Downturn Strands Illegal Latino Immigrants Between Cultures

Adrian Sanchez, above, and his brother Carlos came to America from Guatemala. When the economy tanked, Carlos went home.
Adrian Sanchez, above, and his brother Carlos came to America from Guatemala. When the economy tanked, Carlos went home. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

CONCEPCION CHIQUIRICHAPA, Guatemala -- Leaving Guatemala 12 years ago was the hardest thing Carlos Sanchez had ever done.

Until he decided to come back.

Sanchez still remembers the day he left home: saying goodbye to his parents; leaving his friends; that last tear-stained glimpse of his sweet mountain village in western Guatemala as the bus carried him over the ridge to an uncertain life in "the north." Painful, anxious times.

But not as hard as the return trip. When Sanchez, 36, arrived back in Central America recently, after living a third of his life as an illegal immigrant in suburban Washington, he stepped off the flight from Dulles International Airport into a cultural no man's land. He had been an outlaw migrant in one country; now he was a native-born stranger in the other.

For years, Sanchez had worked all the overtime hours he could handle as a supervisor for a granite counter contractor in Springfield. Last year, overtime slipped to part time and then almost no time. After months of looking for work, he started looking at airfares.

An expatriate's longing for his native land is often searing. But Sanchez, like thousands of Latino immigrants forced back across the border in recent months by the sinking economy, is learning sooner than he wanted to that going home again can be even more complicated.

Almost at once upon his return, he was felled by a bout of the turistas. His Arlington County-born toddler, Marvin, also took sick, and Sanchez nearly panicked at the difficulty in finding a doctor. His wife, Gladys, was no longer comfortable in the traditional garments of Mayan women, finding them heavy and stiff compared with the Old Navy blouses and jeans she bought at Potomac Mills.

At the airport, they were met by nieces and nephews Sanchez had never seen. Even the elderly couple at the front of the crowd was hard to recognize.

"When I saw my parents for the first time, it was like they were different people," Sanchez said. "I thought everything was going to be the same. I was wrong. Everything is different, including me."

Immigrants jump back and forth across borders all the time, and the recession-driven movement from the United States to points south is not yet registering as a mass exodus. But it is increasingly easy to find workers who have decided that they are better off weathering the downturn in their ancestral homelands.

In Washington, the Guatemalan Embassy reports a substantial uptick in the number of nationals walking in to apply for travel documents. At U.S. airports, airline agents and government officials describe increased winking and nodding as illegal immigrants "self-deport" with no hassle from authorities.

"When somebody is already showing that they intend to depart the United States, it doesn't serve any interest for us to serve them a notice to appear before an immigration court," said Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "That isn't good stewardship of tax dollars."

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