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Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
From fiscal year 2005 through June 11, 2011, ICE Air Operations conducted 1,537 removal flights to Guatemala:
Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Source: Guatemala's Migration Department
From fiscal year 2005 through June 11, 2011, ICE Air Operations conducted 3,879 removal flights to Central and South America:
Go online for more photos, videos and additional information about Guatemala - all available in English and Spanish. See a Q & A on immigration law with Chatanooga immigration attorney Robert Divine.
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala - They come in U.S.-chartered planes with old clothes and orange plastic wrist bands displaying their names, dates of birth and photos.
Their frustrated dreams are packed in cardboard boxes or paper bags.
Hundreds of deportees from the United States arrive weekly at the airport in Guatemala's capital.
On April 15 at 11 a.m., 126 Guatemalan deportees arrived in Guatemala City from Phoenix. Earlier that day, another 131 were welcomed home by government officials and a bright blue banner stating, "Bienvenidos a Guatemala, Ya estás en tu país y con tu gente."
"Welcome to Guatemala, you are now in your country and with your people."
Guatemalan government officials greet flights with deportees almost daily; sometimes two or three flights arrive in one day.
Every year since 2007, more than 20,000 Guatemalans have been deported from the United States. More than 60,000 others were deported from Mexico in both 2009 and 2010, according to Guatemalan government data.
When the deportees arrive in their home country, some look tired; some are dirty.
Some were caught in the Arizona desert as they tried to cross illegally into the United States; others came from places such as Chattanooga, Atlanta or Memphis, where they had established lives.
Isaiahs Romero Chávez, 27, was caught in the Arizona desert. He left San Marcos, a state near the Mexico border, about a month before he was nabbed.
"We were in Tucson already. We were about to get in the car to go to Phoenix," he said shortly after he arrived back in Guatemala.
Chávez said he understands the border patrol agents are just doing their jobs.
"That's what they are there for, to catch us because we have no documents. We are violating the law," he said.
Even though he acknowledges what he did was illegal, he said he had no other option.
"Life here [in Guatemala] is hard," he said. "Maybe you get enough for your food, but you can't do anything else. There's no going forward in Guatemala."
From 2005 through June 11 of this year, more than 1,500 U.S. flights carrying deportees from the United States have landed in Guatemala, according to Temple Black, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The number of Guatemalans deported annually from the United States shot from 11,000 in 2005 to close to 30,000 in 2010.
From 2005 through this spring, the U.S. government spent more than $744 million on removal flights to foreign countries, including Guatemala, according to ICE data.
And so far this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, ICE Air operations spent $73.22 million - about $519 on average per seat - on 1,303 flights with more than 141,000 deportees.
The importance of removing those who are in the country illegally justifies the cost, Black said in an e-mail.
"ICE is charged with enforcing the nation's civil immigration laws and receives appropriated funds for this purpose," Black wrote. "This is a critical mission and one with direct significance for our national security, public safety, and the integrity of our border and immigration controls."
President Barack Obama's administration is under increasing pressure to deport illegal immigrants, primarily from Republican politicians and other groups that seek tougher enforcement of the immigration laws.
In fiscal year 2010, a record 392,862 illegal immigrants were deported from the U.S., up from 291,060 in 2007. Critics of illegal immigration say the government's priority should be securing the border and deporting those who break the law.
When the deportees arrive in Guatemala City, they are called one by one to a processing counter, just as if they were cashing a check at a bank. They are fingerprinted and processed.
In the meantime, Guatemalan government officials provide a snack - bread with beans - something to drink and a dessert to quell the deportees' hunger.
They are given their belongings and, as they exit the processing center, a white-and-blue passenger van awaits to drive them to bus stations around town so they can get back to their villages. Most of them head back to rural communities in Guatemala's western highlands.
The vans have a capacity of 30 to 35 passengers but because resources are limited, more than 60 deportees are crammed inside. Those who are lucky get a seat. Most though, stand side by side, grabbing onto whatever they can.
"Xela! Xela!" someone yelled on that day in April, referring to a city in the state of Quetzaltenango and a destination for several passengers.
"The government of Guatemala, through the Ministry of Foreign Relations, has had the pleasure of serving you today. We hope you arrive home safely and wish you a happy Holy Week in the company of your families," a government official tells the deportees as they exit the van.
"Thank you," the group of mostly men responds in unison.
Deportations are a challenge for Guatemala.
The deportation of about 28,000 Guatemalans annually can mean a reduction of about 60 million Guatemalan quetzales, or $7.5 million, in remittances. The remittances - money sent back home from abroad - are Guatemala's second-largest source of income.
In 2010, Guatemalans living in foreign countries, primarily the United States, sent back $4.4 billion, which represents about 10 percent of Guatemala's Gross Domestic Product.
And deportees go back to a life probably worse than what they left. Many still owe money to the smuggler who helped sneak them into the United States. Others have been gone so long, they no longer recognize the country they left behind, said Erick Maldonado, Guatemala's vice minister for foreign relations.
"Although we know the services we offer don't compensate for the pain and sadness that coming back means for them, we believe that, however small the gesture, we are welcoming them," he said.
"Some will decide to return to the United States, others won't, but we want them to see that we are making the effort, within our means, to give them the welcome they deserve."
Most of the April deportees look happy after arriving in Guatemala. They joke with each other, they laugh, they look out of the windows of the van, admiring how much Guatemala City has changed.
But that exuberance only lasts a couple of hours, said Francisco Pellizzari, director of the Casa del Migrante, a migrant shelter in Guatemala City.
"They seem happy because they want to see their parents, their children, but in a couple of hours it's all over," said Pellizzari. "They have a dark future ahead of them."
Even as thousands are deported, more are waiting to emigrate illegally, Pellizzari said.
"We don't think that, at the moment, there's an exit to this situation," he said. "The governments really need to take matters in hand because we are talking about thousands of people that are walking and thousands more who are candidates to leave."
Esmond Omar, 25, left his wife and children behind in Memphis, where he lived for eight years, when he got deported.
"I was sad because my life was in Memphis," he said inside the van, just hours after arriving in Guatemala.
He left the country when he was just 16 years old, he said.
Giovani Mateo, 18, was heading to Atlanta when he got caught by border patrol agents. It had been 25 days since he left his town in Huehuetenango - where many Guatemalans in the Chattanooga area come from - because they had to hide and wait for long periods of time to avoid immigration officers, he said.
"My plans were to work and save money to build my house," he said.
He only finished sixth grade in Guatemala, dropping out at age 13.
"It was sad because I couldn't reach my goal," he said as the van drove through Guatemala City's busy streets. "But my mom told me not to be sad and to come back. It'll be God's will."