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When The U.S. Deports Migrants, Remittances To Family Stop


There's a lot of focus in this country about the fate of people facing deportation in the U.S. But what happens to the communities where those immigrants are returned to? Reporter Alice Fordham visited a village in Guatemala years after some of its residents were sent home.


ALICE FORDHAM: In a village clinging to the side of a volcano, I'm in a cinder block house with the corn harvest piled up, a chicken coop in the corner, pots bubbling on a stove in the courtyard. It's no mansion, but it's the life's work of the owner welcoming us in.

FLORENCIO HERNANDEZ: Mi nombre es Florencio Hernandez.

FORDHAM: Florencio Hernandez is a gruff but friendly man with a deeply lined face, and migration has shaped his life.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: He was born here in the village of San Jose Calderas and mostly farmed till hurricanes destroyed his harvest in the '90s, when he made the tough decision to head to the U.S. in 2000, when he was in his late 30s.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: He made it to Texas without too much trouble but struggled to find work, eventually getting a gig cleaning a table-dancing bar.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: He was deported in 2003 but went back in 2005, joining a stream of villagers who had been finding work for a few years in a meatpacking plant in the town of Postville, Iowa. He took three of his sons along with him, and says several hundred men and some women from this village and others nearby worked in the plant. And they sent portions of their wages back to relatives in the village. It's hard to overstate how much their remittances changed life here.


FORDHAM: To understand, I talk with someone who stayed behind, Hernandez's neighbor, Maria Lopez Santos, after she fries eggs and flips tortillas for lunch.

MARIA LOPEZ SANTOS: (Through interpreter) Before everyone started leaving for the U.S., all the houses were made out of wooden canes and wire.

FORDHAM: Guatemala had lived through half a century of civil war. Rural areas like this were isolated, often hungry, with kids at least as likely to be working as in school.

SANTOS: (Through interpreter) But thanks to the United States, those who knew how to think and manage their money began to build houses and vegetable plots.

FORDHAM: Like many families, the remittances meant her kids got through high school, and they built a house. The village prospered, if modestly. Then one day in 2008, a shock.

SANTOS: (Through interpreter) We were coming down from the mountain from our vegetable plot, and we met a woman, and she said to us, look, have you heard what happened? And I said, no. And she said, they caught our children.

FORDHAM: Immigration and Customs Enforcement swooped on the plant in the town of Postville, Iowa, in a raid that would become notorious. They arrested nearly 400 undocumented workers. Most were deported, and a local leader says about 160 came back to this village where about 550 families live. Everyone here remembers that time.


FORDHAM: I take a walk up the volcano with another villager, Juan Gonzales, who tells me about it.

JUAN GONZALES: When they living over there, everything was great in this community. But when they deported, oh, this was so crazy in this community - no more money, any worker to do anything. Like, everything is coming down - you know? - breaks - you know? - for this community.

FORDHAM: Some people have mortgaged their houses to pay for the journey, so they became homeless. Newly impoverished neighbors found it hard to help them. All the progress - the houses, the schooling, the land they've bought to grow food - suddenly looked very fragile. Now, this village is an extreme example, but many deportations have wider impacts. Some migration experts worry that an uptick in deportation from the U.S. could fuel organized crime in Central America, as people finding themselves back home and penniless get sucked into gangs. Here in San Jose Calderas, although there's still a lot of poverty 10 years after the fateful raid, a spark of hope came when one family started a tourism company leading people on trips up the volcano. It employs local residents, many of them deportees.


FORDHAM: Florencio Hernandez is one of them. Back in his courtyard house, he's washing up before setting off on a two-day expedition.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FORDHAM: "Oh, I wanted a life in the U.S.," he says, "but this is the way things are, and I have to accept reality." He heaves on a rucksack and trudges up toward the volcano. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in San Jose Calderas, Guatemala.


Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.