by Foster, on News
Kelvin Villanueva was almost home one night last June when a policeman stopped him for a broken taillight. From his truck, he could see his longtime girlfriend, Suelen Bueno, waiting for him behind the glass door of their apartment. She often did that when he worked late. Villanueva supervised a small team of Hondurans — like him, undocumented migrants — who did finish carpentry on construction projects throughout Kansas City. It was normal for them to put in 12-to-14-hour days. During his 15 years in the United States, he had never been pulled over. Still, Bueno worried. The threat of deportation did not subside with time. You just had more to lose.
Before Bueno reached them, the officer had arrested Villanueva. After being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he spent the next four months circuiting a nexus of prisons and detention centers. Mostly, he was in a Missouri county jail that held Americans accused of felonies. Fights frequently broke out between the black and Latino inmates. Villanueva kept to himself, rarely leaving his bunk, passing the weeks by reading and drawing. He called Bueno and their children every day. When they met seven years earlier, at an adult-league soccer game, Bueno already had a young son and daughter; she and Villanueva had since had another one of each together. Villanueva didn’t differentiate. He’d always treated Bueno’s first two children as his own. Now, when the kids asked when he would be back, Villanueva told them, ‘‘Soon.’’
Bueno, who was also undocumented, could not visit Villanueva during his incarceration. Instead, she borrowed enough money to hire an immigration lawyer, who filed an asylum claim on Villanueva’s behalf. Before his hearing with an immigration judge, Villanueva was interviewed by an asylum officer, whose job it was to determine whether he possessed a ‘‘credible fear’’ of persecution in Honduras — would he be at risk of harm because of his race, religion, social group or politics? The officer’s analysis would inform the judge’s decision on whether to suspend or proceed with Villanueva’s deportation. When Villanueva spoke with the officer — from prison, by telephone, via a translator — she began by asking him why he came to the United States in the first place.
‘‘To live and work,’’ Villanueva told her, ‘‘because in my country it is very difficult.’’
‘‘Difficult’’ might have been an understatement. Honduras is among the poorest and most violent countries in Latin America, and Villanueva’s hometown, San Pedro Sula, has ranked as the city with the highest homicide rate in the world for the last four years. (In 2014, 1,319 of its 769,025 residents were murdered.) Much of the bloodshed is gang-related. During the 1980s, waves of refugees fled civil conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, many settling in Los Angeles, where street gangs were proliferating. Among Central Americans, two dominant organizations established a vicious rivalry: the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street Gang. When tough-on-crime legislation during the 1990s generated mass deportations, thousands of California gang members were sent back to developing countries ill equipped to receive them. In feeble, corrupt states like Honduras, the MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang flourished, brokering alliances not only with politicians, prison authorities and the police but also with Mexican and South American drug cartels. The narcotics trade fueled the war between the two groups with unprecedented access to weaponry and cash. In San Pedro Sula, as in many other places throughout the region, resources plus impunity equaled more murder, torture and rape.
For Villanueva, whose father was an alcoholic and regularly beat his mother, the violence continued at home. After his mother absconded to a different town, Villanueva and his three younger siblings were raised by their grandmother, aunts and uncles. These relatives were very religious — one uncle was the pastor of a small evangelical church, another directed its youth group — and very poor. To contribute, Villanueva dropped out of school when he was 12 and started working. When he was 16, an uncle who lived in Kansas City offered to lend him the money to pay a coyote, or guide, who could usher him across the United States border. He also promised Villanueva a job in a glass factory, fabricating window panes, when he arrived. Villanueva’s family in San Pedro Sula encouraged him to go. Members of the 18th Street Gang had begun pressuring him to join their ranks, and on one occasion they had jumped him for refusing.
‘‘How do you know they were from the 18th Street Gang?’’ the asylum officer asked during the interview, after Villanueva described the incident.
‘‘They had tattoos with the number on their faces and hands,’’ he said, ‘‘and the walls of their houses are marked with the number.’’
Villanueva later described the torture and murder of the uncle who directed the youth group at his family’s church. In 2013, the uncle disappeared after complaining to the police about the 18th Street Gang harassing the group members. A few days later, his body turned up in the Chamelecón River covered with puncture wounds, which investigators deemed to have been inflicted by an ice pick.
‘‘How do you know the gang is connected to the police?’’ the asylum officer asked.
‘‘Everybody knows that in my country,’’ Villanueva said.
‘‘Your attorney submitted an article that indicates the police captured a leader of the 18th Street Gang,’’ the officer pointed out. ‘‘If the gangs are working with the police, why would the police arrest their leaders?’’
‘‘They arrest people so the community thinks they’re doing something. But then they’re out of jail in a week or two.’’
‘‘Why are they released after a week or two?’’
‘‘This is the question that all of the good people of Honduras ask.’’
‘‘Is there anything else that you’re afraid of in Honduras?’’
‘‘No. Just losing my life.’’
