GERMANTOWN, Md. — It’s a quarter to midnight. José Santos Claros has just made his way back to his small house in this suburban community in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. after an exhausting day of work. Although visibly fatigued, the Salvadoran laborer considers this tough routine relatively easy compared to the ordeal he experienced coming to America.
José and approximately 95 other migrants were traversing southern Mexico inside a crammed truck, having recently crossed the border with neighboring Guatemala, when he came face-to-face with death. Despite more than a decade transpiring since he embarked on this perilous journey, the now 55-year-old Salvadoran immigrant vividly remembers the terrifying feeling that beset him when the truck made a sudden and sharp turn. While traveling in a mountainous area near Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas and a common stop for many Central American migrants who set out for America, the truck’s driver was unable to stop when approaching a curve. The vehicle overturned into a ravine which José described as 200 meters deep, derailing the dreams of nearly 100 migrants.
On the first impact down the steep gorge, José and a couple of other migrants managed to escape the moving death trap. The Salvadoran native, his face bloodied and body aching, witnessed the rest of the truck’s seemingly interminable descent. When it finally came to a halt, the harrowing echoes foretold tragedy. “Everybody below was screaming,” he remembered.
José said the accident killed several migrants; while the rest, including himself, suffered injuries and were transported to a local hospital by Mexican authorities. After being discharged, he was deported for the second time in a period of only a few weeks. His first attempt — in November of 1998, shortly after Hurricane Mitch devastated his native El Salvador and a large swath of Central America and caused more than 11,000 fatalities — was also unsuccessful. José was detained in the Mexican state of Tabasco.
After his second attempt at arriving on American soil was thwarted, José returned to his home in a village outside of the town of Jucuapa in El Salvador’s southeast. There, his wife Lucía Saravia, now 55, and four children awaited him; hoping that the scars on his face would convince him to remain with them. “I told him not to go. ‘If you didn’t die during that attempt, in the next one, you will,’” Lucía recalled telling him.
However, the profound economic difficulties and bleak job prospects in his native country prompted him to try again. In March of 1999, only 22 days after his near-death experience in southern Mexico, José boarded a bus to Huehuetenango, the former site of an ancient Mayan settlement and a city in western Guatemala famous for its coffee exports. Once there, the Salvadoran migrant walked to an area close to the border with Mexico, where a tractor-trailer picked him up along with nearly 60 other migrants.
The air was hot and dense. Overcrowded and with only one source of fresh air, the trailer was a suffocating inferno overwhelmed with sweat, anxiety and a gradually deteriorating sense of hope. “I wasn’t feeling well. I pleaded with God so that I could withstand the heat,” he remembered. Exacerbating this desperation were the constant police checkpoints that forced José and his fellow travelers to maintain a nearly impossible silence as officials tapped the trailer with batons to make sure the trucks carried what they were supposed to — merchandise, not human beings.
After a brief stop in the city of Puebla, the group arrived to an area near the border with Arizona and set out to cross it on foot. One night, while the rest slept in a makeshift encampment, José, whose persistent skepticism deprived him of any sleep, spotted Mexican authorities enclosing the group. After they were all apprehended, the Salvadoran immigrant, for a moment, believed his third attempt had met a similar and unfortunate fate as the previous two.
Most of the group was deported to their native countries, but José managed to remain in Mexican territory and soon after, found himself walking the arid frontier desert once again. This time, however, he made it to the other side.
Although the original plan was to travel from Arizona to North Carolina to meet up with a relative, the person who was going to take José there did not make it across the border, forcing him to look for work someplace else. His brother-in-law, who lived in California, picked him up and helped him settle down in Los Angeles, where he worked in construction for two years. Throughout this period, José saved up enough money to pay off the $5,000 he owed the smugglers who tried to cross him into America during the first unsuccessful attempt, but a low salary prevented him from settling the thousands he still owed and most importantly, from fully providing for his family. In 2001, José and his brother-in-law moved to Germantown, Md., where he lives to date. That same year, he applied for the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) the American government offered his countrymen after a pair of devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador, killing more than a thousand and crippling the nation’s economy — a calamity that José witnessed by way of television screens.
