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Present and Unaccounted For

Camposeco: Thousands of Guatemalans face deportation.
Amy Guthrie

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.

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.

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Washington, D.C., says a number of Guatemalan cases like Camposeco's were put on the back burner to see whether they would be covered by sweeping hardship legislation known as NACARA, the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act. To get in under the act, a Guatemalan would have had to have entered the Unites States before October 1990. "We're now going back and looking at those [Guatemalan] cases to determine whether they qualified [for asylum]," Bentley explains.

Meanwhile, Camposeco has signed on to the class-action suit, as has Juana Tomás — a 33-year-old Mayan woman who lives in Lake Worth.

Like Camposeco, Tomás works with plants. But in many ways, she is far more vulnerable. When Tomás arrived in the United States 16 years ago, she spoke only Qanjobal, an indigenous dialect. To this day, she can't read or write. "The truth is that I don't know even what year [I arrived]," she says in slow, broken Spanish that she learned from Mexicans who picked tomatoes with her in Florida fields. "I just came behind my husband. I don't know where I'm taken. One just comes like the little dogs; that's how I came. They just say 'Let's go,' and, well..."

When asked whether she really sees herself as a dog, Tomás breaks into giggles and hides her face in her hands.

Her husband died, leaving Tomás to raise her two American-born sons alone. The boys, 15-year-old Alejandro and 10-year-old Jesus, speak Qanjobal at home, English in school, and Spanish with friends. If their mother is removed from the country, they'll likely end up in foster care.

Aileen Josephs, an immigration lawyer in West Palm Beach, has taken on Tomás' case pro bono. "I've found that in real asylum cases, it's difficult for them to express themselves," she says. "It's kind of like taking teeth out. With Juana, she isn't educated, and these things happened when she was a child."

Tales of the horrors that Tomás witnessed in the same mountainous region from which Camposeco hails come out of her in truncated bits. There was the time her house was burned to the ground and her father carted off to jail because someone suspected he was a rebel. A year later, Tomás' father got out alive but was infested with vermin. There was her uncle, who got his feet chopped off. There was the great-aunt whom she saw decapitated by military men and buried in a shallow grave.

It takes some cajoling to nudge Tomás into recounting even snatches of the violence she saw in Guatemala. Once in storytelling mode, her feeble Spanish deteriorates further. She mixes male and female pronouns and speaks softly in the present tense — as if the killings are taking place right now in front of her. "If we get involved, maybe they kill us," Tomás recounts. "One only stays quiet, watching what they do. One can't do anything. There, when the war happens, well, there you can't even talk with a friend in the street. If you talk, if they see you chatting, they kill you."

She hears stories of her countrymen being plucked from their homes in Palm Beach County and put on a plane destined for Guatemala City — a teeming metropolis of 2.5 million that Tomás has never even seen.

"Where will I go? What road will I take? What will I eat with my boys — what will I do with them? And what if [they're] taken away from me?" she asks. "This head is — like, like — half here, half I don't know where," she says, touching her forehead. "You're always thinking about it."

Tomás says she has no peace. Sleep is elusive with so much uncertainty looming.

The wait is eating away at Prudencio Camposeco too. "I've been in limbo ever since I got to this country, practically," he says.  

Within months of coming here, Camposeco filed for asylum with the help of a paralegal. With work permit in hand, he felt that he was on his way to a brighter future. But each year that his work permit got renewed, he wondered whether he'd get papers the next. He feared he might be living on borrowed time.

Fourteen years after filing for asylum, he got the deportation order.

Maybe if he had been denied asylum more than a decade ago, it would have been easier to leave, he says now. "I want to be here. I want to work in this country." Camposeco gestures at the few churchgoers still milling about, washing free donuts down with iced tea. "And this is my family. I think that I've integrated in this country. I live here."

He's a forceful presence at St. Peter. When the church's four Spanish-speaking nuns are overextended, Camposeco visits families in need of spiritual guidance on their behalf. First and foremost, Camposeco considers himself a child of God. Not a Guatemalan. "We're trying to create a community — a healthy place where people can congregate."

When the subject shifts to Jesus, his face lights up. The weight lifts from his shoulders. The uncertainty ahead disappears for a moment. "It's a lifestyle," Camposeco explains. "The most important thing is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ."

The Spanish-language service on Palm Sunday wraps up with a prayer asking that all governments "respect human rights and act in a just manner." It's a message that clearly resonates with this crowd. "Thank you for loving me," the choir sings, over and over.


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