‘I Want to Go Back’: In Guatemala, U.S.-Born Kids Struggle After Their Parents’ Deportation

Fellows 2015

By Katya Cengel

April 13, 2016

Also published by Vice

Amavilia remembers the United States. She remembers watching Dora the Explorer and eating ice cream at a Chinese buffet. She remembers hanging out with friends after school, living in a three-bedroom apartment, and speaking English. She also remembers what relatives told her about her parents' home country of Guatemala.

"They told me [it was] a dangerous place," the 13-year-old says.

Her 10-year-old brother, Edison, mentions a video of Guatemala he once watched, and the "very bad things" it showed — police and people fighting on the street.

"I knew it was ugly," he says of the country where he and his sister, both born in the US, now live.

Edison, right, with his mother in their Guatemala home. (Photo by Daniele Volpe)

In 2014, a historic peak of about 68,000 unaccompanied and undocumented children from Central America were apprehended in the US after violence and poverty drove them north. That number is lower today, but of the countries that make up Central America's troubled Northern Triangle region — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — Guatemala sends the most children northward. Between October 2015 and January 2016, US Customs and Border Protection reported that 8,329 unaccompanied Guatemalan children were apprehended.

Amavilia and Edison, however, are part of a group of children making the opposite journey: American-born kids who end up back in Guatemala — and in Mexico and other Central American countries — after their undocumented parents are deported from the US. Following nationwide raids begun earlier this year to round up and deport migrants who have been issued court-issued deportation orders, their plight is likely to become more common; as of 2012, about 4.5 million minors born in the US lived with unauthorized immigrant parents.

According to Clara de Reyes, a regional delegate for the National Council of Attention to Guatemalan Migrants (CONAMIGUA) who is working with Maxima and her children, American-born children often face discrimination and bullying after moving south.

"[Other people] will tell them 'Go back to your country, because you're taking the opportunity away from real Guatemalans,'" Reyes says. Amavilia and Edison both had trouble speaking and writing Spanish when they arrived in Guatemala with their parents in 2011, and Maxima says that when she raised the issue with a school official, she was told the kids should go back the US.

Reyes says 50 American children have moved to her region west of Guatemala City since 2009. She has helped them obtain documents and find medical care, and she aided eight of them in returning to family members living in the US. According to CONAMIGUA, no one knows exactly how many American-born children there are in Guatemala, and the US offers no help to them there.

In his 2015 book Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans, Luis H. Zayes, dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, looked at the effects of deportation on dozens of US-born children. The children Zayes studied were all of Mexican descent and fell into three groups: those living in the US under threat of parental deportation, those living in the US following parental deportation, and those living in Mexico following parental deportation.

The children taken to Mexico had more problems with depression and struggled in school, both academically and socially. Their families were also doing worse economically. All of the kids said they intended to come back to America once they turned 18 or finished school, and most wanted to go to college in the US, but Zayes found the rural schools they were attending in Mexico were not preparing them.

"You have future repercussions for US policy when you think about these kids, who return to the US when they come of age — or before," says Dennis Stinchcomb, program manager at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

A 2013 report by Oakland-based advocacy organization Human Impact Partners on US children whose parents either live under the threat of deportation or have been deported found that the kids faced poorer health, economic, education, and social outcomes. Lili Farhang, co-director of the organization, said children who find themselves amid Central America's worst violence would probably face even greater stress.

"This a population of kids who've been disconnected from a whole host of civic and governmental institutions in the US," she says. "They may have all of these baseline conditions that don't set them up for optimal health in the future."


Delia Junech (right) with her son Brayan Francisco. Photo by Daniele Volpe.

Children born to Guatemalan parents qualify for Guatemalan citizenship, Rodriguez says. But the process to requires three trips to the capital of Guatemala City. For Maxima, the process was even more complicated. Reyes helped the children obtain documents, but the identification number Amavilia obtained to attend school didn't work, and Amavilia ended up assigned to night school with adults.

Both children have stopped attending school.

Maxima, who raises the children alone — their father left the family following their return to Guatemala — seldom lets them leave the courtyard that surrounds the room where they live since the neighborhood near Antigua is a "red zone," a place of high violence. Maxima is especially strict with Amavilia. Psychologists, government workers, and advocates who work with migrants in Guatemala say that women and girls who return from the north are often considered sexually loose.

"We had two girls last year who were physically abused in school for that reason," Reyes says.

It is quieter in San Jose Calderas, about 40 miles west of Guatemala City, where Delia Junech lives with her six children, two of whom were born in the United States. Junech was on maternity leave from the Postville, Iowa meat packing plant where she and her husband, Francisco, worked when federal agents raided it in 2008. She avoided deportation because she wasn't at work, but Francisco didn't; he was arrested with close to 400 other workers in the historic workplace raid, at the time the largest in US history. Delia Junech eventually chose to join her husband back in Guatemala.

The baby, Brayan Francisco, is now an energetic 7-year-old. His slight 9-year-old sister, Yaritze de Rosario, was also born in the US. Neither remembers their birth country, but Junech remembers the problems they had when she brought them to Guatemala. Yaritze suffered a number of intestinal ailments. Brayan needed immunizations, but because Brayan did not yet have Guatemalan documents, Junech had trouble getting him his shots. However, the biggest difference between the two countries, she says, is in the education systems.

"There you feel like they learn more, they study all day," Junech says. "But here, there's really not much."

Junech, who never made it past second grade, says her older daughter, Paola, who was born in Guatemala, was supposed to enter sixth grade when they returned, but was placed in third grade instead. Paola dropped out a year later. Yaritze has struggled to learn to read and is still in first grade. Junech is considering sending both Yaritze and Brayan back to the US; six months ago, Francisco returned to Iowa to work.

Maxima is also planning to send Amavilia and Edison back to the US — their grandfather lives there — though they have both forgotten their English. At CONAMIGUA, Reyes has collected the stories of American-born children with whom she works in a booklet. Amavilia and Edison appear on page 17; under the girl's picture, she is quoted as saying: "The United States is tranquil and pretty.... I want to go back there."

Katya Cengel reported this story with help from an International Reporting Project (IRP) fellowship.