Through emotive phone calls, José’s wife narrated the ever-worsening situation back home. The working-class of El Salvador, already struggling with decades of political and economic instability and still recovering from a set of destructive natural disasters, was beginning to fall victim to a deadlier and more ruthless scourge that has become synonymous with the small Central American nation: widespread gang violence.
For the past decades, El Salvador has become of one the most dangerous nations in the Western Hemisphere, constantly topping the list of countries with the highest homicide rates that are not in open war. A bitter and bloody feud between the two warring transnational gangs Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and Barrio 18 has made El Salvador an epicenter of extrajudicial killings, murders for hire, extortions, rapes, gender-based violence, drug and arms trafficking and human smuggling.
But the gang warfare that has been plaguing El Salvador for the past years is just once chapter of a chronic cycle of violence that has engulfed the nation since the 20th century. Between 1979 and 1992, a civil war pitting an American-backed right-wing military government against leftist guerrillas killed more than 75,000 people, according to the Center for Justice and Accountability, an international human rights group. Because of this unbridled violence, human rights violations and the recruitment of child soldiers, many Salvadorans fled to the U.S.
Between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population in the United States increased nearly fivefold from 94,000 to 465,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. It was during this period that MS-13 and Barrio 18 formed in Los Angeles neighborhoods with large numbers of Mexican and Central American immigrants. After the American government began deporting many members of these gangs to their native countries, the criminal enterprises they ran in the U.S. began to emerge in Central America, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Having no avenue to reintegrate into society, deportees fell back into lives of crime.
These cold-blooded criminal organizations, which tend to recruit young and unemployed men not absorbed by the nation’s frail social structure, have fundamentally transformed Salvadoran society — one where donning the wrong T-shirt can get you killed.
The rural area around Jucuapa, a town in the Usulután province with a population of just under 20,000, where Lucía and her four children resided while José was laying bricks in America, was not spared from this culture of violence and coercion. “I received two letters saying that if I did not send them money, they would take my son or my father. Or even my mother,” Lucía said, referring to the alleged gang members who sent her numerous threats over the course of years and who she suspected might have been her next-door neighbors.
After recognizing the precarious predicament her family was in, as well as the inauspicious future that El Salvador held for her four young children, Lucía decided to join her husband in America by undertaking a similar, treacherous journey across four international borders. In 2004, the Salvadoran mother reached the U.S.-Mexico frontier after a 12-hour bus ride across Central America. For three days and three nights, she traversed the desert with the help of a smuggler, ultimately crossing the Rio Grande in a patched-up tire.
Although her physical condition was severely weakened and her life under tremendous risk, the most pressing concern for Lucía never ceased to be bringing her young children to America.
“I cried for my children. I would ask myself ‘are my children eating or not?’ But I came with that faith in God. I felt that God spoke to me and told me to persevere, to make an effort,” she said. “I had faith that we would be together.”
Lucía set foot on American soil in 2004; when 2,933 homicides were recorded in El Salvador, according to the country’s Institute of Legal Medicine.
Her arrival in the sprawling Maryland suburbs outside the capital of this proclaimed land of opportunities alleviated the painful solitude José carried for five years. Lucía worked tirelessly for months after finding a job cleaning houses with the intent of helping her husband gather enough money to bring their children to the U.S.
Despite long and arduous work days, after one year, the couple had only managed to save up enough money to finance two of these highly expensive trips. It was a difficult scenario, but they decided that the eldest should come first.
At the ages of 16 and 12, Jonathan and Fátima Claros Saravia set foot on American soil in 2005; when 3,825 homicides were recorded in El Salvador.
Awaiting them in America was not only a warm and caring embrace, but a home their parents had recently purchased after years of dedication, perseverance and hard work. Despite a temporary sense of comfort with four members of the family settled in this humble two-story home, the situation was nevertheless bittersweet as the Claros were still missing two very important members of their team. Two players who, overcome with nostalgia, were eager to join them.
“I would always call them on the weekend and they were always crying. I would ask them ‘why do you cry?’ and they would respond ‘because we want to go to the field and our grandmother doesn’t let us.’ They loved going to the field,” Lucía stressed, recalling the phone calls she had with her two youngest boys who remained in El Salvador.
“Be patient that one day you’ll be here doing what you love: playing fútbol and studying,” she remembered reassuring them.