Although the officer found Villanueva credible, she did not consider him eligible for asylum; the immigration judge agreed. Villanueva was sent to Louisiana, where he was loaded onto a plane with more than a hundred other Hondurans. They wore manacles on their wrists and ankles, and their hands were shackled to chains around their waists. Armed guards accompanied them. Midway through the flight, bologna sandwiches and cookies were distributed. They were packaged individually, the sandwiches and cookies. Most of the handcuffed men and women found it easiest to tear the plastic with their teeth.
On the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport receives planeloads of Hondurans like Villanueva several times a week. The deportees are unshackled and disembark on the tarmac. They are herded to a processing center, where their belongings are returned to them. Outside the center, family members and girlfriends loiter in the shade, expectantly watching the door. They perk up each time it opens and another deportee emerges. Taxi drivers offer special rates. Money changers wave stacks of Honduran lempiras, buying American dollars. People speak emotionally on phones.
Over the last five years, the United States has deported more than half a million Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans, many of whom, like Villanueva, have had to leave their children behind. Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, says it exercises discretion to target lawbreakers for removal, a majority of Central American deportees have no criminal record. Among those who do, about half are guilty of either a traffic violation or an immigration-related crime — entering the country illegally, for instance. At Ramón Villeda Morales, most arrivals I met were captured while crossing the border. This meant they had recently endured two distinct but often, in their telling, equally arduous ordeals: their voyage through Mexico (sleeping in shelters; trekking through deserts; evading bandits, kidnappers and rapists) and ICE detention.
As soon as they enter the processing center, the deportees are given coffee and baleadas, a Honduran dish of tortillas and beans. The staff members call them ‘‘ma’am’’ and ‘‘sir,’’ make jokes, say ‘‘please’’ and ‘‘thank you.’’ It is as if the staff is trying to convince the deportees that they are not the people they’ve been treated as for the past several days, or weeks, or months. The deportees undergo brief interviews with interlocutors who are all volunteers. One day, I sat at a table beside Dennis Abraham, a 30-year-old singer-carpenter with wide-open eyes and shoulder-length hair tied up in a samurai bun. Abraham wore a laminated ID card around his neck that featured his photo beneath a logo for the Geo Group, the international corporation that operates a facility in Texas where he himself was detained just two months ago. When new arrivals sat down across from him, Abraham showed them the ID and said, ‘‘I’m like you.’’
Abraham first left for the United States when he was 16, with his mother, Maria. For two months, they clung together to the tops of northbound freight trains. Then, while fording a deep section of the Rio Grande, they were separated by a swift current. Maria made it to the other side; Abraham, a weak swimmer, was carried downstream. Uncertain what to do, he turned himself in to the Mexican authorities. Back in Honduras, Abraham had no way to get in touch with Maria and no one to take care of him. He decided to try to find her. He was apprehended and deported from Mexico seven times attempting to make the trip. ‘‘The eighth time, they did this to me,’’ Abraham said, holding out his forearms and showing me a latticework of scar tissue. While on the trains, he had fallen into the hands of the Zetas, one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico and among its most prolific practitioners of abduction and extortion. Disinclined to believe that Abraham had no one to contact for a ransom, his captors tied him up in a dark room, beat him, urinated on him, cut him with machetes, threatened to castrate him and forced him to endure mock executions. In the end, they let him work off his debt, and for eight months, Abraham slept in the streets of their town, cleaning their cars.
This all happened almost a decade ago; since then, Abraham had reached the United States, found his mother, married an American, had two children and been deported.
‘‘I have no choice,’’ he said, scrolling through pictures of his children on his phone. ‘‘I have to take the trains again.’’
I watched Abraham interview half a dozen deportees. What he said was true: They were like him. To a middle-aged farmer who had three daughters in the United States and was on his way to his mother’s town, Abraham said, ‘‘Is there someone where you’re going who might hurt you?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ replied the farmer, removing his hat and rubbing his face with his hands. ‘‘But I have to risk it. I have nowhere else to go.’’
‘‘So you’re afraid to go there?’’
‘‘But you’re going there?’’
The farmer, like everyone else from the plane, looked both exhausted and disoriented. In general, I had the sense that the deportees were not entirely convinced by the staff’s overt exhibitions of decency. A wariness lingered; the transition was too abrupt. Of course, there was an additional dissonance at play: deep relief at having been liberated from ICE custody and, simultaneously, deep dismay at being back in Honduras.
Later that day, in a pulpería across the road from the processing center, I met a man named Bayron Cardona, who was a nervous wreck. He told me that he and his wife, Belky, had managed to cross the Rio Grande but were so intimidated by the Border Patrol presence in Texas that they decided to reverse course and were arrested while trying to get back to Mexico. Cardona and Belky were recent college graduates, still in their 20s, and last year they opened a computer-repair shop in a building owned by Belky’s father. Their neighborhood was entirely under the control of the MS-13; members of the gang soon confronted Cardona, demanding an impuesto de guerra, or war tax. Impuestos de guerra are a common source of revenue for gangs throughout Honduras, and in Cardona and Belky’s area, every business paid. The amount the gang wanted far exceeded what Cardona could afford. When he failed to produce the money, the MS-13 threatened to kill him. Cardona and Belky went to the United States Embassy, applied for visas and were denied. Then they alerted the police — ‘‘our big error,’’ Cardona told me. That same day, after the couple closed their shop, someone slid a piece of paper under the metal shutter, a printed letter that read in part: ‘‘We know everything you do. We can kill you in your house or when you’re walking out of church. Call home to see what happens.’’ Cardona and Belky called Belky’s father, with whom they were living. Minutes earlier, he told them, two gunmen on motorcycles had driven by, shooting up the front porch with handguns.
