Liliana Cruz Mendez crossed the border illegally at age 18. Eleven years and two children later, she was sent back.
More than two months had passed since he’d last seen his mother, through a glass barrier in an immigration detention center in Williamsburg, Va. The U.S. government deported Liliana Cruz Mendez to El Salvador before her son, Steve Bermudez, finished fourth grade. Now it was August, and Steve and his little sister, Danyca — both U.S. citizens born in Virginia — were taking their first airplane ride to join her, leaving a small Falls Church apartment where their framed birth announcements hang on the living room wall.
ABOVE: Liliana Cruz Mendez comforts her 4-year-old daughter, Danyca Bermudez, shortly her children arrived in El Salvador in August. Cruz Mendez was deported from the United States earlier in the summer. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Steve, 10, stared out the window at the unfamiliar landscape as the airplane descended. He saw towering volcanoes, gleaming cornfields and a long, silvery stretch of the Pacific Ocean.
After they cleared customs, Danyca, 4, shyly hung back with the aunt who had accompanied them on the trip.
But Steve ran ahead.
He had something important to tell his mother, and he blurted it out as soon as he reached her, even as she grabbed him and hugged as hard as she could.
Dad is coming also, he told her. Soon, they’d all be together again.
For a while, she would let him believe it.
‘Plz don’t deport my mom’
Cruz Mendez, 30, made this trip in reverse when she was 18 years old, skipping her high school graduation to flee a neighborhood man who had harassed her in San Salvador. She was detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, released and allowed to join her brother in Virginia. Two months later, an immigration judge in Texas ordered her deported. Cruz Mendez says she never knew about the hearing.
In Fairfax, she was crowned beauty queen at a local Salvadoran festival and met Rene Bermudez, a hazel-eyed laborer who worked construction. Steve was born in 2007, Danyca in 2012.
Late in 2013, police stopped Cruz Mendez for failing to turn on the lights in her minivan and charged her with driving without a license, an arrest that alerted federal agents to her old deportation order.
While President Barack Obama deported high numbers of undocumented immigrants during parts of his tenure, parents of American citizens with little to no criminal record were not priorities for expulsion. As a result, officials released Cruz Mendez with orders to stay out of trouble and check in with them once a year.
But under President Trump, who campaigned on a promise to crack down on illegal immigration, anyone here without papers can be expelled.
Interior deportations — of people already living in the United States, as opposed to those caught crossing the border — have risen 37 percent since Trump took office. Deportation arrests of non-criminals such as Cruz Mendez — many, like her, with children who were born in this country and are U.S. citizens — surged past 31,000 from the inauguration to the end of September, triple the same period last year.
On the May morning when she was scheduled for her yearly check-in, Cruz Mendez lingered in the apartment, which she’d decorated with family photographs, Danyca’s art projects and Steve’s citizen-of-the-month award from elementary school.
She considered the possibility of skipping the check-in, aware of other longtime immigrants who had been deported after similar appointments. But she could not fathom life as a fugitive. Worried, Bermudez warned her that she was going to be late.
“Why are you trying to turn me over so fast?” Cruz Mendez snapped in Spanish.
She eventually walked into the immigration agency’s Fairfax office, accompanied by advocates and loved ones. Agents took her into custody as her supporters shouted.
For a month, her husband and lawyers fought to free her. Steve tried, too, writing letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that were full of pleas and questions.
“Plz don’t deport my mom,” one of the letters said.
Who will take me to the doctor, the dentist? Who will take care of me and my sister? Who will I live with?
It didn’t work. On June 14, they sent her back. Bermudez and the kids filled a giant cardboard box with her dresses and shoes, pots and pans, and placed it by the front door, waiting for a courier to take it away.
‘How can I go?’
Deportations can shatter a family or a marriage. In one study of the aftermath of six immigration raids, family income dropped an average of 70 percent. Another study, of U.S.-born Latino children, found that those whose parents had been detained or deported experienced significantly higher post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms than their peers.
“That child’s more likely to be poor. They’re more likely to be depend on public benefits,” said Randy Capps, U.S. research director for the Migration Policy Institute. “And then psychologically, you just don’t know. There could be an immediate impact; it could be a long time before that psychological impact shows up.”
In the Falls Church apartment, Steve and Danyca cried all the time after Cruz Mendez was deported. No one wanted to eat.
Bermudez panicked over money. He’d taken a second job to make up for what Cruz Mendez earned managing an organic burger restaurant, and he dragged a mattress into the living room to find a boarder. He felt wracked with guilt that he hadn’t gotten as far along in the immigration process as his father and sister, who are U.S. citizens. His sister took the oath weeks after officials deported his wife. Bermudez had applied for legal residency but was not yet able to sponsor Cruz Mendez to stay in the United States.
When she called, the word “Amor” — Love — popped up on his cellphone screen. But things were tense between them.
Cruz Mendez wanted Bermudez and the kids to join her in El Salvador. Bermudez wanted to wait for his papers and bring his wife back legally.
“How can I go?” he said after he hung up, sitting at his kitchen table next to his mother, who had swooped in from North Carolina to help. “I have faith and hope that I can have something here.”
Steve had begun to tense up when anyone touched him.
Danyca only wanted to see videos of her mother on her father’s phone. “Otra vez,” she’d command her father in Spanish. Again.
Cruz Mendez was desperate to see them, too.
Over the phone, she and Bermudez debated whether the children would be safe in El Salvador, which has one of the world’s highest murder rates. But Bermudez also did not know how he would juggle multiple jobs and care for the kids in Falls Church.
