We met two of our our own who have been deported and exiled to Central America. One, a bright, caring young Dreamer; the other a Mennonite Pastor, father of 4 US citizen children, who had lived in the US for 20 years. Both deported and exiled from their family members, work, communities and life with us in the United States.
Part 1: The Dreamer
“I thought that the US was my country,” says Victor, the young DREAMer*, who had graduated from a California high school and worked as a skilled nursing assistant, caring for the elderly in Riverside County, California. To see his face light up as he describes how much he loved his work cleaning, feeding, providing physical therapy and caring for elderly residents of the nursing home, made me pray that I will have someone like Victor assisting me when I get old.
In 2009, just a few years before Victor might have applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to protect him from deportation and provide him access to a legal work permit, Elliot was deported for working without legitimate work papers.
“I knew I had done things the wrong way, because there was no other way to do it. But I wasn’t hurting nobody. So when ICE ordered me to appear in court, I wanted to do the things the right way so I showed up at court.”
Unsuspectingly, at court he was detained and jailed for 3 months, turned over to ICE, transferred from California to an immigration detention center in Louisiana where he was held for two more months before being deported back to Guatemala. It was demeaning and dehumanizing. “I was shackled and treated like an animal,” he says. “Why did they have to be transfer me to Louisiana? It was so far away, my family couldn’t visit me or send me a lawyer.”
What happened to Victor has disillusioned him about the United States and everything he learned in school about who this country was. “I felt like the U.S. was my country and that I had been good for this country. ”
Now 6 years after his deportation, Victor is working in Guatemala at a call center for a US phone company, where 90% of the employees are other deportees like him. They are regularly cheated in their pay and benefits.
Victor is a binational person. Binational, like the US phone company where he works. Binational like his family has been for decades, when some had to leave years ago for the US to work. After decades his older brother is still undocumented, working and helping this binational family survive. But unlike the phone company he works for, Victor and his family members cannot fairly and freely move across borders. They are not able to occasionally visit or spend Christmas together as a united family. In fact, that was how Victor ended up undocumented in the U.S in the first place, accompanying his mother to the US, so she could see her older son who, because of our immigration laws, has not been able to visit.
Last year 90,000 Guatemalan migrants were deported. Some from the United States, even more from Mexico which is now doing more of the enforcement at the behest and funding of the U.S. Many of them are bright, caring and sensitive people like Victor, people we would be lucky to have as our neighbors. (We will post a video by Victor with more of his story coming soon.)
Part 2: The Pastor
We drove for hours along rutted dirt roads, deeper and deeper into the countryside, outside San Pedro Sula, passing enormous banana plantations, and land holdings of African palm for export. Honduras is a land and mineral rich country, but just ten families own most of the land which seems to be primarily used for extractive and export products.
This is the remote rural area where Pastor Max grew up. “When I was young we ate only one meal a day, we had only tortillas. Rain came through our roof. 7 out of 30 members of my family left to migrate to the US to work in order to support the rest of the family. I went to the US looking for basic things this country didn`t offer me.”
He lived in the U.S.for 20 years making a life for himself as a skilled construction worker, getting married, having 4 children and becoming pastor of Igesia Torre Fuerte in near Iowa City.
Abruptly 6 months ago on March 20, 2015, Pastor Max Villatoro, was deported back to Honduras. ICE came to grab Max on his way to work one morning , for an unresolved immigration papers violation 17 years ago involving false papers. “I didn’t do it to hurt anyone, but to get a job.” Max was detained that day, moved around to several detention centers. The family was never told where they were taking him he and he ended up in New Orleans. 17 days later he was deported, despite an unprecedented collection of 40,000 signatures from all across the country sent to ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana. Max “wanted to do things right” and trusted the government’s process to take into consideration his contributions to society and his family. But as religious leader active in trying to prevent Max’s deportation said, “ICE does what ICE wants to do.”
The adjustment has been difficult. After 20 years in the US, Pastor Max almost seems more comfortable speaking in English than Spanish. He has lost some of his vocabulary. To avoid the widespread violence in Honduras, he has has to live far off in the countryside. “There’s nothing for me here.” Everything in Pastor Max`s life is in the US.: his family, his work, his community near Iowa City and the jointly led ministry with his wife.
Our visit happened to coincide with a visit by pastor Max’s 4 US citizen children, aged 7-14, who had come to visit, seeing their father again for the first time, since he was deported. Max’s wife was not able to come safely – so though the reunion was poignant, the family was still incomplete.
It has been especially hard on the kids. The kids have had a hard time staying focused at school and dealing with the traumatic separation. “What will we do if they won’t let my dad come back,” asked Max’s 11 year old daughter?
Anthony, Max’s 15 year old son says, “it has changed the view I have of my government. Our government is not considering the good deeds and contributions to our community.”
What would you want us to tell our leaders and communities in the United States, we asked, Pastor Max?
“Fight for those whom the law doesn’t give a second chance. Really review those cases. We are good citizens. I was a good citizen for the US. A lot of people get hurt by deportation,” Pastor Max responded.
Each day, one to two plane loads carrying between 50-125 deportees from the U.S. arrive in Honduras. Many people attempt to go right back as soon as they can make arrangements. Pastor Max wants to do the right thing and honor the 10 year bar from re-entry to the United States placed on him even thought that means an unimaginable separation from his family. “I told them I wouldn’t go back. I want to keep my word and do things right. I hope to someday be able to return to my family.”
Making Meaning out of Deportation
Both these exiled and deported members of our family have sought to make meaning out of their experiences. Trying to find God in something as traumatic, humiliating and painful as deportation. They both exhibit tremendous faith and belief that God is still with them and creating something good out this sad and life-altering situation.
For Victor- he has found a new pride in being Guatemalan- something he found sadly difficult in the United States. For Pastor Max, it seems too soon to tell, but he is certain God has some purpose in this and he is determined to find it.
“I know it looks like I won’t come back to the US. But I don’t go by sight, I walk by faith. When things get difficult, God shows up,” says Max.
That is their strength and their faith. Their generosity of spirit, their courage to believe. Their stretch towards the arc of justice and a God of hope and life.
They told us that we give them hope. But I hope we as a nation can give them something more: a second chance; an apology; justice, honor and respect for who they are and the contributions they have made to our country; the opportunity to be with their families in the US; what we would hope for all immigrants; what we would hope for one of our own.
– Rev. Deborah Lee –
You can take ACTION & Make a Phone Call to Bring Pastor Max Home:
*The term DREAMer, is a term to describe young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, who have lived and gone to school here, and who in many cases identify as American. The term DREAMer originally took its name from the “Dream Act,” a bill introduced in Congress in 2001 which would provide a path for them to legalize their status, but to this date, that has not passed. It also has a double meaning as it refers to undocumented youth who have big hopes and dreams for a better future. There are an estimated 2.1 million DREAMers in the US.