A few weeks later, the couple climbed out of a small boat onto the banks of Texas. It was nighttime. There were bushes and then a road and then a fence and then a highway. Their coyote told them there was a gap in the fence that they should run for. Cardona and Belky hid in the bushes. White and green S.U.V.s drove up and down the road; officers patrolled on foot with dogs. Others rode on horseback. A helicopter appeared and hovered low. The rotor wash from its roaring blades flattened the tall grass and exposed the migrants hiding there.
Through the rest of the night and all the next day, Cardona and Belky watched one migrant after another make a dash, get caught. Sometimes, as the migrants ran, the dogs latched onto their pant legs. They were sleep-deprived and dehydrated. Belky told Cardona she wanted to go back. They had Mexican visas; they would stay there or find another country to flee to. Cardona called the coyote and asked him to send a boat. He and Belky were down by the water, waiting to be collected, when a skiff motored up and flashed a spotlight on them. From the bank, an officer on horseback galloped over and told them not to move.
At a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Cardona and Belky were separated. Cardona was put in a cell with other men that was shockingly cold — a hielera, or icebox, as migrants call them. The men positioned a trash can under the ceiling vent to capture the frigid air; that way, huddled together, they could lie on the concrete floor. After two days, Cardona was transferred to a detention center, where he told an ICE official that he and his wife wanted to request asylum. The ICE official asked for Belky’s name. The next day, she was deported. The next week, so was Cardona. When I met him at the airport in San Pedro Sula, he had not seen Belky since their apprehension.
A few days later, I visited the couple at Belky’s father’s house. I met Cardona at a nearby restaurant so he could guide my driver through his neighborhood. He was anxious and fidgety. His father-in-law had paid half the war tax that they owed the MS-13 and told the gang that he and Belky were in America; Cardona didn’t know what would happen when the gang discovered they were back. He had changed the way he wore his hair, grown a beard and replaced his contacts with prescription glasses. We passed the building where his business used to be — it was now a barber shop. As we turned onto Cardona’s street, an MS-13 lookout, a teenager in a tank top, eyeballed us as we drove by. We rolled the windows down, a rule throughout Honduras when entering gang territory.
Climbing the front steps of his house, Cardona pointed out the divots in the walls where the bullets from the drive-by had struck. He went inside and returned with the death-threat letter that was slid into his shop. His father-in-law had found a nine-millimeter shell, he told me, and probably still had it. I said that was fine, I didn’t need to see the shell. Belky came out, and we sat in the driveway between two huge barking dogs tethered to short chains. One had a painful-looking knob protruding from its brow. Someone had hit it with a bat or a pipe, Cardona explained, while stealing their propane tanks.
Belky cried several times as she spoke. In McAllen, she told me, she was also put in a hielera. She was in it for three days, with many other women and young children, including a newborn and her mother, who had undergone a cesarean. The detainees were issued thin Mylar blankets for warmth; they all slept on the floor. There were no showers, and the only toilet had a camera aimed at it. Every 24 hours, each detainee was given two bologna sandwiches.
Belky said that when she told the guards she wished to claim asylum, they advised her that she did not have that right. ‘‘They make you sign all these documents in English,’’ she said, ‘‘and we just don’t know what we’re signing.’’
Neither Cardona nor Belky believed that they could safely remain in Honduras. But Belky, who had not left the house since she had arrived more than a week ago, was against returning to America. For her, more than anything, the whole experience had been profoundly humiliating. Before we said goodbye, she described being called into a room in McAllen where officers studied a bank of monitors showing video feed from cameras that surveilled a section of the border. ‘‘They laugh at us,’’ she told me, her face compressed with resentment. ‘‘One officer was celebrating all the people they’d caught. They watch the people crossing — and they laugh at us.’’
I went back to visit Cardona and Belky a couple of weeks later. As we drove though their neighborhood, we passed a group of young men surrounding someone in a crouch. The men were knocking on the top of his head with their knuckles — not violently, but with odd restraint. This was the gang’s way, I later learned, of issuing one of their own a symbolic reprimand, a warning.
Belky told me that she still had not set foot outside the house.
When I spotted him at the airport, Villanueva was in the pulpería, sitting at a wooden table with a Pepsi. As he raised the bottle, I noticed a tattoo across his hand — the name ‘‘Haley.’’ He wore a blue Kansas City Royals hat. At his feet was a gym bag.