In the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12, Bermudez and his mother and aunts bundled the kids into a van and took them to Dulles International Airport.
“Take care of your mother,” one aunt whispered, her eyes wet as she hugged Steve goodbye.
Steve did not cry. He could not wait to go.
Soldiers and razor wire
The children and their aunt landed at an airport named for Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a human rights advocate murdered in 1980, early in El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war. More than 1.1 million Salvadorans — about one-sixth of the population — have since fled to the United States.
Fear is a fixture here: Razor wire curls over dress shops, condominiums and corner stores. Armed guards watch over gas stations and tire depots. Soldiers patrol neighborhoods carrying M16s. Police investigators wear ski masks despite the searing heat so criminal gangs cannot identify them and take revenge.
At the airport, the family members did not linger. An uncle who drives a taxi hustled them into his white station wagon for an hour’s drive, past coconut stands and a string of junkyards before turning off the highway and into a tiny warren of dead-end roads high above the Rio Acelhuate.
Another uncle, a former soldier, waited on his motorcycle to escort them two blocks to the gray cinder-block house where Cruz Mendez grew up. Inside the gate, she’d transformed the broken driveway into a wonderland of balloons, streamers and a sign that said “No heart in this world loves you as much as mine.”
Steve deflates on his first day in El Salvador, wondering how long it will be before the family is together again in the United States. Cruz Mendez tries to cheer him with homemade chicken soup. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Chicken soup simmered on a firewood stove. There was a Winnie the Pooh piñata and a real-life rooster named Micho, who comes when he’s called. A battery of cousins enveloped Steve and Danyca in a pack of instant best friends.
Steve gave his cousins noisemakers and dollar-store pods that bloomed into sailboats and trucks in hot water. But he let his little sister answer most of the cousins’ questions because her Spanish is better. And he soon retreated to his tablet to play video games.
“I’m just freaked out because I’ve never seen this,” he said.
Cruz Mendez, too, seemed lost. She feared Bermudez would leave her. She was filled with ambition but had no job. She wanted to raise her children but worried they’d be better off in Virginia.
“Sometimes I feel impotent,” Cruz Mendez said later. “It’s like I can’t get out of the hole I’ve fallen into.”
That night, she snuggled with Danyca and Steve on a shared mattress in a room with a view of a volcano.
The next morning, Steve started asking when his father would come.
Cruz Mendez promised her husband she would keep Steve and Danyca indoors most of the time. They did not go to La Paleca Church’s annual parade, where beauty queens in sparkly dresses rode floats and tossed candies under the watchful eye of soldiers wearing black caps emblazoned with skulls. They did not go to the beach, despite the sweltering weather.
And they did not join their cousins, who rose before dawn on the first day of school, pulled on their uniforms, brushed their teeth, and headed to a modest building with Tweety Bird and Mickey Mouse murals where tuition is $20 a month.
To get there, the children cross a four-lane highway whizzing with buses and cars. Cruz Mendez thought it was too dangerous, and she worried Steve wouldn’t understand the teachers.
The days became long and empty. Steve kept asking when his father was coming, but Cruz Mendez would not give him a straight answer.
She tried to keep busy helping her aunt — a trained accountant who gave up her job years ago to stay home and keep a watchful eye on the children — sell fruit and vegetables in their tiny neighborhood.
Steve wanted to come along, but Cruz Mendez was worried about his sneakers — black Air Jordans with flashing green lights, a gift from Bermudez just before the kids left Virginia. In El Salvador, sneakers, clothes, even hair color are rumored to be associated with gangs, and Cruz Mendez didn’t want her son to draw the wrong kind of attention.
Cruz Mendez explains to Steve why he can't wear a pair of his sneakers. In El Salvador, any number of outward markers can be construed as a gang affiliation. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
“Are these sneakers dangerous?” she wondered, frowning. “I don’t understand why they chose these.”
As she sliced a cucumber, Steve asked a new version of his question. How many days do we have until the next month?
Fifteen, she told him.
“He thinks his father is coming next month,” she said in a low voice.
Once the fruit and vegetables were packed in a bucket, her aunt blessed it with the sign of the cross and heaved the bucket on her head with a wince. The women headed out, Cruz Mendez holding Danyca by the hand.
Steve soon joined them, wearing flip-flops, and offered to carry the bucket.
As the weeks passed, it became increasingly clear that El Salvador was not Steve’s country. He loved his mother’s family, but his Spanish was middling. He missed his school, his friends and his father. Days before Halloween, he flew back to Virginia. On the way to the airport, Danyca said she thought all three of them were going home together.
“Just Steve,” Cruz Mendez told her daughter, who had turned 5 in September.
The apartment looked almost as Cruz Mendez left it, except now a woman and two children rent the extra room.
Bermudez works all the time, so Cruz Mendez cares for Steve from afar. She calls the babysitter after school to make sure he arrived safely. She checks on his health insurance and his dental appointments.
Steve no longer asks when the family will be together.
In Falls Church, Cruz Mendez was an independent woman with a salary and dreams for the future. Now she sits inside the little gray house. Bermudez cannot afford to send her money for college, so she has set those plans aside.
Over the phone, he urges her to have faith that they will be together again.
She still wears her wedding ring, and he still wears his.
Rene Bermudez welcomes his son, Steve, back home at Washington Dulles International Airport in October. The rest of their family remained in El Salvador. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)