Last in a three-part series.
MATAMOROS, Mexico — Wearing a new backpack stuffed with clothes his wife packed for him, Alberto Perez-Garcia ran south across the bridge spanning the Rio Grande like a first-grader chasing the school bus.
His haste wasn't because the 26-year-old Idaho ranch hand felt overjoyed to return to the land of his birth for the first time in two decades. He ran to keep up with some new friends he made on the deportation flight from Salt Lake City earlier in the day. He's not sure he trusts them, but figures if they stick together they have a better chance against border bullies he fears are waiting to prey on new arrivals.
He doesn't want to get lost on the first day in his new old country.
"I don't know Mexico. I've never been to Mexico, so for me the first thing is to be safe," he said. "My biggest fear is getting killed, getting kidnapped."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flies thousands of illegal immigrants to southeastern Texas from all over the country dozens of times a week, including four or five flights from the West. A white, unmarked MD80 stops in Salt Lake City each Thursday en route to Harlingen, Texas, where buses shuttle deportees to ports of entry in Brownsville and Hidalgo. They walk across the border to Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, respectively.
Most leave under court orders, while some go voluntarily. More than half are considered "criminal aliens" because they committed crimes while in the United States. The others either crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas. The ICE Flight Operations Unit this year had flown 63,176 Mexicans to the border. It had taken another 56,795 to countries other than Mexico. Those numbers have increased each year since 1995 and are on target to do the same in 2010. The average flight runs about $630 per passenger.
Until a few months ago, ICE flew Mexicans to El Paso, where deportees crossed the border to Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of the world. But the agency shifted the final destination at the request of the Mexican government due to the violence there, said Jim Donaldson, ICE flight operations supervisory agent.
No border town is safe right now. In the past couple of weeks in Matamoros' state of Tamaulipas, cars exploded outside a police station and a television station. A gang is suspected of massacring 72 migrants, and a prosecutor investigating those deaths disappeared. In Matamoros, rival drug cartels are fighting for control of smuggling routes into the U.S.
A flight late last month through Salt Lake City originated in Mesa, Ariz., and made stops in Twin Falls, Las Vegas and El Paso before touching down in Harlingen.
Perez and 50 others arrive shackled and handcuffed from the Weber and Utah county jails at the ICE office early in the morning — 34 destined for Mexico, including 21 with criminal records ranging from traffic violations to aggravated assault; 11 transfers to a Miami detention center representing Nigeria, Iraq, Panama, Iran, Russia, Jamaica, Afghanistan and Mexico, and three each from Guatemala and Honduras for later flights from Texas to their countries.
The oldest is 52; the youngest 19. They are kept in a holding cell while agents bring out several at a time to be fingerprinted and patted down. Officers also search the backpacks and suitcases family members have dropped off that morning along with plastic bags full of personal possessions from the jail.
Though chaotic, officers say the process is usually without incident. But on this morning one man argues with agents over the weight of his belongings. His garbage bag jammed with papers and law books exceeded the 40-pound limit, and he steadfastly refused to throw anything out. After what they deemed a threatening move, agents took him to the ground and carried him prone to another room to cool off on his stomach.
Perez, a legal permanent resident, falls into the criminal alien category. He has convictions for marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession and three DUIs. Last month, out of the blue, his probation officer told him ICE wanted to meet with him. Agents arrested him July 21 and then moved him to the Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork. He faced a Salt Lake immigration court judge last Monday without a lawyer, as do most defendants in custody. Judge Dustin Pead said the two drug convictions left him no choice but to order his removal.
"On paper, your case is pretty awful," Pead said, while acknowledging he was impressed with the changes Perez said he has made in his life.
Because of those drug charges, Perez can never enter the United States legally again.
Tom Feeley, ICE deputy Salt Lake field office director, said the agency is protecting the public by removing criminals from the country, noting that nearly everyone aboard this Thursday flight has a criminal record.
As he waits his turn at the ICE processing center on deportation day, the diminutive Perez owns up to his past but says he's not that guy anymore. There is an earnestness in his boyish face, and his dark eyebrows dance with his changing expressions. He completed rehab and says he stopped doing drugs six years ago and hasn't drank alcohol for 16 months. He has a wife, a son and a steady job at the Sawtooth Cattle Co. He wonders why he doesn't deserve a second chance.
