The Intercept, May 2017.
See accompanying film by Leighton Akio Woodhouse and Pedro Armando Aparicio here.
Thousands of miles from his home and family, Jose Escobar lives in a small rural community in La Unión, El Salvador, amid fields of sugar cane and corn, bordered by the Chaparrastique volcano and the Gulf of Fonseca. Escobar, 31, is desperate to leave El Salvador but feels trapped. He was deported from the United States on March 2.
Escobar immigrated to the U.S. with his mother as a teenager and built a life there. He got married, had children, and made a good living running a painting company and managing a construction firm in Houston. Before he was deported, he said, he spent a lot of time hiding markers and pens in his home from his nearly 2-year-old daughter, who had recently discovered the joys of drawing on walls. After 17 years in Houston, Escobar became one of more than 40,000 people arrested for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement between January and May under President Trump’s “bad hombres” pledge. But Escobar, like nearly 11,000 others who were arrested, had no criminal record. He was a prominent member of the local community, and his wife and children are U.S. citizens.
Escobar used to be a legal resident of the U.S. with temporary protected status but he lost that status when he was a teenager after his mother missed a deadline to file for renewal. When he tried to re-apply in 2006, an immigration court had already issued a removal order. After an outcry in the local community, ICE gave Escobar permission to stay and work in the country if he checked in annually. This year when Escobar checked in, officials detained him, deporting him days later.
Deportations had already reached a historic high under President Obama, but the Trump administration has targeted groups, like university students and longtime residents, who were previously protected or at least tolerated.
As in the U.S., the power of Trump’s rhetoric in El Salvador is the image it sells, said Gerardo Alegría, an official at the government Human Rights Ombudsman’s office in San Salvador. The numbers of deportees were already “scandalous” under Obama, Alegría said, but the “speculation and fear” Trump has caused led the Salvadoran government to build up deportee assimilation programs. “The need for this isn’t new,” he said, “but we can take advantage of the atmosphere to improve the services and legal support that everyone needs to defend their rights.”
Escobar and his wife, Rose, are challenging the legality of his deportation, as is Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.
The day he was deported, Escobar walked off the plane in El Salvador in shock. Most of the other deportees on his flight hadn’t spent more than a few years living in the U.S. and they knew what to expect. A government representative from the “Welcome Home” program for los retornados met the deportees and offered them a meal, basic information on the security situation in the country, and a pamphlet on job opportunities with call centers. They loaded them into a van and took them for further processing to a police station located in one of San Salvador’s most violent neighborhoods, La Chacra, which straddles the territory of all three of El Salvador’s major gangs and is thus divided by invisible borders and gunfire.
“It made me remember my days at school in the Inframen, the shootouts,” Escobar said, referencing the public school he attended in San Salvador before emigrating, where nascent gangs took root before spreading across the country. That violence was the reason his mother sent him to Houston at age 15. “I didn’t want to be around there. So I considered going to Mejicanos,” he said, referring to a community where he had lived before emigrating, “but that has totally changed, who controls what, the gangs, that’s different.”
Escobar would be a stranger in Mejicanos now, and if he went there, he might not make it out alive. So he and another man from his plane pooled their cash and found a driver who taxied them three hours to the bridge over the Lempa River, where Escobar’s aunts, notified by a phone call from Rose, were waiting for him.
At home in Houston, Escobar earned between $120,000 and $130,000 annually, he said, and he had paid taxes since 2005. Like many immigrants, he also sent money home to El Salvador. After first arriving in the U.S., Escobar attended high school but soon left to work in a contracting business to support his family. There, he learned to shampoo carpets, lay tile, and do apartment maintenance. He moved on to other companies and eventually worked his way to manager. His employees respect him for his familiarity with the work, he said. “I used to be one of them, and I know how hard the work is,” he said. “We have trust.”
In La Unión, Escobar is struggling to adjust. His offhand cultural references — he joked that our cameras following him around the house were eerily similar to “The Blair Witch Project” — constantly remind him and the two aunts and three cousins who live in the house that he’s out of place. The ubiquitous violence means Escobar can’t ever leave the house alone. When I asked his aunt Emilia whether the neighborhood was dangerous, she answered the way anyone well-adjusted to violence would: “No. We just lock all the windows and doors at 8 p.m. and don’t go out anymore.”
This is not easy for his Salvadoran family. Aunt Emilia, with light blue eyes and gray hair in a ponytail, rolled a mound of soap over one of Escobar’s white undershirts at the concrete outdoor sink. “We don’t leave him alone in the house,” she said. “We take him to church with us on Sundays.” Her 26-year-old son acts as a bodyguard because he’s known to local police and gang members, so he takes Escobar for a daily walk to the corner store to buy a soda. The rest of the time Escobar remains inside, sitting or pacing the house. Emilia scrubbed the shirt and watched Escobar on a bench scrolling through his phone for the latest American news. “His kids,” she murmured, as if trying not to scare him away. “He’s crazy to get back to his kids.”
Escobar also worries about his wife, Rose. “She gets home from a long day at work and she has to switch the mental chip to ‘Mom.’ Then the kids go to bed and late at night she switches the chip again to do my legal defense,” he said. “It’s all on her shoulders. And I can’t do anything to help her.”
In a grassy roundabout near the entrance to the Escobars’ neighborhood in La Unión stands a giant concrete cross, a memorial to Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered by the Salvadoran army in 1980 for denouncing militarism and injustice. Romero had decried the economic violence that forced people to flee home. “It is sad to have to abandon one’s homeland,” he once said in a homily from 1978, “because there is no just system where work can be found.”
Romero might as well have been talking about the Escobars. When Jose and his mother left 17 years ago, they were fleeing violence. They sent money back to support those who stayed. Now deportation divides the Escobar family again. Jose is caged in this house that his U.S. salary helped build. His aunts are desperate to alleviate his pain, but they feel helpless.
In Houston, Rose does her best to keep her husband present. “I try to make sure Jose’s there, like when we’re eating dinner. I’ll call so we can have our conversation like we always used to do, where Walter goes, ‘So daddy, how was your day today? Mommy, how was your day today?’”
Rose has installed cameras inside the house so Escobar can feel as if he were home, too, and around midnight every evening he activates the house alarm in Houston from his cellphone in La Unión. “I don’t want to just leave them.”
To pass the time, Escobar decided several weeks ago to build a bigger cage for his aunts’ green parakeets. He stroked an iron bar of the new cage and explained why. “They couldn’t fly.”