A group of undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation. (Jose Cabezas/AFP-Getty Images)
President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration could grant temporary relief to up to 5 million people facing deportation. Millions more won’t be helped. That includes tens of thousands of Central Americans, many of them children and families, who overwhelmed the Southwest border earlier this year.
In announcing his action, the president said deportation of people who crossed the border illegally remains a priority. But just what does the return journey entail?
An undocumented adult or child from Central America typically crosses into the United States through Mexico. But because they’re not from Mexico, authorities can’t just send them back across the border.
So, the return home for a Central American deportee usually starts with a flight aboard ICE Air, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement air transport program. It flies hundreds of missions each year from a municipal airport in Mesa, Arizona.
In video footage obtained from ICE, adult deportees from Guatemala are marched single file across an airport tarmac and onto an awaiting airliner. All passengers are given meals, access to restrooms and other necessities. Any child traveling alone must be personally escorted by an ICE agent.
ICE Air currently conducts about 25 removal flights a week to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- the Central American countries with the highest rates of illegal immigration to the United States. ICE’s authority ends when deportees walk off the plane in their home country.
On a weekday morning earlier this year, an ICE Air flight touched down just outside San Salvador. Nine children and their mothers were among the deportees.
Jose Angel, a young father who did not want his last named used, was picking up his wife Sonia, 23, and the couple’s 5-year-old son.
A Salvadoran government official pointed Jose Angel to a secured area where he could meet them. Mother and child had been held together for several weeks at an ICE detention center in New Mexico. This was not the reunion the family had hoped for.
After Sonia returned home, our colleagues at NPR affiliate KJZZ reached her by cell phone.
She explained that she had fled to the U.S. after being threatened by local gang members trying to shake her down for money. That was to be the basis of Sonia’s asylum claim. But she never got the chance to plead her case. Her son got sick while they were held in detention. And Sonia got scared.
“When we arrived, he was healthy," said Sonia. "But then he got sick. He had a fever for eight days and they wouldn’t take care of him. My child wouldn’t eat anything.”
Sonia worried her son would grow sicker while she waited for an immigration hearing. Despite spending $6,000 in savings trying to get to the U.S., she opted for a voluntary departure.
In Honduras, Sister Valdette Willeman sees women like Sonia every day. The transplanted Brazilian nun directs the Center for Returned Migrant Services.
“We’ve received women, yes, and also children accompanied by their mothers," said Willeman by phone. "So far, we’ve had 123 kids sent back from the United States."
Willeman operates out of the main airport in San Pedro Sula helping returning migrants when they get off the plane, offering a little cash, a meal and help finding transportation home.
San Pedro Sula is a battleground for warring gangs that earned it an unfortunate title: murder capital of the world. Its homicide rate is about 25 times higher than in Los Angeles. Willeman worries that returning Hondurans may be plunged right back into danger.
"They return to Honduras, and three or four days later the newspaper reports that they’ve been killed," she said. "I think the United States should open up a bit and take a careful look at every Honduran who’s in its immigration jails, just trying to save their lives."
This summer the U.S. pledged over $250 million to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- aid for reintegrating migrants and improving public safety.
It’s still too early to tell if these and other efforts are helping stem the exodus of immigrants from Central America. But the number of unaccompanied minors from Central America apprehended along the Southwest border is down dramatically, from a peak of nearly 11,000 in June to around 2,500 in October. The number of families, like Sonia and her son, has also dropped sharply: from over 16,000 in June to just over 2,000 in October.
Back in El Salvador, Sonia says she rarely leaves her house, for fear of the gangs she was trying to escape.
"I haven’t gone out … only just to the store," she said. "Because I’m scared."
And she said she plans to flee El Salvador again with her son.
" Yeah, that’s what we’re thinking," she said. "If they keep harassing us, we’re going to have to leave here and go somewhere else."
Perhaps she'll try another country in Central America. Sonia’s hopes of returning to the U.S. have diminished: She’s out of money and she fears her chance at winning asylum is slim.
Still, most days the risk of detention and deportation feels less intimidating than her life at home.
Jude Joffe-Block of KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona contributed to this story with reporting from El Salvador.