José and Lucía were well-aware that their native El Salvador did not possess the same resources necessary to lay the groundwork of a successful future for their youngest sons as America — where they were sure one day their little boys could receive a college education and pursue a professional fútbol career.
Once again, they worked demanding schedules to save up money. This time, however, it took them longer than what they had anticipated. Indeed, the reunification of this family was reminiscent of a long, drawn-out and exacting campaign; one which lasted 10 years, until José and Lucía were able to send for the pillars of their team.
At the ages of 14 and 11, Diego and Lizandro Claros Saravia set foot on American soil in 2009; when 4,401 homicides were recorded in El Salvador, according to Fundación para la Democracia, Seguridad y Paz, a non-governmental organization which advocates for democracy, security and peace in the Central American nation.
II: “I was achieving the American dream”
José is a man who transmits an aura of patience and serenity, but during the night he spent in John F. Kennedy International Airport in September of 2009, he was overwhelmed with anxiety. The flight status board indicated that the plane had landed, but he did not see his sons. The multitude surrounding the plane entrance in the terminal had dispersed, and still, there was no sign of them. Clinching a photograph of Diego and Lizandro, which he had brought to make sure he could identify them after a decade of being separated, José became more tense and distressed. “Where are my sons?” he recalled asking himself.
Detecting his unease, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer approached him and asked if he was waiting for someone. After showing the photograph to the official, the Salvadoran father was escorted to a room where he was told two youth were being held. Upon seeing the pair of frightened boys, José did not need the photograph to recognize them — the reciprocal gazes that were ten in years in the making sufficed.
After the boys confirmed that the man with the physique of an industrious fullback was their father, the immigration officers asked José to step out of the room. One of the CBP officials, his facial expressions now relaying a disapproving look, turned to the Salvadoran immigrant. “Do you know that I can throw you in jail? Do you know it is a crime to bring people here illegally?” the officer pointedly asked, according to José.
The nature of the official’s questioning provoked an atypical attitude in José, and triggered a swift and defiant answer. “Yes, it’s a crime. But they are my sons. And I would do anything that is necessary for them. If they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill me for them. But I’m not going to leave them stranded in any place. And if I go to jail for them, I don’t care.”
Diego and Lizandro had traveled using fraudulent visas and passports — something José and Lucía said they were unaware of when they paid an acquaintance of a relative to bring their youngest boys to America. José, who came to the airport alone, was interrogated for hours, while his children remained in the custody of immigration officials overnight. The next morning, the Salvadoran laborer was finally allowed to be with his sons, who immediately blamed themselves for their predicament. José sharply remembers an apprehensive Diego asking him, “Dad, are they going to send us back because of us?”
José said the immigration authorities informed him that because they were minors, Diego and Lizandro were going to be released on the condition that they appear in immigration court.
After an emotional reencounter with Lucía — who apart from being a source of unconditional motherly love, served as the cornerstone of support for Diego and Lizandro’s dreams — the four family members drove back to Germantown, in Maryland’s Montgomery County, where Fátima and Jonathan awaited them.
Despite living in a humble, working-class household, for the next years, these two brothers, who had fled poverty and violence in Central America, grew up in affluent and lacrosse-playing suburban Maryland. Diego and Lizandro, who had forged an unbreakable bond during their time in El Salvador, quickly encountered several barriers adapting to the very different nature of life in America, especially when it came to learning English. “It was a completely different country to the one where we were born and the hardest thing was the language. Without knowing the language, you can’t make friends,” Lizandro, now 19, said.
After a few days in classrooms that recited the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, the brothers — Lizandro enrolled in middle school and Diego in high school — discovered that school was a valuable forum of adaptability; one which facilitated their learning of English and eased their transition into American society.
However, José stressed that he was still concerned that the initial homesickness and angst felt by his youngest children could become impediments in their efforts to achieve their dreams. He found that the best antidotes for these sentiments were very familiar ones: fútbol cleats and shin guards. “I wanted them to be busy with fútbol to keep them away from bad things,” the Salvadoran father said.
