A homecoming racked with guilt and shame for Guatemalan migrant children

by October 5, 2015 5:00AM ET

For the 10 percent of young people who are returned from the US, failure weighs heavily, and the safety net is thin

Guatemalan minors Ana, Juan and Adan wait at the air force base at La Aurora Airport in Guatemala City after being repatriated from the United States.
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on Guatemalan migrant children who are returned to their country after unsuccessfully trying to reach the United States. Part two focuses on the disproportionate impact of migration on Guatemala's indigenous communities. Part three looks at children who are apprehended in Mexico before reaching the U.S. border. 

GUATEMALA CITY — They arrive without shoelaces — Ana with her long hair, Juan with his nervous, darting eyes and Adan with his anger. Because they are children and are traveling alone, they are escorted from the airplane to a cordoned-off section of the main building at the Guatemalan air force base at La Aurora international airport. The government psychologist assigned to watch over them tells them they are lucky: Their shoelaces were taken before they left the United States, but at least they weren’t handcuffed.

Outside, the adults deported from the U.S. cover their faces as they exit the airplane. Inside the airport, there are three plastic chairs and three bagged lunches. The boys eat their chips. Ana locates the turquoise rosary given to her at the Arizona shelter where she spent the last seven months. Juan has a gray one. Adan had one as well. He threw it out, just as he threw away the sandwich he was given on the airplane.

It is their first time in Guatemala City, their country’s capital, and it was their first time on an airplane. It was their first time crossing the U.S. border and being returned — but probably not their last. They are 14, 15 or 16, depending on who is asking.

On the rise for several years, the number of unaccompanied minors traveling to the U.S. from Central America reached epic proportions last summer. In fiscal year 2014, more than 50,000 children from Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — were apprehended in the U.S.-Mexico border region. That’s more than double 2013’s total and 15 times 2009’s.

The vast majority — 90 percent or more — of the children stay in the U.S., according to Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. It is mainly children like Juan, Ana and Adan — children who could not be placed in the care of a relative or friend during deportation proceedings — who are returned.

The sense of failure weighs particularly heavy on indigenous adolescents like them, said Maria Rohr, a psychologist at a Catholic shelter for migrants in Guatemala City. Indigenous child migrants often feel responsible for their family’s well being, she said, believing they were their family’s best hope.

“They are carrying a lot of burden of guilt for not being able to make it, without understanding it was not their fault,” said Rohr.

Meals sit ready for migrants arriving from the U.S. at the air force airport in Guatemala City.
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

While efforts have been made to address certain aspects of re-integration at arrival, there is no substantial follow-up, according to a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars report.

The authors of “The Realities of Returning Home: Youth Repatriation in Guatemala” argue that there is no meaningful effort to determine if the children were able to reintegrate and “no indicators of the psychosocial or emotional abilities of the children to reconnect with their families, make sense of the whole experience or readapt to life in their home communities.”

Carol L. Girón Solórzano, director of general projects with the Pastoral Care of Migrants, a religious organization with an office in Guatemala City, agrees: “This is a task we still have to do.”

“The government has taken on a few cases. This is a positive thing, it is good,” said Solórzano. “But it’s insufficient.”

Paul Briere, a deputy in Guatemala’s Congress and the chairman of its immigration committee, was more direct about how little is done for returnees.

“Nothing happens,” he said.

When Oscar A. Chacon, the executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, visited the Northern Triangle last year, he said none of the governments spoke about reintegration programs. “And the reason why they weren’t speaking about reintegration programs is … they don’t have them,” he said.

In order to have such programs, governments need to be operational and healthy and provide a sense of security and well-being, he explained. But if Guatemala could do that, children like Juan, Ana and Adan wouldn’t have left in the first place.

It took Juan 19 days to reach the U.S. and Ana, a month. They were apprehended by U.S. authorities in the desert near the border in February and January, respectively. Adan was caught in April. After months spent in shelters in Arizona, the three children were repatriated to Guatemala in July.

Children under 14 returning from the U.S. are supposed to travel by commercial flight and arrive at Guatemala’s international airport, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those 14 or older — like Juan, Ana and Adan — arrive at the air force airport.

After they pass through immigration and are taken to a nearby building, psychologist Isabel Morales Barrera asks the children how it feels to be back in Guatemala. They ignore her. Barrera, who is with Guatemala’s Secretariat of Social Welfare (SBS), tries again, prompting them to consider how many migrants die on the journey, how lucky they are to have survived, how nice it is to have a government program meet them at the airport. Barrera reminds them that there are two ways to travel — one with proper documents, the other, the way they did, risking the perils of the desert and detection. She encourages them to try the legal way next time.

She does not tell them how to do so.

Ana writes several sentences on a piece of paper and turns it over. The boys write a line or two each in Spanish: “I am happy because you are here to receive me in my country.” “Thank God I’m alive, because a lot of people come back dead.”

Adults deported from the U.S. arrive back in Guatemala. Minors are repatriated in a similar way.
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

The children are given backpacks — blue for the boys, purple for Ana — and photographed. They drop the bags without opening them.

Alex Humberto Ajcuc, 19, is part of a small government team that meets the returning children at the airport. He has been on the job a month. Dressed in red sneakers and a gray hoodie, he gives them playdough. “Some are really sad,” he said. “Some come with a large burden because of all that happens to them on the road.”