Leaving his wife Kendra and 4-year-old Canyon and making his way in Mexico weigh heavily on his mind. "It hurts a lot that I can't be here with my wife because our life is here in the United States," he says.
Doctors gave Perez little hope of survival after he contracted meningitis in Mexico City when he was 3 months old. His mother placed him in an ice bath to quell the fever, while his father worked day and night to pay for a series of injections to save his life. The couple lived on tortillas with salt.
"The sad part is I took him away from death but not from immigration," said his tearful mother, Sara Perez, in the living room of her Shoshone, Idaho, home.
Though he survived, little Alberto wasn't done suffering. Being born with skin darker than the rest of the Perez family subjected him to ridicule from older cousins that turned into physical torment of the most unspeakable kind.
Alberto Sr. and Sara Perez decided to move their family from Mexico to get their 5-year-old son away from the abuse, eventually settling in the farmlands of southeastern Idaho. They obtained green cards, and the two youngest of their five children were born in the States.
The mistreatment filled Perez with anger and hate. He was still in elementary school when he turned to the bottle to escape. Pot, meth and cocaine followed in his teenage years.
"He's a good son," Sara Perez said. "He just made some mistakes."
As gut-wrenching as deportation can be for families, ICE officials say they wouldn't be in that position if they hadn't entered the country illegally and committed crimes.
"Most of these people are in this situation because of something they did," said ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
Kendra Perez, 29, has Alberto's name and the Superman logo tattooed above her freckled left breast. He rescued her from an abusive relationship about five years ago. That she was eight months pregnant with another man's child didn't matter. He adopted the boy after the couple married two years ago. He held her hand through breast cancer surgery.
"He is my Superman," she said. "Without him, this family is broken."
Canyon, she said, aches for his daddy, his fishing buddy. He has become withdrawn and wets the bed. He can't sleep without his dark-skinned "Daddy Barbie."
Kendra has talked to her son about what happened to his dad. Canyon simply says his daddy is "in time out."
The couple's union hasn't been a fairy tale. They've had ups and downs. A months-old note on the refrigerator of their Shoshone apartment reads, "Honey, I'm so glad you came home. It feels wonderful to finally make plans for our future as a family. I love you. K." But after two failed marriages, Kendra says she finally has it right. Nobody, she says, can compare to "Berto."
Her Irish eyes flare to match the color of her red hair when she talks about how she believes the government has disrupted her family. She doesn't understand how her husband can be ripped from her when he's made such positive changes.
"This country is not forgiving, not forgiving," she says. "This American Dream is gone. They don't see the tears, the pain, the sleepless nights, the children crying out for daddy at night."
If the country doesn't want her husband, she says, then it doesn't want her. She's making plans to move to Mexico.
Kendra is an emotional wreck when she and her sister-in-law, Viviana Perez, arrive at the ICE office in Murray on the morning Perez is scheduled to leave the country. They made the four-hour drive from Shoshone in the middle of the night to deliver his backpack and possibly catch a glimpse of him. ICE does not allow contact on departure day.
Kendra and Viviana hold each other, sobbing and shaking while waiting for him to board the airport bus parked inside a chain-link fence. Hip-hop artist M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" pops into their heads and they sing, "I fly like paper, I get high like planes, If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name …."
The deportees eventually start filing out of the building one by one, leg chains clinking on the pavement. When Perez emerges, Kendra, hands clutched to her heart, shouts "Love you." Perez turns and waves as high as he can lift his chained hand. "Love you, too."
"I'm scared," Kendra says after her husband stepped into the tinted-window bus. "What's going to happen to him?"
The bus pulls onto the tarmac at the Salt Lake airport's executive terminal past rows of corporate and private jets. A dozen security officers contracted for the flight again pat down each passenger and take a look into their mouths. They join two ICE agents to keep order on board for the five or so hours they are in the air. Donaldson, the ICE flight operations supervisory agent, said disruptions are rare because most of those being deported have never flown, making them more anxious than combative.
