An asylum seeker I spoke with, who had fled Honduras, told me that the mara (the gang) has a motto—The mara doesn’t forget.
In recent years, governments across the world, led by the United States, have upended the asylum system: slashing refugee admissions and mounting endless roadblocks in the way of people forced to flee their homes. In The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the U.S.-Mexican Border and Beyond, from which this essay is excerpted, John Washington traces the story of Arnovis, who was chased multiple times from his small village in rural El Salvador, and headed to the United States in search of refuge. Along with a detailed portrait of Arnovis and his young daughter Meybelín—from whom he was separated during the Trump administration’s family separation policy—Washington describes the long history of the concept of asylum, from ancient Greek city-states to today’s militarized borders, telling the story of various asylum-seekers he has met along the way. This excerpt picks up after Arnovis’s first deportation from the United States.
Arnovis returned to El Salvador in chains.
Along with about another hundred men and a few women, private security guards chained Arnovis’s ankle, waist, and wrist, loaded him onto a charter plane, and flew him to Central America as one among the many millions of people deported from the United States in the last decade, part of what Daniel Kanstroom calls “the new American diaspora.” Transfer and deportation days are discombobulating and awful for deportees. It’s common to be transferred multiple times in the days leading up to deportation, given little food, woken up at three in the morning, left to wait for hours on buses and airplanes, and sometimes chained for 24 or more hours straight. In fact, the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s guidelines for transferring a detainee stipulate that they are only to be notified “immediately prior” to the transfer, and once they are finally notified they are not allowed any phone calls, neither to their family nor, if they have one, to their attorney. More than one deportee told me about urinating in his pants after not being allowed to use a bathroom during the long deportation process, or, if they were let into the bathroom, the guards wouldn’t take off the chains, leaving them to struggle with a fly zipper while handcuffed. One older deportee, a grandfather, cried while telling me how humiliated he felt.
In 1954, during Operation Wetback, as the Eisenhower administration worked to deport over a million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the government converted cargo ships to use for mass deportations. The ships would transport bananas and other cargo north, and unwanted people or extraneous labor south. On one of the voyages of the Mercurio, as it was carrying over 500 migrants in a space meant for around 90, the deportees rose up and mutinied. As the crew fought to take back the ship, at least 40 of the “passengers” jumped into the sea to escape; seven of them drowned. One congressman, Joseph Kilgore, probably accurately described the boatlift as a “penal hellship,” and you can almost hear the deportees chanting, as did the Jews who were sent back on the St. Louis, We must not sail! We must not sail! We must not sail!
After touchdown, Arnovis and the other deportees were transferred to a bus and driven to La Chacra, a sprawling migrant reception campus in San Salvador that receives around 13,000 people a year.
The day I first got inside La Chacra—I’d spent a few days waiting outside and trying—74 men and 11 women had been deported. I spoke for an hour with the director, Ana Solórzano, who was very friendly, and pretty vague, and pointed me repeatedly to a six-step “modelo de atención.” She told me, at one point—seeming to refer to the whole process of forced displacement, detention, removal, vulnerability, and dismissal of valid asylum claims—“their condition, it’s not dignified.” Solórzano also took me on a hurried tour of the facility, which felt like a small campus. In the clothes stockroom, there were stacks of Super Bowl XLVIII Denver Broncos Super Bowl Champions T-shirts, though the Broncos had lost that year.
I asked one man sitting in the back of the La Chacra waiting room how the flight was. Bad, he said, and that was all he wanted to say about it.
Most of that waiting room was raptly watching a European Champions League match: Real Madrid vs. Juventus. A couple psychologists, along with a handful of psych students from a local college, were doing interviews at a bank of desks behind a half wall. Occasionally, a woman would come out from a back room with a few Styrofoam to-go boxes of food and call out, Who’s hungry?! Everybody was hungry, and most of the men raised their hands. The woman closed her eyes—so as not to be biased, she said—and, seeming to be acting out a disturbing allegory, blindly handed away the food only to those nearest her. As I left, a tropical downpour was pounding down from the sky, turning the parking lot into a soup of mud and gravel. A 50-something deportee—who I had spoken with earlier, and who told me he had lived almost three decades in the United States—was waiting to get picked up by his family. In unaccented English, he said to me, “How you doing, brother?” and gave me a fist bump.
