NY Times: “The Deported: Uprooted from his life and family in the United States, a Honduran deportee returns to the country that he tried so hard to escape”

by Joseph McKeown

Although deportations this past year are at their lowest levels since President Obama took office in 2009, nevertheless he still has the reputation as the “Deporter-in-Chief” and is still criticized for his harsh deportation policies that over his administration have torn many immigrant families apart. Luke Mogelson in the New York Times profiles some recent deportees from Honduras, a country dominated by gang violence and extreme poverty.

Kelvin Villanueva

Mogelson tells the story of Kelvin Villanueva, a Honduran who lived in the US for fifteen years. One night in Kansas City, Villanueva was pulled over by a policeman because of a broken taillight, arrested, and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After spending the next four months in prisons and detention centers, he was flown back to Honduras, a country he fled because the notorious and violent street gang, the 18th Street Gang, recruited him and threatened him if he did not join. In Kansas City he left behind his partner Suelen Bueno and their four children. While with ICE he attempted to apply for asylum, but was determined ineligible.           

Mogelson does an excellent job at describing Villanueva’s experience of being undocumented in the US and deported. He explains the constant fear of deportation that the undocumented live under, harsh detention at ICE, and being returned in manacles to his home country he tried desperately to escape. Then there’s the immigration attorney who willingly takes thousands of dollars (which they’ve borrowed from a money lender) in case fees and who appears more interested in the Kansas City Royals playoff game than in helping Villanueva evaluate any feasible options for returning to the US. Not to mention Villanueva’s boss who still allegedly owes him thousands of dollars from work and later comes to his house and steals his power tools, the most expensive items he owns.

Villanueva is just one of many deportees in similar situations. Mogelson writes:  

Over the last five years, the United States has deported more than half a million Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, many of whom, like Villanueva, have had to leave their children behind. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says it exercises discretion to target lawbreakers for removal, a majority of Central American deportees have no criminal record. Among those who do, about half are guilty of either a traffic violation or an immigration-related crime — entering the country illegally, for instance.

In Honduras, Villanueva stays with his aunt in a one-room plywood structure that stands in an open field with his brother, himself deported after a DUI conviction, who has left behind his US-citizen wife, son, and daughter. His brother has missed his six-year-old’s birthday, while Villanueva’s youngest daughter refuses to sleep at night, determined to be awake when he returns. His youngest son is uncharacteristically introverted and lethargic, sleeping most of the day. Villanueva’s only thought is to return to his family, even though if caught again entering the US without legal documentation he could face felony charges and a lengthy prison sentence. ‘‘I just need to raise them,’’ Villanueva says of his children. 

Bayron and Belky Cardona

In Honduras, Mogelson meets Bayron and Belky Cardona, a couple who had managed to cross the Rio Grande. Scared of the Border Patrol in Texas, they tried to reenter Mexico but were caught. Cardona and Belky are college graduates in their twenties who had opened a computer-repair shop in Honduras in a building owned by Belky’s father. Mogelson explains why they tried to escape to the US:

Their neighborhood was entirely under the control of the MS-13; members of the gang soon confronted Cardona, demanding an impuesto de guerra, or war tax. Impuestos de guerra are a common source of revenue for gangs throughout Honduras, and in Cardona and Belky’s area, every business paid. The amount the gang wanted far exceeded what Cardona could afford. When he failed to produce the money, the MS-13 threatened to kill him. Cardona and Belky went to the United States Embassy, applied for visas and were denied. Then they alerted the police — ‘‘our big error,’’ Cardona told me.

Now back in Honduras after being deported, Bayron has changed his appearance, grown a beard and replaced his contacts with glasses. While Belky’s father had paid half the amount that MS-13 wanted, neither of them think they could safely remain in Honduras. They are unsure what to do. Belky is humiliated by their treatment in the US. She describes being in a room in McAllen, Texas after her capture where officers are studying monitors showing video feeds from a section of the border. “They laugh at us,’’ she tells Mogelson. ‘‘One officer was celebrating all the people they’d caught. They watch the people crossing — and they laugh at us.’’