offered shelter to those with nowhere to go. Meanwhile, a government agency provided rides to the city’s bus terminals so the travelers could make their way home.

Inside, the marimba music started up again—another plane had landed—and 133 new arrivals began to file through the door. The official from the General Office of Migration stepped to the front of the room. “Welcome to your country!” she said. “Let’s get to work!”