After we spoke for a bit, I asked whether anyone was coming to get him.
Villanueva laughed self-consciously. ‘‘I don’t think so,’’ he admitted. He had loose curls, a sparse beard and a slight overbite that seemed to facilitate his tendency to mumble. I offered him a ride, and he accepted.
A striking characteristic of San Pedro Sula is the intimate proximity of ostentatious wealth and extreme poverty — a multistory mall with valet parking on one side of a river, squalid slums and jungle on the other. On our way to the place where Villanueva’s family lived, we passed block after block of ornate adobe mansions ensconced behind tall walls. Atop the walls was razor wire; atop the wire, electric fencing. Men with rifles manned the gates.
‘‘Look at that,’’ Villanueva kept saying as we drove. He was deported once before, in 2008, and spent two weeks in San Pedro Sula before heading back to Kansas City; still, a lot had changed since then. We pulled onto a rocky side street that turned off the pavement into an undeveloped area, lushly overgrown. Here and there, shanties had been patched together using salvaged tin. Villanueva had arranged to stay with his aunt Marta in a one-room plywood structure that stood in an open field amid boulders, thick weeds and mango trees. By the time he stepped out from the car, he was smiling again.
‘‘Man,’’ he said in English, looking around, shouldering his bag. ‘‘It’s weird to be here, you know?’’
I stopped by a few days later and found Villanueva sitting on a boulder, talking on a cellphone to his younger son. ‘‘No, my love, you can’t come,’’ he was saying. ‘‘Behave, O.K.? Don’t fight with your sisters, understand?’’ When he hung up, Villanueva told me, ‘‘I don’t know how to explain it to them.’’
‘‘They don’t know?’’
He shook his head. ‘‘They think I’m on a job.’’
A sheet obstructing the entrance to Marta’s shack was pulled back, and a young man with gelled hair and a tight T-shirt stepped out. It was Villanueva’s younger brother, Oscar. After being arrested on a D.U.I. charge, he had recently been deported as well. Back in Colorado, Oscar told me, he had a wife, a daughter and a son. All of them were citizens.
While Villanueva had been surprisingly good-humored at the airport and remained so that day (sort of grinning at his situation even as he lamented it), Oscar was morose. He spoke so softly that I had to lean in to hear, and when I asked how his kids were holding up without him, he hung his head, sighed, ‘‘Those kids,’’ and wept.
Altogether, five people were living in Marta’s shack. Tacked-up bedding divided the sleeping area from the kitchen area. At night, Oscar and Villanueva laid a mattress on the floor. They rarely left the property. Neither had acclimated to the dangers of the city of their youth; the daily slaughter to which most of San Pedro Sula’s residents were by now inured still distressed the brothers as it might a typical American. One morning when I invited them to breakfast, we encountered a taped-off crime scene a few blocks from their house. A body was sprawled facedown on the sidewalk, and there was another in the street. You could see solid pieces in the blood around their heads. Forensic experts in white coats placed numbered markers near the bullet casings — 47 of them, so far. The few people who had gathered looked mostly unimpressed. Many passers-by didn’t bother stopping.
‘‘It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that,’’ Villanueva said.
‘‘Welcome to Honduras,’’ Oscar said.
When I took them home several hours later, we passed the scene again. The crowd had dispersed, and the forensic experts were gone. The bodies, though, remained.
Nobody had covered them. Traffic carried on.
The contrast between the reality of San Pedro Sula and the insular world that Villanueva’s family had created on their little side street struck me every time I visited. More than 15 relatives occupied three different houses there. They often gathered in the evenings on an old musty couch and a few metal benches outside Marta’s shack. A yellow school bus belonging to their church sat nearby — ‘‘God Bless Honduras’’ and ‘‘Never Give Up’’ colorfully decaled across the windshields. Children pushed one another around in mop buckets and on dollies over a square of cracked foundation in the grass. Usually, Villanueva’s grandmother would be cooking baleadas or pots of rice and beans over a wood fire in an outdoor grill fashioned from a chunk of concrete. Dogs and kittens begged for scraps. Everyone was always laughing.
One night while chatting with Villanueva and Oscar, I heard a violinist playing a classical concerto I didn’t know — I don’t know any classical concertos — but whose beauty was astonishing. Villanueva led me past the bus and through the trees to a small house set back from the road. There, his 22-year-old cousin stood on a dilapidated porch beneath a naked bulb, immersed in her performance. As she played — the composer, she told me later, was Mozart — her two younger sisters emerged from the house with their own violins.
One of them also played the keyboard in the family church’s band. Some nights later, I went with Villanueva to a service. When it was over, another cousin took the worshipers home in the school bus. It was so crowded that many had to stand. As we left behind the heavily fortified entrances to private communities and continued into the ramshackle barrios where the congregation lived, there was a raucous, joyful energy. Each person who got off kissed or hugged every other passenger onboard. So incongruous, all that good will. It took a couple hours to circumnavigate the city, and during that time we passed two taped-off crime scenes, as well as an assault: about a dozen teenagers kicking someone on the sidewalk curled into a squirming ball.
