A Long Flight of No Return
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
The passengers settled uncomfortably into the narrow seats of the Boeing 737 as a woman in a blue uniform launched into the pre-flight safety speech that has become a ritual of modern air travel.
But her tone made it clear that she was no flight attendant, and this was no ordinary flight.
"Keep your seat belts on at all times. Don't touch any of the buttons above your head, and don't touch the window shades," the woman, a U.S. marshal, commanded in Spanish. "Once we're in the air, we'll give you something to eat, and then you can go to the bathroom-- with permission . Did you hear me?"
The passengers -- 105 men shackled at the wrists and the ankles--grumbled their assent. Then they peered out the thick, blurry windows for a last glimpse of Virginia. Once, they had been hopeful newcomers to the United States. Now, they were about to leave for good on a deportation flight for illegal immigrants run by the Department of Homeland Security.
As the plane began to hurtle down the runway, many of them let out a cheer. It was their first time on an airplane.
In seat 7A, Jose de Jesus Galea, 37, stared morosely out his window, unmoved. The burly Salvadoran pet store owner had called Virginia home for 21 years. It seemed incredible, he said later, that he would never again see the flat, forested landscape that was receding rapidly from view.
Just as strange was the thought that he would soon be back in a country he last saw when he was 17. The year was 1985, El Salvador was in the throes of civil war, and Galea had just been discharged from one of the army's most ruthless battalions. Pressed into service when he was 14, Galea said he was taught to torture the unit's captives by pushing needles under their fingernails. He had buried innocent civilians alive, and he was haunted by guilty flashbacks of their screams. Now he was being deported back because of a drunken assault.
Deportation is a fate that befalls only a fraction of illegal immigrants, though such flights may become commonplace if some of the more restrictive immigration reforms pending in Congress are adopted.
Although U.S. authorities turn away or deport more than 1.6 million people attempting to cross the border illegally every year, once an immigrant manages to sneak into U.S. territory, the chances of getting caught are minimal. In 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, authorities deported only 104,000 immigrants who had been in the United States for three days or longer before they were apprehended. That's less than 1 percent of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Those who are deported often come to the attention of immigration officials only because they commit a crime. Authorities in the Washington area often wait until they have a critical mass of deportees, then charter a plane to fly them to a detention facility near the U.S. border for final transport to their home countries.
Such was the case with the men aboard the somewhat worn, plain white aircraft rolling onto the runway at Dulles International Airport one recent afternoon, its destination Alexandria, La.
Watching over them were 16 marshals, who had reason to be wary. About 45 percent of the deportees had been convicted of violent crimes. Others had committed offenses as minor as public drunkenness. Although most were Salvadorans, there were natives of the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, Jamaica and Honduras.