Deportee Back Home After Near-Death Trip to U.S. Julio Cuellar is one of a growing number of El Salvadorans who illegally cross into the U.S. and are deported home. Although he had hoped to earn money to help his sick daughter, he suffered a harrowing journey in the Arizona desert that nearly killed him.
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Deportee Back Home After Near-Death Trip to U.S.

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Deportee Back Home After Near-Death Trip to U.S.

Deportee Back Home After Near-Death Trip to U.S.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The United States set a record over the last year for deporting undocumented immigrants. A little under 300,000 were sent home, and this week we'll ask what happens when all those immigrants get there. NPR's Jennifer Ludden begins with one man sent back to the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador.

(Soundbite of airport tarmac)

JENNIFER LUDDEN: On a blazing hot afternoon, security guards escort 33 men and nine women from San Salvador's airport tarmac into a cramped processing room.

Unidentified Woman: Gracias.

LUDDEN: Some deportees look defiant, others destroyed and lost. They brighten as they file into rows of plastic chairs and find on each one a warm pupusa - the thick tortilla that's El Salvador's national dish. Officials try to bolster the group with speeches welcoming them home.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Thank God you are here and in much better shape than many others, says this police officer. Some return wounded or dead. But you are very much alive, he said, ready to set off on your next trip if you choose.

Some say they do plan to go back to the U.S. as soon as possible. With few prospects here and family still there, they say they have nothing to lose for trying. But not Julio Cuellar.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. JULIO CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: In a smaller side room, Julio gives a migration official his personal details. He's 45 with a droopy mustache and sad eyes. He tells the woman that three months earlier he'd abandoned his job as a state policeman to go to the U.S.

Julio answers everything politely but has to think when she asks, what are you going to do now here in El Salvador?

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Well, I need to go to my house and talk with my family, he says. More than anything, I need to explain the experience I've lived through.

Julio has diabetes and nearly died in the Arizona desert. He'd run out of insulin and become sick, and his smuggler abandoned him. It was two days with no food or shelter before he was rescued by the U.S. border patrol.

What would make someone do this - especially a middle-aged man with a full-time job? Julio's daughter, Guadalupe, blames herself.

(Soundbite of baby)

LUDDEN: In a tiny yellow brick row house, Guadalupe pins a pink cloth diaper on her new baby. She explains that when her father left for the U.S., she was pregnant and had just been diagnosed with cancer. There was no money for treatment.

Ms. GUADALUPE CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: My father had so many debts already, she says. He wanted to pay those and make life easier for us so I could quit my job and stay home with the children.

Guadalupe's parents long ago divorced, and Julio raised her. For the past few years her mom's been working illegally in Texas. She says her dad's coyote, or smuggler, assured him it would be an easy trip. But for three months she heard nothing.

Ms. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: I wondered, did something go wrong? Is he dead? Then a call came; Julio was being deported in three days.

So Guadalupe and other family members have come to the airport and waited, sweltering for hours in the parking lot. As Julio finally emerges, they're in for a shock.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: In his short time away, Julie has lost 40 pounds and aged visibly.

(Soundbite of crying)

LUDDEN: After long, tight hugs, he cradles the two-month-old granddaughter he's meeting for the first time.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

LUDDEN: Three hours later, the sun's almost setting in the working class suburb where Julio and Guadalupe live. When they get off a bus, Guadalupe says her father's too ashamed for the neighbors to see him, so they walk a dirt path behind the row of houses, then casually to the front door.

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: The family squeezes into a living space the size of many an American walk-in closet, and Julio tries to explain his predicament.

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: For years, he says, he's gotten by through loans so his daughter could stay in school, to pay for this house. In this country, he says, a paycheck alone doesn't even provide three meals a day.

A few years back, Julio co-signed a loan for a friend. The man disappeared and the lender came after Julio. After Guadalupe's cancer diagnosis, Julio says he felt trapped and desperate, with no other option than seeking work in the U.S.

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: You can kill yourself here working, he says, and never get ahead. But now with his gamble failed, Julio's in worse straits.

Mr. CUELLAR: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: To pay his smuggler, Julio gave the man the deed to his house. When Julio left the country, he lost his police job. And that near-death experience in the desert has left him with a host of ongoing health problems.

Julio Cuellar swears he'll never try crossing to the U.S. again. But he still has no idea how to solve the dilemmas that pushed him to go in the first place.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can follow more turns in Julio Cuellar's journey home at NPR.org. And tomorrow we'll meet someone who was deported after living legally in the U.S. for 20 years.

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