While each case is different, there is one thing all the returning children share, said Carol L. Girón Solórzano, the director of general projects with Pastoral Care of Migrants, a religious organization that works with government and nongovernmental entities on migration issues. “They self-blame, so they carry that burden. It’s how they live — the failure of migration,” she said.

When asked, the three teenagers tell Barrera that they made their journey with the help of a coyote, or human smuggler. Their families had to borrow money to pay the coyote and are now in debt.

Ana is the first to play with the modeling clay. She makes a floppy-eared turquoise dog, its front paws resting on a hot dog. In the shelter she became a fan of American food — hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips. She calls the dog Jule.

Juan makes a pink duck.

Adan doesn’t make anything.

In a binder stuffed with drawings of hearts and roses, Ana keeps several handouts she received at the U.S. shelter: the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish, information about how to become an American citizen. She was hoping to live with an aunt in Georgia and work at a nearby chicken processing plant. She never left the shelter.

Juan left once, to attend a baseball game. He has a picture of himself in an Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie and blue baseball cap standing in the stadium bleachers. He wears the same zippered hoodie now. He has a binder from the shelter as well, one filled with English flash cards.

After several hours at the airport, the children are taken to a government-run shelter in Guatemala City where their parents have been notified to meet them.

A psychologist asked Juan to answer “How do you feel being back in Guatemala?” Juan replied, “I feel good because you received me in my country. Thank God that I came back alive and without handcuffs. I’m alive, and soon I will see my family.”
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Before the children arrive, the parents are interviewed by a psychologist who asks whether the child traveled with their permission, how they located a coyote and how much they paid the smuggler. When the children arrive, they are allowed to greet their parents briefly before being taken away for questioning too.

Although the SBS runs the shelter, the national attorney general is responsible for deciding whether it is safe to return the children to their parents. According to Solórzano, many of the children suffer violence at home.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 23 percent of the 302 unaccompanied children from the Northern Triangle it interviewed for a report on unaccompanied child migrants mentioned suffering violence in their home. Attorneys working with unaccompanied child migrants in the U.S. also report high levels of family violence suffered by their Guatemalan clients. And yet, according to SBS head Raquel Vielman de Alcázar, almost all the children who return to Guatemala — 99 percent — are returned to their families.

The Guatemala City shelter is painted cheerful yellows and greens. The bunk beds in the girls’ room are covered with pink bedspreads, the boys’ with blue blankets. The layout is open and light, having recently been remodeled. Everyone speaks Spanish, although that is not the children’s first language.

All three teenagers are indigenous, like 78 percent of the unaccompanied children who are returned to Guatemala, according to the SBS.

At the Guatemala City shelter, parents wait in a reception area cordoned off from their children until they are allowed to take them home. Zulma Garcia, the good-natured psychologist in charge of the shelter, says the children and parents serve as translators for those who don’t speak Spanish.

Juan’s mother, dressed in the Ixil people’s traditional red skirt and colorful woven headdress, lacks official identification documents. She was born during the civil war in a region gravely affected by genocide, never attended school and speaks minimal Spanish.

Juan's parents, center, wait with other relatives of minors repatriated from the U.S. in a shelter in downtown Guatemala City.
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Since last summer’s surge of migrant children, the U.S. has acted on several fronts, funding campaigns to discourage migration, encouraging and funding additional enforcement and opening an in-country refugee processing program for children. What these projects haven’t done is give children a reason to stay, said Alejandra Pamela Argueta, a co-author of “The Realities of Returning Home: Youth Repatriation in Guatemala.”

“That was the big gap,” she said.

At the shelter the children are informed of the risks of crossing and encouraged to stay in school. Juan would like to continue studying. He finished seventh grade, but the school was a two-hour walk followed by the expense of a daily bus ride from his home. His family needs him to work instead; that’s why he went to the U.S. He planned to live with his uncles in Florida and find work so he could send money home to his parents and younger siblings.

He doesn’t qualify for the new U.S. program In-Country Refugee/Parole Processing for Minors in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Alcázar said she sent information to the U.S. Embassy about 200 of the more than 4,500 children who returned to Guatemala this year to see if they would qualify for the program. According to a recent Migration Policy Institute report, 59 Guatemalan applications had been submitted as of mid-August.

After signing release papers, Juan, Ana and Adan are each given a plastic bag with soap, shampoo and toothpaste and sent on their way. Juan walks out with his father, mother and aunt. The family paid $200 to hire a truck and driver to take them to Guatemala City and back. Taking a bus would have been far cheaper, but Juan’s father, Sebastian Matón Chavez, wasn’t sure how he would find his way around what he considers a foreign city, having never been there before and speaking little Spanish.

“I don’t know anything about the city,” he said. “I didn’t want to get lost.”

It is raining when they reach the truck. It is late, and it will be a long ride home. Juan’s parents awoke at 2 a.m. to begin the two-hour hike from their home to a passable road where they could meet the driver. Juan’s flight left the U.S. at 4:30 in the morning.

It is now Friday night. If Juan were still in Arizona, he would be attending the weekly shelter dance.


Juan walks to a bus that will take him from the airport to the shelter in downtown Guatemala City.
Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Ana is a pseudonym; the girl’s name was changed for this story at her mother’s request.

Katya Cengel reported this story with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project