GUATEMALA CITY – Donelda Pulex stepped off the airplane into the sun, clutching her 5-year-old daughter's hand and burst into heaving sobs. Fourteen-year-old Hermelindo Juarez hid his face as his father comforted him. Efildo Daniel Vasquez walked cautiously behind his 8-year-old son.
Quiet, confused and exhausted, 11 families who had been detained and separated after they were caught crossing the U.S. border illegally returned home Tuesday to Guatemala aboard a U.S. government-chartered flight that read "World Atlantic."
Greeted by first lady Patricia Marroquin, they lined up on the tarmac, shuffling — their shoelaces had been taken as a security precaution. U.S. immigration officials handed over paperwork in manila envelopes to Guatemalan officials. The immigrants walked single-file into a squat gray building at the country's military base to be processed back into their country, along with dozens of others also deported.
Chartered flights full of deportees from the United States regularly arrive in the Central American country, but Tuesday's flight was among the first containing families separated at the border under President Donald Trump's contentious zero-tolerance policy. More than 2,300 children were separated from their families before a June 20 order stopping the practice.
While some Central American migrants say they were fleeing to protect their families from severe violence, parents who spoke with The Associated Press said they made the difficult, dangerous journey to the U.S. for a better life. They were seeking a chance at a steady job or a better education for their children.
They didn't know they'd be separated from their kids under the policy that criminally prosecuted anyone caught crossing the border illegally. Trump administration officials had said the policy was necessary to deter a growing number of families from Central America who were crossing illegally. But the president backed off following a national and international uproar, ordering an end to the separations on June 20.
While frustrated that their difficult journeys had ended in failure, the families were relieved their ordeals were over.
Pulex said she spent nearly two months apart from her daughter, waiting in an El Paso, Texas, detention center, first for the resolution of her criminal case and later for deportation proceedings.
"It was a great torment," she said, wiping tears away. "I did not know if I would ever see my daughter again. I thought she was taken from me forever." Her little girl, Marelyn, dressed in a pristine white sweater and blue chiffon skirt, said she spoke to her mother by phone from a foster care home in Michigan.
"My mother, she was so sad. She would cry for me, and I would tell her, Mami, everything is OK, I am OK. I will see you soon," the little girl said. She said the people who cared for her were kind, and treated her well, but she missed her mother.
"I am happy to be back with her," she said.
Inside the military base, the families were steered into a crowded, hot room with rows of folding chairs and big whirring fans. Each chair had a brown paper bag with a sandwich, chips, an orange soda and bottle of water. The families were told by social workers they would have medical screenings and go through a paperwork process before they were given bus vouchers home. Eventually, they'd walk down a short outdoor hall and through a metal door leading them back into Guatemala City. Some lived more than seven hours away in the mountains.
Single adults were in a larger room, where they waited in line to be processed. Their belongings, taken from them at the U.S. border, were piled in back, mostly black duffels and red plastic bags.
About 75 people were aboard the flight, and the AP asked at least two dozen adults whether they had children left behind in the U.S. either on purpose or because they were deported without them. All said no. There have been other reports of parents deported without their children.
In one case, Elsa Ortiz Enriquez said recently in Guatemala that she was deported last month without her 8-year-old, Anthony David Tovar Ortiz. The boy was in a shelter for migrant children in Houston.
Inside the immigration complex, Pulex helped Marelyn drink from a water bottle, and then pulled the little girl's hand up to her heart and kissed it. Another father held his son as the little boy closed his eyes. Two little girls opened up Snickers bars that were handed out. In the back row, Hermelindo Juarez told his father, Deivin Juarez, he was so very tired.
The two made the trip north in early May, and they spent almost two weeks on the road with barely any food.
"We were starving," Juarez said. "The frontier, it is a trying place."
Hermelindo said he didn't know where he was going when he was separated, and the two did not have good communications during their time apart. He had been sent to a shelter in Tucson, Arizona, where he said he was treated very well. He studied and played soccer. The air conditioning made him a bit cold, he said, but he got used to it.
"I felt comfortable there," he said. There were children there from Brazil, from India, from Guatemala. He didn't know how many had been separated from parents or how many had made the journey alone. There are more than 10,000 children in U.S. care who crossed the border alone.
Juarez and the others said they paid thousands of dollars to smugglers, and would not likely try the journey again anytime soon.
"Now, I'll try to find work here," Juarez said. "What else is there?"
Associated Press writer Sonia Perez contributed to this report.