Besides attending church, Villanueva had little else to do. Each day’s main event was his afternoon phone call to Bueno and the kids. Neither he nor Bueno had told them yet that he’d been deported. Briana, who turned 10 the day before Villanueva was flown back to Honduras, and Jesse, who was 8, were coping with his absence better than their younger siblings. Haley, who was 4 and whose name was tattooed across the back of Villanueva’s hand, had always been the most attached to Villanueva. She used to wait up for him with Bueno whenever he worked late. Now Haley refused to go to sleep, determined to be awake if he returned. Villanueva’s 3-year-old son, Jordi, had grown uncharacteristically introverted and lethargic, sleeping most of the day and rarely speaking.
Bueno, who had remained home with the children after she and Villanueva moved in together, had gone back to work, cleaning an office building seven nights a week while her mother babysat. She returned to the apartment around 2 a.m., woke at 7 to get the kids ready for school, picked up Haley at noon, made lunch for her and Jordi, met Briana and Jesse at the bus stop at 4:30, cooked supper at 6 and left for work again when her mother arrived at 8.
Villanueva was desperate to find out whether there was any possibility of reuniting with them legally. His first few days in Honduras, he seemed optimistic. The immigration attorney Bueno hired to help him with his asylum claim had filed a petition with the Board of Immigration Appeals. The petition was still pending, and after consulting with the attorney, Bueno believed that their odds were good. The appeals process was going to cost them an additional $5,000, on top of the $4,750 Bueno had already paid and the $8,000 she still owed in monthly installments; if there was a decent chance, though, they would find the money.
That meant borrowing. The legal fees, along with the $1,000 phone bill Villanueva had racked up during his two months in the county jail ($1 per minute talking to Bueno and the children), had depleted all their savings. To pay the attorney, Bueno had taken out a series of loans from an informal moneylender, who charged 5 percent interest every week. Villanueva’s employer, meanwhile, had stopped answering his phone. Earlier in the year, Villanueva’s team had built out the kitchens of more than a hundred new apartment units in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood; the contractor still owed Villanueva $28,000 for the job. Before he was arrested, Villanueva had planned to use the payment to buy a neglected house at auction, fix it up in secret, take Bueno there when it was ready and propose. Now he knew he’d never see the money. Although he filed taxes every year and reported to the I.R.S. all the wages that he paid his team (the I.R.S. doesn’t investigate the citizenship of taxpayers), there was no recourse to collect the debt.
When Villanueva expressed to me his hopefulness about his asylum claim, I was dubious. He had already been deported, after all, and that decision is seldom rescinded. Later, with Villanueva in the room, I called his attorney in Kansas City and asked him myself what he thought was the likelihood that the Board of Immigration Appeals would both consider and grant the appeal. The attorney, Allan Bell, told me: ‘‘The direct answer to your question is the chances are slim. I did not say slim to none. The chances are slim. I’ll use the word ‘remote.’ ’’ I asked what other options there might be for Villanueva to return, and Bell asked to speak in a few days, with Bueno conferencing in.
In fact, there were no options. An estimated 4.5 million American-born children have undocumented mothers or fathers, and every year tens of thousands of them lose at least one parent to deportation. In November 2014, President Obama took executive action to institute a series of reforms that would have granted temporary work permits to some parents of United States citizens and residents. Texas and 25 other states promptly filed a lawsuit arguing that the order was unconstitutional, and a federal judge in Brownsville — a major crossing point for migrants and asylum seekers on the Texas border — issued an injunction against the programs. For now, citizens can petition for their parents to obtain green cards only after turning 21. For Haley, the older of Villanueva’s two biological children, that would be in 17 years. Moreover, because Villanueva had been deported once before, he was subject to a pair of 10-year ‘‘time bars.’’ This required him to spend a minimum of two decades outside the country, as punishment, before he could become eligible to apply for permission to re-enter.
When Villanueva and Bueno next spoke to Bell, Bell asked that I not be present for the conversation. I obliged, but Villanueva recorded it. The tape is disturbing. Bell, now dim on the appeal, suggests that Villanueva seek something called humanitarian parole and offers to steer the process for $3,000. Although Villanueva and Bueno — leery of spending more money on a long shot — press him about the likelihood of success, Bell fails to give them a straight answer. (I later spoke with several other immigration attorneys, all of whom held that humanitarian parole — which typically provides a temporary visa valid for family emergencies — was not a viable option for Villanueva.) At one point, exasperated, Villanueva stops using his interpreter and tries to speak directly to Bell in English. ‘‘I want to make sure, because I don’t want to spend more money, more time,’’ he says. ‘‘Because I want to be with my family over there. You know? I want — ’’
‘‘Well, I know. The whole thing is terrible, I couldn’t agree with you more.’’
‘‘Don’t tell me that, man,’’ Villanueva says, raising his voice. ‘‘I know it’s terrible. I’m in Honduras right now, far away from my family.’’
‘‘Right, right, right.’’