This flight, too, proves routine. It is at capacity — 135 in all — when it reaches muggy, windswept Harlingen at dusk. The 102 Mexican deportees — 96 men, six women — file onto buses for the 40-minute drive to the border at Brownsville.
Singing breaks out in the darkened bus as it pulls onto the road. It is a facetious song in Spanish about immigration and deportation. Perez doesn't join in from his seat behind the bars and Plexiglas divider separating passengers and driver. Instead, he sings his own song, a love song that reminds him of his wife.
The last leg of the journey ends behind a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire at the International Gateway Bridge connecting Brownsville and Matamoros. Agents bring the women off first and then the men in small groups. They pat them down one more time before removing the handcuffs and leg chains for the first time in more than 15 hours.
Perez stood nervously for his turn, his heart pounding and butterflies churning in his stomach. He collects his backpack and sets off across the bridge wearing a white T-shirt stained with pink juice, jeans and his ranch work boots. He says he is scared and admits to crying twice.
"I've never been to this country, so I don't know how it runs. This is my country, but I don't know anything of it. … I'll try to make a new life, try to take life as it hits me, I guess. That's the best I can do."
Friendly faces greet Perez and the other deportees in the darkness on the Mexican side. Government workers in orange polo shirts emblazoned with Protecion A Migrantes under a blue tarp strung between two buildings give each person a discount coupon for a bus ticket and a plastic bag containing noodle soup, canned tuna, snacks and a juice box.
They pile into the back of orange pickup trucks headed to a place to exchange their American dollars for pesos. From there it was to the center of Matamoros or the bus station. No one really knew for sure. Mexican immigration officials won't let a reporter and photographer go along for the ride. Word on the street was 10 of the deportees made a U-turn at the border. Perez says he won't ever try to sneak back.
"All I know is I'm here and I need to get a place to stay," he says.
And again he is running, this time to clamber into one of the trucks before it pulls away with his friends.
At the Matamoros bus station the next day, a dozen or so of those on the deportation plane mill around waiting for rides to points south. Some of them had nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They spent the first night together inside the station not sleeping. They, too, worried about being robbed of the few pesos in their pockets. Rigoberto Hernandez's live-in girlfriend and mother of his two children wired money for him to a store across the street. He took a couple of friends with him to pick it up and ran back to the safety of the station.
Perez and his two traveling companions — a Salt Lake McDonald's manager and a woman, neither of whom wanted to be identified — walked in mid-afternoon. The three of them found a safe hotel for the night, but Perez said he's apprehensive about what lies ahead.
"I'm still a little scared because I still see people I wouldn't see in Idaho," he said.
With the words "Super Cool Dad" printed on his brown T-shirt, Perez headed for Michoacan, a state in west-central Mexico stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the central highlands. He plans to live with an uncle in a farming community.
While he bused to his new life, Kendra held a moving sale in Shoshone. Her plan is to be with her husband in early November. Other than an old couch she and Canyon sleep on, her apartment is void of furniture. She even sold the family pet, a chihuahua named Isis. A television, family photos and piles of clothes and toys are about the only things that remain. The sale netted a paltry $200.
Her father, Ken Stickles, and brother stopped by to get a dresser. He hasn't come to terms with her moving to Mexico and refers to it as her vacation. He doesn't want to talk about the situation.
"I'll just say one thing, it's pretty crappy what the state's done to Kendra and Berto," he says while getting into his pickup.
Kendra has all the same fears about Mexico that her husband has, and more. She's sure a brash redhead whose back is covered with butterfly tattoos won't be well received. She's looking for a less revealing wardrobe and plans to dye her hair black before she goes.
"None of this is what either of us wanted," she says. "Life takes us down roads that you can't see. You don't have a road map for life."
Deporting illegal immigrants
Tuesday: Agents round up criminal fugitives, but often arrest those with no criminal record.
Wednesday: Gut-wrenching scenes play out weekly in Salt Lake immigration court. Deportation is the result in 73 percent of the cases.
Today: Alberto Perez-Garcia, 26, hasn't been to Mexico since he was 6. He leaves a wife and young son behind as he and dozens of others are flown to Texas, where they cross the border to a new life.