SAN SALVADOR — Lizandro Claros Saravia was supposed to be at college in North Carolina by now. At soccer practice. At the library.
Instead, the 19-year-old soccer star from Germantown, Md., is hundreds of miles away, in a sweltering Central American nation he barely recognizes and sometimes fears.
U.S. immigration officials swiftly deported him and his older brother, Diego, on Aug. 2, days after Lizandro told them during a routine check-in that he had a scholarship to attend Louisburg College.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Lizandro, his gaze flat, said in an interview here last week as he and his brother waited to pick up their 83-year-old grandfather — who had been visiting the United States on a visa when his grandsons were deported — from the airport. “I feel like in this country, I don’t have a future.”
The expulsion of the brothers, both of whom graduated from Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg and neither of whom had been accused of any wrongdoing once in the United States, outraged Democratic lawmakers and advocates for immigrants, as well as their teachers, friends and teammates.
Lizandro and Diego, now 22, used fraudulent visas and passports to come to the United States in 2009 and reunite with their family; some of whom were also here illegally. Lizandro was 10, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement; his brother was 14.
They were ordered deported in 2012 and granted a stay in 2013. Two subsequent requests for stays were denied. But with their clean records and high school diplomas, the brothers were not a priority for deportation under the Obama administration.
Under President Trump, however, the “handcuffs” are off, in the words of ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan. Anyone in violation of immigration law can be targeted for deportation. Officials say that they want to reduce the United States’s population of undocumented immigrants, currently about 11 million, and dissuade would-be migrants from making the illegal, and sometimes deadly, journey north.
Critics say that the Trump administration’s approach is robbing the United States of talented and dedicated immigrants, and endangering Americanized young people by sending them to their now-unfamiliar homelands without their families.
Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) blasted ICE for deporting the brothers to El Salvador, which he called one of the “most violent countries in the world.” Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said “ICE should be ashamed of itself.”
Lizandro’s teammates at the Bethesda Soccer Club — he calls them his “brothers” — have taken up a collection in hopes of helping him someday realize his dream to become the first in his family to earn a college degree.
The brothers say they miss everyone from their lives in Maryland, especially their parents and two siblings, friends and the staff at the Guapo’s — a restaurant where they had family dinners — just off I-270 in Gaithersburg. They don’t go out much now because they don’t think it is safe.
Instead, they stay in their new home, a pair of neighboring dwellings that Lizandro and Diego share with their aunts and uncle in a village of roughly 1,000 people outside of Jucuapa. Last year, Reuters cited that city as a place where the coffin-making business has taken off, partly fueled by the high homicide rates.
The rules are that Lizandro and his brother stay in constant touch with their aunts and uncle, unless they all travel somewhere together. At night, they sleep in one of their aunt’s houses, with bars on the windows and guard dogs at the door.
The brothers say they are trying to blend into their new country, but they clearly stand out. At the airport this week, they towered over the crowd, dressed as if they’d been plucked from an American shopping mall.
Diego wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the initials “USA.” Lizandro wore Top-Siders, shorts and a shirt decorated with tiny sunglasses. He speaks English better than Spanish. He wouldn’t recognize the president of El Salvador if he saw him on the street.
“To be honest, I don’t feel good being here,” he said. “People are looking at me different. . . . All my friends from when I was young, they barely know me now.”
Asked about the possibility of going to college in El Salvador, Lizandro said, “I don’t know if I can do that here. It’s hard to go from the bottom all the way to the top again.”
His coaches in the United States say Lizandro could have played soccer at a Division I school. But a scholarship would not cover enough of the costs, so he went with a less prestigious option. The scholarship to Louisburg College, a two-year, Methodist-affiliated school in Louisburg, N.C., was supposed to be the first step toward a four-year degree, perhaps in engineering.
Now, he is wondering if soccer could also be his lifeline in El Salvador. Almost every day, the brothers practice with a local team. They are hoping that will translate into a new career.
Lizandro said he never imagined he could be deported from the United States after getting into college. He wonders if Canada would treat him differently and is considering trying to move there, so he can reunite with his parents and his two siblings in the United States.
“I saw myself as being someone successful in the U.S. after college,” he said. “I was planning to get a career and everything and then a job and all that. But I just couldn’t do it. They didn’t let me do it.”