‘‘What I want to know is something clear, man. Do you think it’s possible we going to win this case, or are we going to lose it?’’
‘‘I personally think it’s possible. … ’’ Bell trails off, seems to walk away, comes back and then says: ‘‘Now hold on, please, I have to explain something. Let me explain to everybody. I know none of you know this, and I’m sure none of you care — but the Kansas City Royals baseball team is playing the championship for the American League right now. It’s a big thing here. I think Suelen knows. Am I correct, Suelen?’’
After a pause, Bueno says, ‘‘Yes.’’
‘‘It’s on national television,’’ Bell continues.
‘‘I don’t care about the Royals right now, man,’’ Villanueva says, again in English. ‘‘I’m worried about my case, about my family.’’
‘‘I’m here,’’ Bell says. ‘‘I’m not going to the game because of you. I gave my tickets away so I could help you. It’s on world television right now. The Kansas City Royals against the Houston team. But anyway, I’ll help you, don’t worry.’’
After the call, I took Villanueva out to lunch. He ate and spoke little. The resilient cheerfulness that I had marveled at was gone, and for the first time, it occurred to me that the difference between Villanueva and his brother Oscar might not be constitutional, after all. Maybe the only difference was that Oscar had been stuck in Honduras, away from his family, longer than Villanueva had.
I asked what he was thinking.
Villanueva looked up, shook his head and said, ‘‘I’m thinking I have to make the trip again.’’
The last time Villanueva made the trip, he very nearly died. In 2008, after his first deportation — he was arrested at a party where someone else was caught with cocaine — he spent a month riding the trains by himself through Mexico and then waded across the Rio Grande with a group of some 20 other migrants. In the middle of their second day of following a coyote through the Texas desert, a small plane buzzed overhead and the rev of four-wheelers approached. Everybody scattered. Villanueva found a narrow, dry arroyo and hid beneath a rocky outcrop. Five hours later, he climbed out and started walking. He walked through the night and in the morning fell asleep. Around noon, he was woken by the heat. He had no backpack or supplies. The coyote had told him to keep the sun on his left and the shadows on his right — when it got dark, Villanueva guessed which way was north. Five days after crossing the border, and his third day alone, half-starved and in dire need of water, he came upon a skeleton. It was small, probably an adolescent. The skull was clean bone. Several of its teeth had fallen out. Nearby lay a blue denim knapsack. Villanueva emptied it. Inside the knapsack was a bag of bread — black with mold — but also a can of beans and a can of peaches. Villanueva used a sharp stone to pierce a small gash in the can of peaches. He downed the sweet syrup and pried the can open and ate the sweet pieces. He chugged the beans.
The food gave him enough strength to walk the rest of the afternoon and most of the night. Still, the next day Villanueva knew he might not make it. He prayed for a patrol to find him, for an airplane or a helicopter. He was staggering forward weakly when he glimpsed a far-off, incandescent spray. He saw a truck and a man squatting near its bumper. The man wore a head shield — he was welding something to the metal. Villanueva squinted. It felt like a hallucination: the vivid, molten shower splashing off the frame.
‘‘Help!’’ Villanueva screamed. ‘‘Help me!’’
The coyote had warned that ranchers in this part of Texas sometimes shot migrants if they caught them on their land. Villanueva didn’t care. He wanted food. He wanted water.
‘‘Help me, please!’’
The man continued welding. Eventually, it occurred to Villanueva that perhaps God didn’t want the man to hear. Perhaps God wanted Villanueva to keep going.
Before night fell, he collapsed. He was lying in the hot dirt while the colors went out in the enormous sky, and he was thinking about the skeleton, its teeth, when he saw tracers streaming through the distant dark. He rose and stumbled toward them. They were the lights of tractor-trailers driving on a highway.
A wire fence ran parallel to the shoulder. He found a culvert and crawled through it to the other side. For the rest of the night, he stayed to the chaparral; the next morning, he detected a faint rhythmic pounding and recognized it as a jackhammer. The sound energized him with fresh hope. If there was a jackhammer, there was construction. If there was construction, there were migrants. A little while later, he found a team of Mexicans ripping up a driveway.
The Mexicans lived across the border but had special visas that permitted them to commute for work. They gave Villanueva some of the food they had brought for lunch. One let him borrow a cellphone. Villanueva called his cousin in Kansas, who offered to wire $500 to anyone willing to drive Villanueva to San Antonio. Most of the Mexicans were afraid to jeopardize their visas — but when the team quit for the day, a worker in his early 30s agreed to take him. He took Villanueva in his pickup to a Walmart, where he could retrieve the wired money. Villanueva’s cousin had sent an extra $100 for Villanueva, and after bidding farewell to the Mexican, he bought new socks and underwear, a T-shirt and a pair of pants. He went into the bathroom and washed his face and arms.
When Villanueva walked out of the store, the Mexican was waiting for him. ‘‘Come on, let me buy you a hamburger,’’ he said.
The man took him to a McDonald’s and ordered him a Big Mac. When they finished, he drove him to a motel and paid for two nights.
