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Deported from U.S., and picking up pieces of a shattered dream

SANTA ROSA DE LIMA, Guatemala -- For most of the two months she was held in immigration detention centers in the United States, Donelda Pulex Castellanos feared she might never see her 6-year-old daughter again.

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Deported From U.S., and Picking Up Pieces of a Shattered Dream
Kirk Semple
, New York Times

SANTA ROSA DE LIMA, Guatemala — For most of the two months she was held in immigration detention centers in the United States, Donelda Pulex Castellanos feared she might never see her 6-year-old daughter again.

The two had been caught after unlawfully crossing the Mexican border and, a day later, were separated as part of President Donald Trump’s effort to thwart illegal immigration. Pulex was locked up in Texas and her daughter, Marelyn Maydori, was sent to live in a foster home in Michigan.

Their ordeal — or at least the most difficult chapter of it — ended last week when the two were suddenly reunited moments before they were put on a plane and deported back to Guatemala.

“It never occurred to us that we were going to be imprisoned and they were going to take my daughter,” Pulex, 35, said during an interview last week in Santa Rosa de Lima, a poor, rural municipality in southern Guatemala where she is from.

While in detention, she heard other migrants talk about how, once they were deported, they would try to cross into the United States again, some even with their children. She shuddered at the thought.

“No longer, no longer,” she said, shaking her head. “It was my first and last time.”

The Trump administration has been scrambling to reunite nearly 3,000 children with their parents after separating them in recent months under its “zero tolerance” policy of border enforcement, a practice officially announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions just a day before Pulex and her daughter arrived in the United States. The government is obligated under a court-imposed deadline to reunite the children with their parents by July 26.

Many of the reunited families are being released from custody, with electronic monitors strapped to their ankles. Pulex and Marelyn, however, were among 12 families who were reunited and deported to Guatemala last week.

On their arrival at a Guatemalan military base in the capital, Guatemala City, they were met by joyous relatives including Pulex’s husband, Henrry, and the couple’s elder daughter, Emily Gelita, 10.

“I thought they were going to take my daughter away there,” Henrry Pulex said on the sidewalk outside the military base as Donelda Pulex, surrounded by family, wiped tears from her face. “It was a huge torment.”

The vast majority of the children taken from their parents under the administration’s policy were from Central America, a region that has been a major source of migrants crossing the southwestern border of the United States in recent years.

Many say they are driven to leave by gang-related violence in the region, which has some of the world’s highest homicide rates, or by poverty, or by the desire to reunite with family members already in the United States.

The Pulexes are frank about their motivations for heading north: They thought they might have a chance of making more money, getting a better education for their daughters and generally improving their lives.

“We wanted to live there and leave behind everything bad about life in Guatemala,” Henrry Pulex explained.

Donelda Pulex said she never intended to evade authorities. She and Marelyn planned to cross the U.S. border in between legal entry points with the expectation that they would be immediately picked up by border guards and put into deportation proceedings.

But based on the experiences of others, she had assumed that they would be quickly released to await their day in court, which could take years considering the long backlogs.

Until the Trump administration began to separate families at the border, exceptions to criminal prosecutions of anyone crossing the border unlawfully were generally made for adults traveling with their minor children. Central Americans were familiar with this practice, and it became part of their planning.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. government, nearly 33,400 Guatemalans traveling in family units were apprehended at the border from October 2017 through June 2018, about 35 percent more than the number apprehended during the previous 12 months.

The family had come up with a plan: Donelda Pulex and Marelyn would leave first, with the aid of a migrant smuggler, and try to make it to the home of a relative who was living with his family in Texas. Once the two were settled, Henrry Pulex would follow with Emily.

Donelda Pulex and Marelyn set off for the United States on May 2 and, in the company of the smuggler, arrived six days later in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

The smuggler dropped them near the river, on the outskirts of the city, told them that the United States was on the other side and vanished. With Marelyn in her arms, Donelda Pulex waded across. As she clambered up the opposite bank, border authorities descended, just as she had anticipated.

Little did she know that a day earlier, Sessions had announced the zero-tolerance policy for unlawful border crossers.

She and Marelyn were kept together at a border center for the first night, but the next day Pulex was placed into one vehicle, her daughter into another. That was the last time the two saw each other until last week.