In the peak of Diego and Lizandro’s adolescence, fútbol reigned in the Claros household. During the weekends, José would replace the construction overalls he wore during the work week with a referee kit and a whistle. Jonathan, their older brother, was a defender in the local amateur leagues known for his tough style-of-play. While Fátima, their caring and maternal sister, was a fundamental piece in her team’s defensive scheme. Although she did not play, their mother Lucía would often provide motivation, instructions and fiery, yet constructive criticism from her perching position in the stands.
And it was fútbol, precisely, that cemented the already close-knit bond between the two Salvadoran brothers. After graduating from middle school, Lizandro joined his brother at Quince Orchard High School, located in the small city of Gaithersburg, east of Germantown, where they became teammates in the school’s varsity outfit, leading the team’s defensive line as the two center-backs. Rapidly, Diego and Lizandro formed an impenetrable wall in front of their goaltender, playing an instrumental role in their team’s conquest of a state tournament. Throughout this remarkable and unforgettable campaign, the family of these defensive bulwarks became their staunchest supporters. “It did not matter what the weather was like — we had the support of our parents,” Diego, now 23, mentioned in an evocative tone. “The only voices we heard were when my parents would yell. All you could hear was ‘dale Chino!’ and ‘dale Licha!’”
These fervent chants — in which Diego was assigned the nickname Chino for the shape of his eyes and Lizandro referred to as Licha because, according to , saying his full name was too arduous of a task — served as fuel for the brothers to showcase their distinguished talent.
However, for the subsequent season, Licha had a new partner in the rearguard as Chino graduated from high school and joined the ranks of Hagerstown Community College. Through a scholarship, Diego was granted the opportunity to play collegiate fútbol and pursue an engineering degree. But this dream, like three minutes of stoppage time, vanished swiftly during a match in November of 2015 when Chino suffered a concussion. The Salvadoran defender, demoralized and without a return date to the pitch, decided to venture into the auto repair industry. When he felt ready to make a comeback, both on field and in the classroom, after a prolonged recovery, Diego found out that he no longer had a scholarship to help him pay tuition. Prompted by this setback, the sidelined center-back decided that his priority was relieving some of his family’s financial burden. Along with fixing auto parts, Diego joined his father and brother in construction gigs on the weekend, demolishing walls and laying down sheetrock.
During this time of profound changes in Chino’s life, his brother Licha continued to excel in his high school team with superb performances. His conspicuous athletic abilities and excellent understanding of the game led him to the training fields of the Bethesda Soccer Club, one of the most prestigious academies in the Northeast. A young Lizandro, donning the navy blue and white colors of the club, came to his first training session exhibiting a noticeable tenseness. “He showed up as a somewhat quiet 14-year-old and turned into a nice, loud, boisterous center-back who had a great personality,” Matt Ney, who was Lizandro’s coach at the time, said after leading his current U16 team to an impressive victory under frigid conditions against a D.C. United youth side.
Soon after joining this elite suburban academy, Lizandro solidified himself as an indispensable leader on the pitch, earning a place on the rosters of different youth divisions. Ney emphasized that the style-of-play of this young Salvadoran prospect — characterized by aerial prowess, aggressive tackling and an impressive passing length — resembled that of world-class center-backs, particularly John Terry, the legendary former Chelsea F.C. captain and highest goal scoring defender in Premier League history.
Lizandro’s metamorphosis from a slightly hefty and shy teen to a leading figure of Bethesda Soccer Club’s defensive line was not plain sailing, as demonstrated by one of his most treasured memories on the field.
It was an intense contest against fierce opposition. Lizandro — his tactical awareness and in-game maturity still developing — committed two fouls inside the box, awarding the opposing side two painful-to-watch goal celebrations. It was a nightmare of a match for the young Salvadoran defender and one that he expected would earn him a permanent place on the always-demoralizing bench. However, coach Ney’s unwavering encouragement galvanized the disillusioned center-back. Lizandro was placed in the starting lineup for the next fixture against an FC Dallas youth side and remembers playing one of the best games of his promising career during those 90 minutes.
“Lizandro is the ultimate center-back. He’s technical, he’s a communicator, he’s a leader. He’s absolutely tough as nails. You add all these qualities and there is no one you rather have at the base of your spine as a coach,” Ney said with a wistful gaze.