When, about a year before, Arnovis walked into that same parking lot outside of which I first bothered the guards to let me pass, his father was waiting for him under a brilliantly spilling magenta bougainvillea by the tall front gates. Arnovis was scared to be home again, even if he had heard that a few of the gangsters who had been threatening him had had to attempt their own escape. Maybe if he lay low, found work in another village, he would be okay. Or maybe he wouldn’t. He didn’t have the money, or the spirit, to head north again—at least not yet.
He had been gone five months. It was hard for Mirna, especially as Meybelín often cried for her father, but Mirna also admitted that she had felt relieved after he had left. In the weeks leading up to Arnovis’s departure, she had lived with the constant fear of men with machetes, pistols, or AK-47s storming through her door. That fear had then lapsed, lapsed into a sort of numb history. But now with the target—Arnovis—back home, she worried that the hunter might be stringing his bow again.
Look, Mirna said to him one of the first nights he was back in Corral, I don’t want to lie to you, but it was better when you were gone. We were okay, we weren’t scared. Now that you’re here again, she said, the nightmare is back.
Arnovis proposed that they all leave together. That the three of them migrate north, but that wasn’t the life Mirna wanted. I don’t want to live like this, she told him. Within a couple days, she had gone to stay with her family in San Salvador.
She left, Arnovis told me, and she took my daughter with her. I was suffering so much. I couldn’t eat. I got sick. It was so bad that I begged her to come back, or to let me raise our daughter.
After a fraught few days, they agreed they were done, separated, and that Arnovis would take Meybelín.
Back in Corral, now a single father, Arnovis knew he needed to adjust—to start living and working—but he was hardly leaving the family property. Not only was he depressed, he was still scared. For the same reason that I fled to the United States, he told me, I ended up losing so much. I lost my family. I know it’s hard on Meybelín, not seeing her mother. It’s something that doesn’t give me any peace. But I have to go on, I have to keep fighting for her.
But being a single parent in Corral de Mulas doesn’t mean you are completely on your own. Both Arnovis and Ale, his sister, who gave birth to Pedrito in 2017, are raising their children without a second parent. But they live communally, with six adults in the house and five more on the adjacent property, plus a gaggle of children and almost constant visitors—extended family, neighbors, and friends.
After about a month, Arnovis, who had been helping around the house, started to venture out, harvesting corn and gathering coconuts and cashews on the family’s land, as he had done before—but he was still scared to be on the street. That fear is not uncommon or unsubstantiated. Researcher Amelia Frank-Vitale explained a similar circumstance in Honduras: “Many young people in the San Pedro Sula area have told me that the only way to stay safe in their neighborhoods is to leave the house as infrequently as possible, only during the day, and never alone. Hector, a young man who has been deported four times, described his life in his neighborhood as encuevado—encaved.”
Meybelín, though, was beginning kindergarten, and she needed a uniform and school supplies. Having grown up in poverty himself, Arnovis wanted to give his daughter a life without the same sting of lack and hunger. He told me of the single bike that he and his seven brothers and sisters shared when they were young. That bike, he said, never got to rest. Somebody was always, always on it. Arnovis wanted to buy Meybelín a bicycle of her own, a bike that got its rest.
Finally, he found a solution. A cattle ranch in Isla de Mendez—a village about ten miles up the peninsula—was hiring ranch hands. Arnovis could work there, stay in a hut on the ranch, and come home every couple weeks to share his earnings and spend time with his daughter. He’d only be making seven dollars a day, and he’d be doing grueling work under a bone-hot sun, but he’d be able to send home a hundred dollars or so a month and would, so he thought, be avoiding his persecutors.
Because you were still scared, after almost a year? I asked him. He nodded. You have no idea what it was like, he said. Why, though, I asked, did the gang care so much?
It’s like they have a mission, he said. When they say they’re going to do something, they have to do it. Maybe not all of them would remember, but if they see you, they stop you, and figure out who you are. They check your ID, and then they remember.
Another asylum seeker I spoke with, who had fled Honduras, told me that the mara (the gang) has a motto—The mara doesn’t forget.
