RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Deportations from the U.S. are up, and this week we're following some of those deportees home. Yesterday we heard the story of a Salvadoran man who nearly died trying to migrate illegally to the U.S. Today we profile another Salvadoran who lived here legally for so long that he considers himself American. Omar Giron fled El Salvador's civil war when he was a teenager. He spent 20 years with his family living in Richmond, Virginia, but after repeated run-ins with the law, Omar Giron was sent back to El Salvador last December. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: There's one thing Omar Giron can't seem to get over in this transition to his new life.
(Soundbite of scuffing)
LUDDEN: In a tropical climate where everyone is in flip-flops, Omar wears black leather shoes and polishes them obsessively.
Mr. OMAR GIRON: I do this often because there's a lot of dust in the road, and your shoes never stays clean in this place.
LUDDEN: The dust - it's everywhere. The house where he now lives with his grandfather and aunt is on the corner of two dirt roads, and with no screens on the windows, dust floats in freely. So every day, Omar walks into the front step, turns on the garden hose, and waters down the road.
Mr. GIRON: Three times a day. In the morning, around lunchtime and in the evening.
LUDDEN: Omar is resigned to his changed circumstances, but he is deeply depressed to be back in El Salvador after two decades away. He took anti-anxiety pills the first month. He says at times he would sit in his bed crying for hours, mostly for his four children from two previous marriages who still live in Virginia. He shows off letters from his daughter, illustrated with big, loopy hearts.
Mr. GIRON: Their birthdays were this past weekend. My daughter was 13 and my son was 7. I couldn't even catch them on the phone. It just tore me apart.
LUDDEN: The upheaval began simply enough a year ago. Omar went to pay a parking ticket, and that's when a string of DUIs plus a domestic- violence conviction finally caught up with him. It was enough to lose his legal status and be deported. Omar says he blames only himself but wishes he had yet another chance.
Mr. GIRON: It's not like I sell drugs in the street or to children, or a rapist or a killer. I'm not like that. I'm just a hard-working man who live a normal life, like we all do over there with Americans. I just feel like I'm one of them.
LUDDEN: Young cousins tease the family dog in a courtyard shaded by mango and coconut trees. This roomy house in San Miguel - Omar calls it St. Michael - is the result of the hard work of Omar's family in Virginia. Their remittances paid for it, along with a window AC unit and cable TV.
Mr. GIRON: They looked at me funny when I watch the NFL or the NBA.
LUDDEN: Omar knows he's lucky to have all this in a desperately poor country, but one thing he still misses is his work. He was a certified welder. The more dangerous the gig, the better.
Mr. GIRON: I just love the risk. I love heights.
LUDDEN: Omar says he developed a reputation working on bridges in Virginia, the Washington Beltway, and at the nearby Quantico Marine base.
Mr. GIRON: Any company, they know Omar. Yeah, the skinny guy who talks a lot, yeah, but he's a heck of a worker. So that's me. Everybody knows me.
LUDDEN: Which makes it all the harder to accept that here in his home country, nobody knows him. And without connections, Omar worries he'll never get a decent job. He's let go of trying to work in welding. He interviewed at a call center, figuring his English would be a big plus, but was told he needed to know more about computers.
So he keeps looking. But in a country where the United Nations estimates half the population is either unemployed or underemployed, landing any job is no sure thing.
(Soundbite of sizzling)
Ms. LUCIA GIRON (Omar's Aunt): (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: As she cooks meat patties, Omar's Aunt Lucia seems happy to have her nephew back, but she knows it's hard for him. He's frustrated depending on remittances, so she preaches patience.
Ms. GIRON: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: I tell him to calm down. This is how we live here, she says. With each dollar we get, we change it into nickels and pennies, then spend them carefully.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
LUDDEN: After all this time, does Omar seem more Salvadoran or American?
Ms. GIRON: (Spanish spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUDDEN: Omar says people can spot immediately that he's from the U.S. by the way he talks, even the way he walks, how he carefully lifts his pants and jumps over potholes.
Mr. GIRON: And the way I walk, I walk free, and I don't have no fear. And people here, they just look back, always will look back. Whoever's following, chasing them, people think they're going to rob you.
LUDDEN: And sometimes they do. The first time Omar ventured out at night for a music concert, he had his $80 Puma shoes stolen by a 10-year-old. In fact, El Salvador's rampant, gang-fueled crime is one of his biggest worries. Some of those gang-bangers were kicked out of the U.S., which is why Omar never tells people he was deported.
Mr. GIRON: Because they don't trust. They think you're a criminal, a killer, a serious killer or a rapist. And they don't trust you. Every day I want to go back home.
LUDDEN: Under the terms of his deportation, it will be years before Omar Giron can even apply to re-enter the U.S. By that time, it's hard to say where he'll feel he belongs.
LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can see how Omar Giron spends his days back in El Salvador at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.