These distinctive attributes, Ney said, made Lizandro one of the most sought-after young defensive prospects in the nation, drawing the attention of numerous university scouts. In the spring of 2017, when his high school graduation was around the corner, Licha received a scholarship offer to play collegiate fútbol at Louisburg College, a private two-year school in North Carolina. “With the scholarship that I earned to study, I felt like I was achieving the American dream,” Lizandro said.
This dream, however, quickly came under jeopardy by an issue that concerned the Claros household ever since that eventful night in John F. Kennedy International Airport: the brothers’ immigration status.
After arriving in the U.S., Diego and Lizandro had to attend various hearings with the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the agency responsible for adjudicating immigration cases across the country. José and Lucía hired different attorneys to represent their sons and to make sure they could remain on American soil. In November of 2012, Licha and Chino received an order of removal. The following year, they were placed under an Order of Supervision, which restricted their out-of-state travel and required them to periodically check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Under this order, the brothers were able to apply for, and ultimately obtain, work authorization.
In May of 2013, Diego and Lizandro were granted a Stay of Removal, a temporary reprieve from deportation valid for one year. But when they applied for two subsequent ones, they were both denied, an ICE spokesperson confirmed. As a result, the brothers, their family and their legal counsel put all their faith on the implementation of the 2014 expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative instituted by President Barack Obama through executive order in 2012. However, the expansion, which would’ve covered Chino and Licha, was blocked by a court injunction after several Republican state Attorneys General filed a lawsuit against it — a decision which was ultimately upheld by a 4-4 deadlock in the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 2016.
Because Lizandro and his brother remained under an Order of Supervision and were required to report any travel outside of Maryland when he received and accepted the scholarship offer from Louisburg College in the summer of 2017, the youngest of the two Salvadoran center-backs sent ICE a copy of his scholarship letter. The brothers also believed it was important to keep the agency informed of their plans because Diego was going to move with Lizandro to help him pay the part of the tuition not covered by the scholarship.
Their next check-in with immigration authorities was scheduled for Aug. 16, but Licha had to be in North Carolina by then to visit his new school. Consequently, their check-in was moved up to July 28.
As they had done various times throughout their time in America, Diego and Lizandro went in to talk to immigration officers in Baltimore, largely unconcerned and with a healthy dose of optimism. Because they saw nothing alarming or significantly different about this check-in, the defensive pair told their father that there was no need for him to miss work and accompany them.
“This was the first time I did not go with them, and they went alone,” José, his hands rubbing his thighs, mentioned in a voice that harbored inconsolable sadness and self-imposed guilt. “This was the only time I did not go with them.”
III: “All my dreams were left behind that day”
On this rainy Friday afternoon, the brothers, along with their attorney from CASA de Maryland, a leading immigrant advocacy group, Nick Katz, appraised the ICE agents of Lizandro’s intention to move to North Carolina’s rural Franklin County to commence his undergraduate studies and promising collegiate fútbol career. Upon arrival, Katz said the officers told him that the brothers needed to be processed as adults now that they were over the age of 18. “I think there was not an indication that this was going to be any different than any previous check-in which they’ve been to, again and again, for a period of years. And of course, things went drastically different,” he said.
As time passed and the brothers were still with the officials, the young attorney began to expect the worst. While back in Germantown, an anxious Lucía made several calls and sent numerous messages, but received no response from either of her sons.
“They kept us in a room for about two hours,” Lizandro recalled. “Then, they exited and told us they couldn’t let us go, that I couldn’t go to another state. And that for that reason, they were going to deport us.”
Katz was informed that ICE would be detaining the brothers with the intention of deporting them to their country of birth, El Salvador — and that, paradoxically, the catalyst for their swift action was that Licha, now more than ever, was closer to scoring the most important and awaited goal of his life: his American dream.
The attorney said ICE’s unexpected decision to the take the young Salvadoran siblings into custody was largely rooted in the fact that the agency believed Lizandro’s plans to study in North Carolina suggested that the brothers did not intend on returning to El Salvador. “[The ICE agents] said they would be negligent if they didn’t take them into custody and deport them,” Katz said.