At the ranch, Arnovis kept a low profile. He’s gregarious by nature, so he consciously had to avoid making friends. He kept his head down and worked, and he knew how to do that. Hard, hot, grunt work: dragging feed troughs, filling burlap sacks with corn, shoveling out manure; sweat-in-his-eyes and dust-caking-his-feet work for a rich and absent ranch owner. I barely had anything, he told me, just enough to eat and give a little something to my daughter. I didn’t have money for pants, for clothes, for anything, but I felt good, because I hadn’t worked in so long.
His bosses came to rely on him and told him that a night shift was going to be opening up—an extra two dollars a day for an hour less of work, and he’d be avoiding the sun, too. The job would consist of watering the cornfields. Walking row by row and opening spigots, redirecting, patching, coiling and uncoiling the hoses. Wet, muddy, slippery, witching-hour work. In comparison with working under the bite of the sun, however, the night shift would have been a cinch, but he never got his chance at the promotion.
Tell him we want to talk with him, the bichos told his coworkers. Tell him Cristofer is waiting.
On lunch break one afternoon, Arnovis was lying in the shade of a mango tree—by himself, as was now usual. A few of his co-workers were gnawing on mangoes under another tree about a hundred yards away. The fruit from those trees were particularly delicious: juicy, green, and sweet. People from the islands would come to eat and collect those mangoes, but the locals knew to be careful: the bichos, as gang members are sometimes called, liked the mangoes as well. It’s one of the reasons Arnovis kept his distance. He was eating a mango when he noticed about five or six people approaching his coworkers. As they got closer, he saw that they were armed with rifles. Arnovis immediately crawled around to the other side of the tree—no good reason to be seen by bichos with guns—and then slipped into a nearby ditch, eventually making it to the cornfield and out of sight.
About a half hour later he met back up with his coworkers and asked them what had happened.
They interrogated us, one of them told him.
The gang members wanted to know who they were, where they were from. They checked the workers’ IDs and then asked them who else was working on the ranch. They even wanted to know their schedules. When they asked if anybody working there wasn’t from Isla de Mendez, they told them that yes, there was one. And then they asked for the name. Arnovis.
They recognized the name. Of course they did. That Arnovis. The only one. From Corral de Mulas.
Tell him we want to talk with him, the bichos told his coworkers. Tell him Cristofer is waiting.
Cristofer was the new palabrero, the local leader, and word was that he was tough.
I asked Arnovis how he had known about Cristofer. You know, he said. Everybody knows. It’s about survival, staying alive. He ran through for me which gang controls which village on the islands.
San Marcos Lempa: MS San Morana: MS El Marillo: 18 La Canoa: MS San Juan del Gozo: MS Isla de Mendez: MS Ceiba Doblada: MS Corral de Mulas Uno: 18 Corral de Mulas Dos: MS And Puerto de Triunfo is divided down the middle: MS and 18.
Arnovis checked in with his boss, explaining everything, wanting to see if he could get any help or protection.
His boss heard him out, told him that he was sorry, that he understood, that it was screwed up, but that there was nothing they could do. Sorry, he told Arnovis, and then he added that he couldn’t work there anymore. It was too dangerous. The boss couldn’t put the other workers at risk. He was fired.
He knew then that he needed to leave. And he knew, he told me —he knew right away—that he had to take Meybelín with him. Arnovis called his brother in Kansas, who told him he would see what he could do about hiring a proper coyote this time. About getting Arnovis and Meybelín to safety. No kidnappings this time. No trains.
A friend of his brother, it turned out, knew a coyote who could take them in a truck, but he was going to charge two thousand dollars up front, and then another six on delivery. That was how they put it: on delivery. Eight thousand in total. His brother would front the initial fee, but Arnovis would have to come up with the remaining six once he got to Kansas. And they wouldn’t go alone: Arnovis’s brother-in-law, José, had been looking to leave for months and was going to take his daughter, Darlene, who was six, a year older than Meybelín.
Arnovis now only had to convince Mirna to sign papers permitting Meybelín to leave the country so they could get her a passport.