‘‘Rest,’’ he told Villanueva.
Since then, reaching the United States has become only more difficult. Last summer, while an exodus of Central Americans was overwhelming U.S. immigration facilities, the Mexican government began implementing a host of aggressive enforcement measures on its southern border. Many of the migrants leaving Central America were unaccompanied minors; while the United States is obligated to assess their eligibility for refugee protections, Mexico can simply bus them back. The crackdown has been a boon for ICE and the Border Patrol. So far this year, the number of Central American migrants apprehended in the United States has fallen by half compared with last year. The number of Central American migrants apprehended in Mexico is on track to increase by 70 percent.
In Honduras, the buses from Mexico bearing adult deportees without children arrive at a processing center just across the Guatemalan border. The center occupies a scenic beachfront property seized in September from a drug trafficker. I spent several days there; nearly everyone I spoke to had been captured in the deep south of Mexico. A vast majority, traveling in passenger vans, had been intercepted at roadblocks manned by the federal police, Army soldiers and immigration agents.
Juveniles and families with children are sent to a different center, off the highway on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. Unaccompanied deportees as young as 8 have shown up there. One day, I met a mother who had left Honduras with her 16-year-old daughter after gang members tried to rape her in her school. Another woman on the same bus had left with her 4-year-old son after her brother was murdered. All four were standing on the shoulder of the highway, waiting for taxis to take them back to the neighborhoods they had fled.
If Villanueva did go north, he would need to hire a coyote. You could not traverse Mexico without one now. These days, the reputable guides were charging $8,000, Honduras to Houston. They gave you three tries. If caught a third time, you lost your money.
Even if Villanueva managed to get through Mexico, he would face the prospect of felony charges, in addition to deportation, if he was arrested on the United States border. Although entering the country without documentation has always been a crime, as recently as a decade ago public attorneys rarely prosecuted migrants in federal court. That has changed. Today, illegal entry and re-entry are the most-prosecuted federal offenses in the United States, and the Justice Department receives more cases from ICE than it does from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined. Prison sentences for people with multiple illegal entries, like Villanueva, can last more than 10 years.
Say, though, Villanueva made it to Kansas City. He would still spend the rest of his life there in danger. Because of the 20-year time bar from his deportations, he would be ineligible for legal status even after Haley grew old enough to petition for him.
When I talked to Villanueva about this, he said it didn’t matter: As soon as the kids were out of the house, he and Bueno would happily return to Honduras. They would buy some land, build a house. The kids could visit them during school holidays or vacations from work.
‘‘I just need to raise them,’’ Villanueva said.
A week or so after he got back, Villanueva went with Oscar to visit their mother, Francesca, who lived a couple of hours away, in her hometown, Toyos. In the last 15 years, Villanueva had seen Francesca only once, in 2008. Neither he nor Oscar harbored any grudges toward her for leaving them when they were young. Growing up, they sometimes went to Toyos to escape the 18th Street Gang. Back then, Francesca lived in a shanty that she built herself from bamboo and cardboard boxes; she made a living washing clothes in a nearby river. With the money her children had sent back from Missouri, Francesca had since moved into a small block house with electricity and running water. When we arrived, she was standing at a portable camping stove, making chicken soup.
‘‘My son!’’ Francesca gasped when she saw Villanueva.
‘‘You look shorter,’’ Villanueva laughed.
While the soup boiled, Villanueva sat with Francesca at the table, swiping through the pictures on his phone: Jesse at a lake where they liked to fish for bass, Briana making snow angels, Jordi and Haley riding bumper cars at a family entertainment center. Francesca observed the pictures mutely. She had never been to America, seen snow or heard of a family entertainment center.
Oscar sat across the table, drawing designs on a white cloth Francesca had given him. Later, she would embroider the designs with colored thread. Oscar held up the cloth for her to see. Penciled vines and leaves curled around the edges, blooming into roses.
‘‘Is it good?’’ he asked.
‘‘It’s good,’’ Francesca said.
When I seconded her opinion, Oscar went into the bedroom and came back with a stack of envelopes. They were from his time in detention. On both sides of each envelope Oscar had drawn intricate images in ballpoint pen. He still had the pen. It was short and made from flexible rubber so as to preclude stabbing.
From one envelope, I withdrew a sheet of notebook paper with six verses handwritten in Spanish. It was a song Oscar had composed and sung over the phone to his son on his sixth birthday. The last verse read:
Although you’re young
some day you will understand
why I wasn’t there
on your special day.
Before we left Francesca’s, I asked about a framed photograph on the wall. It showed Villanueva, Oscar, their brother, Henry, and their sister, Miriam, standing beside a skimpily ornamented Christmas tree, arms draped on one another. Their uncle had taken it in Kansas City in 2004, the only year all four siblings were in the United States together.
I recognized the same photograph a couple of weeks later, hanging in Villanueva’s father’s house. Although he lived a few short blocks away, Javier Villanueva had little to do with the rest of the family — he did not attend the church or share any of his relatives’ evangelical fervor — and Villanueva had seen him only once since arriving in Honduras.
