Present and Unaccounted For

Who are the next Guatemalans to be whisked back to a land they remember in nightmares?

A short, pale-skinned man with loose, cheekbone-length black hair stands before the congregation at St. Peter Catholic Church in Jupiter to read a passage from the Gospel of Luke. The sanctuary is sparsely decorated on this Palm Sunday, with white walls and a large wooden cross above the pulpit. Turquoise carpet and stained-glass depictions of Bible scenes along the walls add some of the only splashes of color. The ceilings are a series of sharp angles that meet high above the heads of worshipers. It's an intimidatingly large and austere space, but the young man looks confident and authoritative in a black suit as he recounts the Passion of Christ.

The man reading the Bible verses is a Guatemalan gardener named Prudencio Camposeco. After nearly 15 years living in Jupiter, he's facing the prospect of being uprooted and sent back to a land he remembers with trepidation.

His demeanor is notably less assured as he discusses his immigration status. In conversation after the service, he trembles slightly and takes lots of deep breaths. "It's difficult," he manages to say through a big sigh.

Camposeco: Thousands of Guatemalans face deportation.
Amy Guthrie
Camposeco: Thousands of Guatemalans face deportation.

So many Guatemalans are being deported — more than 12,000 in 2005, with the number rising last year — that activists have prepared a class-action suit to stop the removals. Those who applied for asylum in the 1980s are already protected by federal law. The suit argues that Guatemalans who fled before a 1996 peace accord should also be allowed to stay.

Jesse Moorman, a lawyer with the Human Rights Project in Los Angeles who filed the class-action suit, says the argument is that the feds waited so long to pull up the cases that this whole group has been deprived of a fair hearing process.

Without class-action status, individuals are set up for a tough legal fight. "They can say they're afraid, but it's not enough," Moorman explains. "Ten years ago, maybe they would have had stronger cases."

In Palm Beach County, where tens of thousands of Guatemalans live, immigration attorneys and community activists say it's hard to tell how many locals have been affected by the recent spike in deportation orders. "Yesterday was a slow day, and I must have seen or heard from at least a dozen Guatemalans," reckons Ian Ali, a West Palm Beach-based immigration attorney. He flips through his agenda to jog his memory and sees the names of Jesús, the couple that drove all the way down from Georgia, and many others. "People are panicking. We're talking about people who were given a work permit, quasi-legal status. They've been given a taste of America, and now a judge wants to pull the rug out from under them."

Camposeco left Guatemala in 1991, when he was 19 years old. The country was at the tail end of three decades of civil war that had wreaked havoc on the countryside. Entire villages were massacred, and neighbors lived in fear of one another. Camposeco watched a man come at his father with a machete. He saw his father straggle home one day beaten and bruised.

"It was all very traumatic — maybe it's not physical, but it's psychological," Camposeco says. "I've lived in constant fear since I was a child. Suddenly, one of your neighbors would disappear because someone would accuse him of being a guerrilla. We lived through a war."

Camposeco's father was a teacher on the government payroll in a small village near the town of Jacaltenango, which is tucked into the Sierra Madre Mountains near the Mexican border. As a government employee, guerrilla fighters saw him as an enemy. One day, the villagers didn't want him there anymore, so the family had to leave.

Camposeco's childhood memories are painful, but he'll have to come up with a convincing argument for his looming immigration hearing, his lawyers say. The court has to believe that Camposeco's life was — or would be — in danger in Guatemala. "According to them, the situation in my country is fine now," Camposeco says. "But I have a relative who was running for mayor in his town a year ago, and he was murdered."

An asylum case relies heavily on the applicant's testimony; it's understood that someone fleeing a country can't always bring documents to prove persecution. Besides, the threats may have been verbal. Hard evidence simply isn't there.

By the time Camposeco left Guatemala, an estimated 100,000 civilians had been killed — caught in the crossfire between the military and rebels. The country was being ruled by a democratically elected businessman, President Jorge Serrano, which was a significant departure from the military juntas and generals who had been in charge for decades. But the war dragged on in the highlands. If anything, rebels stepped up offensives in an effort to stay relevant.

Helicopters overhead, bullets flying — Camposeco heard it all in his remote mountain town. But it's his word against the deportation order. "There's no way to prove these things," Camposeco says. "In those times, we didn't have cameras to take pictures of what was happening — and people were doing so much with impunity."

He has a news clipping that mentions his uncle Baltazar — the mayoral candidate — getting plowed down by a spray of bullets as he drove around Jacaltenango in 2006. The article lists Baltazar's age and his political party, and it says that witnesses saw a group of men block his vehicle's path and shoot him. Then the story offers similarly brief details of three other senseless shooting deaths in the Guatemalan countryside.

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