Deportees on an ICE Air flight to Guatemala. There were 95 Guatemalans on the flight, and many of them vowed to return to the United States. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

About 45 minutes before descent, the guards went up and down the aisle unshackling the passengers, and the mood in the cabin began to lighten. A mother with a boy near the front was still crying, but they were the only family aboard the flight. Nearly all the other 93 deportees were men, and they began joking and talking excitedly. 

Soon Guatemalan territory appeared below, misty and green. A cheer rose.

“You see? They’re smiling!” said Matt Albence, the acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who spends a great deal of time defending his agency’s core functions, including this: a one-way trip out of the United States on ICE Air. “This is probably better than some of the commercial flights I fly on.”

It was Albence’s first visit to Guatemala, the country that has surpassed Mexico as the largest source of unauthorized migration to the United States. ICE Air, the agency’s charter airline, was bringing two planeloads of people to Guatemala on Thursday. The Trump administration has big plans to increase that.

Deportees line up at an airfield in Alexandria, La., on Thursday as they prepare to fly to Guatemala. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

President Trump has pledged to expel “millions” of immigration violators, a goal that wildly exceeds the government’s abilities and the seating capacity of its aging 737s. The reality is that Trump is losing on the ground: Since the start of the 2019 fiscal year in October, ICE has deported about 50,000 Guatemalans, but nearly five times as many illegally crossed the border into the United States during that time, leading to a record influx of families and children.

In its efforts to deter Central American migrants, the Trump administration reached an accord with the Guatemalan government last month that will allow the United States to begin sending planeloads of Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers here, in addition to Guatemalan deportees. The country has a presidential runoff vote Sunday, and both candidates have criticized the deal, which will require approval by Guatemala’s congress. Trump has threatened to wreck the struggling nation’s economy with tariffs and taxes if he is not appeased.

ICE sends about nine flights per week to Guatemala. Its government has agreed to accept up to 20, with 135 passengers each, potentially turning the country into a kind of reverse Ellis Island — a repository, far from the U.S. border, for those the United States has rejected.

Albence, a longtime ICE official, said he wanted to see the process firsthand, and he had never been to Central America’s Northern Triangle region. The day before, ICE had raided seven poultry and food plants in Mississippi, arresting 680 workers, the agency’s largest workplace sting in more than a decade. Nearly 400 of those arrested are from Guatemala.

Despite the scenes of anguished children without their parents in Mississippi, Albence called it a “textbook operation.” No one was injured, and nothing had leaked out in advance. Authorities said many families were reunited once parents were processed and issued court summonses. But some children were left alone, and ICE did not coordinate with state and local child-welfare providers.

“Our job is to enforce the law,” said Albence, who is popular at the White House and within his agency for his tough-cop demeanor and uncomplicated, unsentimental view of the job. “It’s up to Congress to make the laws or change the laws.”

The flight to Guatemala originated at an airfield in Alexandria, a sleepy city in central Louisiana along the Red River. It is one of ICE Air’s five deportation hubs, along with Miami; San Antonio; Brownsville, Tex.; and Mesa, Ariz. 

ICE has a “staging facility” at the Alexandria airfield where the deportees can be held for up to 72 hours after they are transferred from detention centers along the East Coast. About half the passengers on Albence’s flight had criminal convictions, ICE officials said, but the agency provided The Washington Post with specific information for just a fraction of those passengers. 

Their offenses included drug dealing, assault and aggravated sexual battery of a child, according to ICE records. One had been arrested for “trespassing, loitering and prowling at night.” 

Some had been in U.S. jails and prisons for months or years, and for them, the flight to Guatemala was a relief, promising freedom.

The deportees shuffled to the airplane in single file along the tarmac. Private contractors and ICE staff removed their leg restraints at the jet stairway, patting down their pockets as they boarded. Many of the men appeared to be dressed in the same clothes they were wearing when they were arrested.

Shackles on the tarmac at an airfield in Louisiana after ICE agents loaded deportees flying to Guatemala. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Contractors working for ICE pat down deportees and check their pockets before boarding. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

The ICE Air flight carried 95 Guatemalan deportees — a few women, but mostly men. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

A Post reporter and a Univision camera crew were allowed aboard as well, though the journalists were prohibited from speaking to the detainees during the flight. Albence and senior ICE officials also boarded, along with about a dozen guards, all unarmed. 

The Boeing 737-300 was older but clean. When the cabin door closed, a sugary, cloying scent wafted through.