Javier’s home was one in a crowded row precariously situated on a rocky river bank. It was somewhat bigger than Marta’s plywood shack and marginally better appointed. There was a toilet rigged to plumbing rather than an outhouse — and a television. We found Javier watching a James Bond film dubbed in Spanish. He was skinny, in shorts and a tank top, with a mustache and the same curly black hair as Villanueva. He sat at a cluttered table, upon which numerous white mice scurried about. There were at least a dozen of them, and they appeared to be multiplying. I spotted a box with a hole in its lid through which opposing traffic issued and vanished.
‘‘You still have the mice,’’ Villanueva said with displeasure.
‘‘We want to sell them,’’ Javier explained.
‘‘So why don’t you?’’
‘‘We tried. Nobody will buy them.’’
Javier’s girlfriend served up cups of Pepsi and arroz con leche. Three children, Villanueva’s half-siblings, entered the room. He greeted them cordially, impersonally. I asked their ages, and the woman revealed that today one of the boys had turned 10.
‘‘It’s his birthday?’’ asked Javier, surprised. He laughed. ‘‘And his dad didn’t even know!’’
Javier offered Villanueva a cigarette, and the two of them went outside. It was the first cigarette I’d seen Villanueva smoke. When they came back, they were talking construction. Javier was a tiler by trade. Villanueva told him about some of the carpentry projects he had done in Kansas City. He took out his phone and showed him pictures of the cabinetry he installed in the River Market units.
Javier said nothing.
‘‘Where can I get used lumber to leave Aunt Marta?’’ Villanueva asked him.
‘‘I don’t know.’’
‘‘How much is half-inch plywood here?’’
‘‘I don’t know, I need some too,’’ Javier said. ‘‘I need to build a bathroom, but I don’t have any money.’’ An expectant silence followed, and when it became clear that Villanueva was not going to fill it with an offer of assistance, Javier said, ‘‘I’ll buy cardboard instead.’’
Eventually, Villanueva stood to leave. He and Javier shook hands. Javier didn’t ask how long Villanueva would be in town or whether he would see him again.
Above all, what had caused Bueno to fall in love with Villanueva was his way with Jesse and Briana. From the moment they met at the soccer game, he seemed as enamored of her kids as he was of Bueno. It was Villanueva who, shortly after they started dating, realized that something wasn’t right with Jesse. The boy was 3 and hardly talked. Bueno had told herself that he was just a little late, that some kids developed slower, that it was no big deal. Villanueva insisted on consulting a doctor. Jesse, it turned out, was almost deaf. They had him fit for hearing aids and enrolled him in speech therapy. Jesse quickly turned into a different person. He became loquacious, socialized more with other kids, excelled in his classes.
‘‘Jesse and Briana don’t know that he’s not their real father,’’ Bueno told me when I met with her in Kansas City a week after I left Honduras. We were sitting in the living room of their apartment. Briana and Jesse were at school; Haley and Jordi were asleep, sprawled in Bueno’s lap. ‘‘We’re not going to keep it a secret forever. I just want them to grow up a little more. I’m afraid to tell them, because they love him so much.’’
We spoke, then, about the other secret. Bueno still had not revealed to any of the children that Villanueva had been deported. ‘‘It’s very difficult, because I don’t know how to explain it to them,’’ she said. ‘‘They’ve never been separated from him before. I don’t know what to say. I just keep telling them that he’s traveling for work, he’ll be home soon.’’
Later, while stroking Haley’s hair, Bueno said: ‘‘It’s the hardest for her. She can’t sleep at night without him.’’
Bueno’s job cleaning the office building seven nights a week paid about $1,000 a month. A fifth of that she gave to the moneylender from whom she borrowed to pay the immigration attorney. The moneylender had the title to Bueno’s car, and what would happen if she fell behind? How would she get Haley and Jordi to school? How would she get to work? Their most valuable possessions had been the power tools that Villanueva had accumulated, piecemeal, over the years: a table saw, a miter saw, half a dozen screw guns. Villanueva had explained to Bueno that it was an investment — this way, he and his team would be less dependent on the gringo contractors. Shortly after Villanueva was detained, however, the contractor for whom he used to work — the one who Villanueva claims owes him $28,000 — came to the apartment and left with all the tools, telling Bueno they were his.
At 4:30, she woke up Jordi and Haley, and the four of us walked down to the highway to meet Briana and Jesse where the school bus dropped them off.
I spotted an energetic, grinning boy with hearing aids running down the sidewalk. A girl in glasses trailed behind them, toting a violin case.
‘‘You must be Briana,’’ I said when she reached us.
‘‘Why does he know our names?’’ Briana asked her mother.
‘‘He’s a friend of your dad’s,’’ Bueno said.
Briana regarded me anew, and I could see her formulating the question. I braced for it. Where is he? What happened to him? When is he coming home? Then she seemed to think better, and we walked the rest of the way back in silence.