It all happened so fast. Within a week of the renewed threat and firing, Arnovis, Mirna, and Meybelín were on a bus to the San Marcos terminal in San Salvador. They met the coyote outside the bus station. He was a middle-aged man—large belly, seemed friendly—who pressured them to leave that very day. But they still had to get Meybelín’s papers in order. The following morning Mirna signed a notarized letter allowing Arnovis to take Meybelín out of the country, and then they headed to the passport office. José and Darlene were already on their way from Jiquilisco. Two hours later, they said goodbye to Mirna, and the four of them boarded a PuertoBus heading for the Guatemalan border. It was a flurry of goodbyes, signatures, decisions—he barely had time to think—and that’s how fear works, more muscle than mind. Get to safety, and then find time to reflect. It’s okay, he comforted Meybelín. I love you. It’s going to be okay. We’ll stick together.
They had their first trouble a few hours later. The Guatemalan border guards rejected Darlene’s papers. Arnovis and José tried to persuade them to let them pass, but nothing was working, and José and Darlene couldn’t continue across the border. In a quick confabulation with Arnovis, José told him that he would get across the river under the bridge, and they’d meet up that night in Guatemala City. Arnovis agreed, but he told me that as the bus crossed the Río Paz into Guatemala, he wondered if he would ever see his brother-in-law again. From the El Jobo bridge he could see the river far below him—women washing clothes on the banks, a horse grazing on the long lime-green grass, a tangle of beached trash. José, meanwhile, said it was all pretty simple. He and Darlene got off the bus when the guards told them they couldn’t continue, walked down to the river, paid to be ferried across, and, pretty quickly, found a so-called chicken bus heading toward Guatemala City.
That night, after José and Darlene caught back up with Arnovis and Meybelín, they bought tickets to Huehuetenango. Sometimes coyotes act as the bank for migrants: if you wire them their front fee, they hand you cash for the segments of the trip they won’t be traveling. Arnovis’s coyote, after receiving the two thousand dollars from his brother, handed Arnovis eight hundred in cash, which he hid in his shirt. He would later show me where, in a dark-blue denim Columbia button-down, he had ripped a small hole in the inside double-lining of the left shoulder to slot his money.
In Guatemala City, at 11 that night, the four of them boarded a bus bound to Huehue, where they found a hotel called Sinaí, close to the bus depot. The girls were excited to stay in a hotel for the first time in their lives. Their fathers told them to sleep but let them goof around for a few minutes, bouncing on the single bed. They didn’t know where they would be staying the next night, or any of the next nights, and the men sat back and watched as the girls tired themselves out in nervous glee. In the morning, on very little sleep, they caught another bus to La Mesilla and met with the coyote again. Home was already seeming far away to Arnovis. Everything, in fact, seemed distant—Corral de Mulas, the future, the United States, even the conversations he was having with José. They were on the cusp, the knife-edge, every direction a free fall. Only Meybelín was close enough. It’s okay, he told her when she looked at him. Everything is going to be okay. I’m here. We’re together.
The coyote told them he had to go deliver their money to La Base (the cartel), and he would come back soon with instructions. They waited all day. They bought the girls Coca-Colas to distract them, let them play on their phones, but hardly spoke between themselves. Around eight that night another man came to find them. He drove them to a parking lot where they were loaded into the back of a small delivery truck with about 30 other men, women, and children. It had started to rain.
The truck took off behind a convoy of other trucks loaded with men, women, and children. They drove extremely fast. The roof was leaking, and the packed migrants tried to rearrange and scrunch themselves all onto one side to avoid the dripping water. Arnovis found a wedge between slats of the trailer and was able to catch glimpses of the night passing in flashes of black and wet and green. The convoy only slowed down at the border crossing, where they were waved through with no inspection. And then they started speeding again through the rain, and Arnovis and José held their daughters tightly between their legs, trying to keep them dry, trying to keep them warm and safe, wishing that they would fall asleep. There would be no more hotels.
“What is this country I have come to now?” Ulysses asks. “Are all the people wild and violent, or good, hospitable, and god-fearing?”
A regular contributor to The Nation and The Intercept, John Washington covers immigration and border politics, as well as criminal justice and literature. His first book, The Dispossessed: AStory of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, was published by Verso Books. He is also an editor for El Faro English, the English-language newsletter for the award-winning investigative outlet from El Salvador, El Faro. And he is a translator, having co-translated, most recently, “The Hollywood Kid,” by Óscar Martínez and Juan Martínez, and Blood Barrios, by Alberto Arce, which won a PEN Translates Award. Follow his work at @jbwashing.