“During my imprisonment, I could only cry,” Pulex said.

At first, she was told that she would be reunited with her daughter within five days. When that did not happen, she quickly lost faith in any assurances she received and began to believe that she might have seen her daughter for the last time.

Every once in a while, she was able to speak with Marelyn, who had been flown to the foster home in Michigan. Their conversations were brief, and Marelyn said little, adding to Pulex’s duress.

On June 4, she was urged to sign a document that ensured a quick deportation, scheduled for June 18. The alternative would have been to fight her deportation in the courts, but authorities told her that she could well be imprisoned until her case was decided, which could take many months, with no chance of seeing Marelyn.

“I said, ‘I’ll die or whatever, but I’m not leaving without my daughter,'” she recalled. At the same time, their relatives in Guatemala were struggling to figure out how to help. Henrry Pulex called everyone he could: the Guatemalan government, the detention center in El Paso where Donelda Pulex was being held, Marelyn’s social worker in Michigan.

“I felt guilty and impotent, because there’s little that you can do,” Henrry Pulex said.

Everyone in the family back in Santa Rosa de Lima was particularly concerned about Marelyn.

“It’s one thing with an adult,” said Donelda Pulex’s father, Aman Pulex Monterrozo, 63. “But a child?”

“A child has a tiny heart,” he continued, indicating with his finger and thumb something the size of a pea. “A child is innocent.”

Last Monday, a U.S. immigration official told Donelda Pulex that she would be deported the next day, and that Marelyn would go with her. Still, she prepared for the worst.

The next morning, she was put onto a bus with other deportees and driven to an airport. When the bus came to a stop, Donelda Pulex was led to a nearby car. The door opened, and there was Marelyn. They held each other in a teary embrace before being led onto a chartered plane with the 11 other reunited families.

It has been an emotional and bewildering few days for the family as they have reacquainted themselves with one another and thought about how to rebuild their lives — in Guatemala, not in the United States.

They have not slept much, and the sleep they have had has been fitful. Donelda Pulex cannot shake the feeling of captivity. She has had nightmares of being trapped in a U.S. detention center without her daughter.

“Maybe it helps me to talk about it, to get it out of my mind,” she said.

Before they decided to migrate, Henrry Pulex drove a bus for work, and Donelda Pulex ran a store that sold food and household products out of the couple’s small house. But they weren’t quite making ends meet — and their thoughts turned to North America. Migration from Santa Rosa de Lima, set in a lush tropical valley surrounded by mountains, has for decades been a constant feature of life in the municipality’s villages, driven mainly in recent years by poverty, residents say; most families have a close relative living in the States.

The Pulexes are from a hamlet that lines a narrow road running along the knife’s edge of a ridge. Small cinder block homes are squeezed between the road and the ridge’s precipitous slopes, which plunge into thick forest.

Many residents in the area are subsistence farmers, growing mostly corn and beans. Until a few years ago, coffee was a profitable and widespread crop. But disease and drought have destroyed local production, bankrupting many small-scale farmers and adding to the flow of northward migrants.

In their hamlet alone, the Pulexes know of at least 50 former residents — out of a population of about 1,000 — who now live in the United States, including several of their own close relatives.

Weeks ago, Henrry Pulex was forced to sell the family’s house to pay debts, including the $5,000 smuggling fee, and the family is now living in Donelda Pulex’s parents’ house, sleeping on two mattresses on the floor of a room above a small variety store. What remains of their furniture is scattered among their network of relatives: a stove in one place, a dresser in another.

The girls have spent most of their time since their reunion hanging out with their cousins and playing with dolls and other toys.

The Pulexes say that Marelyn seems to have held up during the ordeal, but they worry and plan to take her to see a psychologist. She is not particularly talkative about her experiences in the United States, responding to questions with brief answers. How was the treatment by her foster parents in Michigan? “Good.” And at the detention center, too? “No.”

Donelda Pulex said she was concerned about not just Marelyn but the whole family. Emily has rarely let her little sister slip from view. And Henrry Pulex has been burdened with guilt.

“Maybe the four of us should go, the family?” Donelda Pulex asked, referring to the visit to the psychologist. She worried about the cost; it would take money they didn’t have. But maybe it was necessary.

“We all lived through something very ugly,” she said.

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