“Crème brûlée,” a female guard said. “The gals like to spray air freshener.”

Passengers were cuffed for the flight. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Many of the passengers were stoic and subdued, their handcuffs clinking softly in their laps. It was the first time on an airplane for some. In fewer than three hours, the southbound flight erased a journey that had taken them weeks or months, often ending in a risky trek through the desert to remote areas of the U.S.-Mexico border. To return to spouses and U.S. citizen children and their lives in the United States, they would have to do it again. 

A few on the plane were visibly excited, eager to see parents, children and siblings they had left behind years earlier. And when the aircraft dropped through the clouds and screeched to a halt on the runway, the cabin filled with clapping and cheers.

“We’ll all be back there in a month,” one deportee remarked in English as he and others crossed the airfield and filed into the Guatemalan government’s “Reception and Repatriation Center.” Financed with U.S. assistance, it is a dim, noisy arrival terminal with rows of seats and check-in booths staffed by clerks calling out passengers from the manifest. 

Albence thought it looked no worse “than a DMV.”

Bouncy Guatemalan marimba music echoed in the hall. Patricia Marroquín, the first lady of Guatemala, was there to greet Albence and the deportees.

Deportees arrive in Guatemala City after the flight from Louisiana. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

A Guatemalan official gave the deportees — now “returnees” — a stirring greeting.

“You’re the lucky ones,” he told them, reminding the group that so many of their compatriots had perished during the journey to the United States. “You’re back home with the loved ones who you left here to support,” he said. “This country is and will always be your home.”

Luis de Leon, 28, wanted no part of it. He was still wearing the paint-streaked work clothes he had on when he was arrested during a traffic stop in Bowling Green, Ky. 

He had been in the United States for seven years, dodging deportation. After a 2016 DUI, he said, he quit drinking. His wife and U.S.-born children, ages 2 and 4 months, were still in Kentucky.

“There is nothing for me here,” he said. “The only choice I have is to go back.”

After arriving at a government reception center, many of the deportees raced for the exits through an alleyway. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Money-changers jostled with family members awaiting long-lost relatives, offering to change U.S. dollars into Guatemalan quetzals, calling, “Pesos, pesos, pesos.”

Stephanie Barrios, 28, stood there in the scrum, under a golf umbrella, waiting for her husband. Two years earlier, she had been deported from the United States, returning to a country she left as a toddler. In Los Angeles, where she grew up, she was in and out of juvenile detention and struggled with drug use. Now she works at a call center, making $700 a month. “I hate it,” Barrios said in unaccented English. 

A daughter, 8, is back in Los Angeles, with Barrios’s mother. Raising the child through FaceTime is awful, she said. 

“I understand where Trump is coming from, but I don’t think it’s fair that a lot of people are separated from their families without having done anything to deserve it,” Barrios said. “Especially the children.” 

Barrios does not think her husband — who runs his own auto repair shop in California — would want to remain in Guatemala. “We’re planning to stay a little while, but then we’ll go back,” she said.

Rain began falling, and Mixzer Ruiz, 28, ducked beneath an awning and opened a sack containing his few American possessions, relacing the sneakers he was wearing when police arrested him two months earlier. He had been working as a chef at a French cafe in Alexandria, Va., he said. His neighbors summoned the police during a fight with his girlfriend, he said, and suddenly he was back in a country he left a decade earlier.

“I feel great,” he said, in English. “I have my daughter here. I left when she was 2 years old.”

“I just want to see her, take some trips, celebrate my daughter’s birthday,” Ruiz said. “Then we’ll see.”

Asked later about Ruiz’s deportation, ICE officials said records show he was convicted in June of “felony aggravated sexual battery of a minor under 13 years.” Alexandria court records show he was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a child by a custodian and was sentenced June 13. He was ordered deported last month by an immigration judge.

Albence, like many Homeland Security officials, views immigration enforcement through the lens of “consequence delivery.” If migrants who cross illegally are released directly into the United States, more will come. If deportations are swift and certain, fewer will try.

For ICE, the flights have a psychological value that exceeds their seating capacity. They are a flying advertisement for U.S. enforcement, countering the sales pitch of coyote smuggling guides who promise a successful trip north.

“This is about stopping the flow before it gets to the border,” Albence said before he continued on to El Salvador. “If an individual thinks they will be removed, they will think twice about spending their life savings and taking that dangerous journey.”