For the next four days, the two talented center-backs were sidelined, not only from the pitch but from their home and their family. Their detention, resembling an unjust long match suspension, disheartened and perplexed the brothers, who said they had done nothing wrong. They were no longer sleeping in the second-floor room they shared in their modest townhouse in quiet and green Germantown, but in a cold and solitary jail cell in Baltimore. Their uniforms no longer consisted of long striped socks, shin guards and a jersey tucked inside a pair of shorts, but of dark blue and oversized prison garments. “They tied us up like we were criminals — our feet, hands and waists. We couldn’t walk. We were complete criminals to them,” Diego said, channeling the pain caused by a wound that has clearly not fully healed. “They treated us almost like dogs.”
Lucía, remembering the day she was allowed to visit her youngest sons in the correctional facility, described the pain and indignation she felt upon seeing them in prison clothing. “With those uniforms, they looked like criminals,” the heartbroken mother said. “For me, that was horrible because they never did anything wrong here.”
Diego and Lizandro were accustomed to confronting and reversing difficult scenarios on the field, but they quickly realized that the odds were stacked against them in this contest to remain in America; one that was being dictated by referees wearing blue federal uniforms. It was during this specific moment that the brothers recognized that life was a lot like fútbol: when opportunities are scarce, one needs to devise a strategy, but also understand that at the end of the day, when the referee blows the final whistle, it may or may not succeed. And when the stars of the team find themselves unable to shine, it is in this instance that the 12th man’s encouragement from the grandstands becomes indispensable. These loyal and ardent backers provide unconditional support, seeking to influence the outcome of a match that they seem to have no control over — and Chino and Licha had plenty of them.
Soon after the brothers were detained, Katz said he filed a Stay of Removal request that was denied almost immediately. Upon learning that their defensive standard-bearer was in a jail cell, Lizandro’s teammates and coaches at the Bethesda academy took swift action. Ney and the other coaches called local immigration legal services providers seeking counsel and representation for the siblings, while members of the team, along with the Claros family and CASA de Maryland, organized a demonstration outside of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) headquarters on Nebraska Ave. to demand the release of their teammate and his brother.
“You’re talking about a person who has done nothing wrong except come here as a child,” Ney stressed, recalling those summer days when his team, made up predominantly of American-born teenagers from the affluent suburbs around the District of Columbia, fought tirelessly to bring their Salvadoran friend back to where they believed he belonged: on the pitch, in front of their goalkeeper, safeguarding Bethesda Soccer Club’s goal. “These kids, his teammates, they saw that, and they were frustrated because they understood that he’s not a threat. In fact, he’s an asset — kids like that help bind our community.”
The brothers’ other team, the one which worked relentlessly for years to bring them to America, also mobilized. Seeing the profound sorrow that the detention of Chino and Licha provoked in their hardworking parents, especially in their loving mother, Fátima, 26, and Jonathan, 30, used their knowledge of English, American culture and technology to mount an impromptu, yet powerful campaign of activism with the objective of making sure their brothers remained in the U.S.
Fátima, a young woman whose conspicuous tenacity, grit and love for her family defines her, took it upon herself to spearhead these actions and bring awareness to Diego and Lizandro’s plight. She created social media accounts that advocated for her brothers’ release, contacted members of Congress asking for their support and, along with CASA de Maryland, planned a second rally outside DHS’s headquarters, managing to confirm the attendance of the two U.S. Senators from Maryland, Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D), as well as Sen. Dick Durbin (D) from Illinois, arguably Capitol Hill’s most vocal backer of legislation to protect young undocumented immigrants like Diego and Lizandro.
However, the demonstration never took place.
In the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2017, as the family prepared to speak with reporters in CASA de Maryland’s headquarters, Jonathan said he received a phone call from an unknown number. It was Licha. “Brother, talk to my aunt. We are heading to El Salvador,” a stoic Lizandro told his oldest sibling.
“My mind became clouded. I couldn’t find what to say. What I did was cry a little,” Jonathan described the moment which has become etched in his memory, so much so that he remembered that the call came in at 10:30 a.m.
Shocked and desolated, Jonathan had to relay the news to the rest of the team. For Lucía, the anguish engraved on the face of her oldest child was all it took for her to realize what was occurring: her “little boys,” the reasons why she and her husband had broken their backs for various years, the two columns of her household and her sources of happiness were being stripped away from her.
“I felt like everything came crumbling down over me,” the Salvadoran mother said, holding her hands close to her chest. “How could they destroy my family, just like that, in such a short amount of time?”
As he and Diego boarded the plane that would take them to El Salvador, Lizandro remembers feeling a spirit-breaking combination of bewilderment and despair. “We never thought we were going to be deported,” he said. “It was the last day we were going to be in this country and they didn’t even give us the opportunity to hug our family.” The brothers were returning to their country of birth, but after years of growing up in America, El Salvador was a distant memory composed largely by television news reports of gruesome violence.
“Diego and Lizandro were refugees that came from a country where violence is now stronger than ever,” Jonathan said, detailing the bloodshed and insecurity that has infiltrated even the most trivial aspects of Salvadoran society, where one’s allegiance is now routinely questioned as a matter of life and death. “If you are seen wearing Nike or Adidas sneakers, they ask you ‘to which gang do you belong?’”
This was the country where the brothers were heading. In a matter of four days, in what their lawyer catalogued as the fastest deportation he’s ever witnessed, Lizandro went from seeing fútbol stardom and a college degree within close reach, to being expelled to one of most dangerous nations on the planet.
“He would have probably gone to a two-year college and then won a scholarship to a four-year college,” Ney said, standing on the sidelines of a turf field north of the National Mall where he believes Lizandro should be doing what he does best: closing down spaces available to opposing forwards. “Obviously, going pro is a crapshoot, but he would’ve at least had the opportunity.”
For this soft-spoken, yet passionate coach, whose knowledge of fútbol strategy is matched by a deep understanding of American politics, the person responsible for derailing Lizandro’s dreams sits behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. “You can tweet that we’re riding the country of gang members. However, anecdotal evidence is the opposite,” Ney noted, referring to President Donald Trump and his infamous and unrepentant use of Twitter to announce policy, criticize the news media, denounce his detractors and often utter falsehoods. “Irony is tripping. A kid who is trying to help everybody on the field and then is connecting kids off the field, has done everything he possibly can to succeed. And then you get to that pinnacle, and the door is shut because of a policy that is antiquated and cruel.”
Lizandro and Diego would not have been prioritized for deportation under the Obama administration, which largely focused on deporting unauthorized immigrants who were gang members, felons and who posed national security threats. However, this changed after President Trump took office in January of 2017. After employing hardline rhetoric on immigration, including a notorious pledge to build a wall on the southern border, to fuel his unexpected political ascent, the former real estate mogul instructed his government to hardened its immigration enforcement policies, issuing an executive order directing DHS agents to deport any undocumented immigrant with any criminal offense weeks after his inauguration.
In the age of Trump, the brothers — who received a removal order in 2012 — were in the sights of ICE.
When asked about the brothers’ case, ICE indicated that since 2016, officers had instructed Diego and Lizandro to purchase tickets and depart to El Salvador. An agency spokesperson added that attempting to unlawfully enter the country as a family unit or as an unaccompanied minor does not protect individuals from being subject to U.S. immigration laws, citing the memorandum issued in February of 2017 by former DHS secretary John Kelly , now the president’s chief of staff, which proclaimed that the agency would “no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”
“I think it’s a completely misguided and inhumane policy on behalf of a president, and his administration, who is inherently anti-immigrant, who constantly puts out racist rhetoric,” Katz said, adding that the swiftness of the brothers’ deportation prevented him from putting anything together to halt it.
When the two brothers and defensive partners looked out the window of the plane taking them to El Salvador, they bid farewell to America; the country they believe to be theirs, the one where Lizandro attended his high school prom, the one where Diego bought his first car and the one that once saw them conquer Maryland’s fútbol fields with the help of their family’s invigorating and loving cheer that they still turn to for solace: “Dale Chino!” Dale Licha!”
It was then that those simple and precious recollections — which they used to take for granted — became excruciating memories of dreams derailed.
“All my dreams were left behind that day,” Lizandro said.
Chino and Licha set foot on Salvadoran soil once again on Aug. 2, 2017 — a year when 3,952 homicides were recorded in the Central American nation.
Note by the editors: Our two-part series Dreams Derailed chronicles the deportation of two young Salvadoran brothers and fútbol prospects, as well as their lives after being forced to abandon their home in suburban Maryland and return to violence-plagued El Salvador.