The men shuffle in a line across a lonely tarmac, one by one.
Chains around their ankles clank with each step, a steady beat punctuating the engines’ roar.
Some men walk in sneakers without laces.
Some sport navy blue prison-issue shoes.
One wears work boots, still stained with paint.
This may be the last time they touch US soil.
The Boeing 737 beside them is bound for Guatemala City.
And these men, like all passengers on ICE Air, have one-way tickets.
In the past year, the United States has deported nearly 100,000 people on charter planes like this one. With immigration arrests on the rise, the number of deportation flights could grow.
As groups of detainees make their way toward the aircraft on this muggy morning, security contractors waiting on the tarmac swiftly slip into a familiar routine.
A gloved guard motions for the detainee in front of him to follow his commands.
He points at his mouth. The detainee opens wide.
The guard searches for signs of contraband.
He picks through the detainee’s pockets. He checks under his socks and pats down his pants. He unlocks the handcuffs, but just for a few seconds, and checks underneath them, too.
Edy Segundo Mota Perez rubs his right wrist before a guard places a cuff around it again and turns the key.
Mota climbs the metal staircase to the plane, stepping carefully to avoid losing one of his unlaced red sneakers or tripping over the chains between his legs.
In about 30 minutes, the screening process is over and 116 passengers have boarded the plane — first men, who are handcuffed and shackled, then women and families, who aren’t.
Less than half have been convicted of criminal charges. All are Guatemalan nationals with deportation orders, brought to this airport by US immigration authorities who detained them across the eastern United States.
Some detainees wear T-shirts that hint at where they’ve been.
One advertises a mulch company in New Jersey. Another touts paint “applied with pride” in Michigan. Mota’s neon orange shirt celebrates a soccer championship in Rhode Island.
The plane door closes.
Those lives are behind them now.
Next stop: Guatemala.
Preparing for takeoff
The Central American country is the top foreign destination for ICE Air Operations, the arm of the US government that runs deportation flights.
This 737 is one of 10 chartered aircraft in ICE Air’s fleet, used to transport immigration detainees across the United States and remove them to countries around the world.
Over the past year, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 29,000 immigrants who were in the United States illegally have been deported on more than 500 flights from this airport in central Louisiana — one of five hubs for ICE Air.
In many ways, this plane looks like any other passenger jet: the beaming flight attendant with a scarf smartly tied around her neck, the lit-up seatbelt signs, the safety cards stuffed into seat pockets.
A woman with a smooth Southern drawl greets passengers over the PA system.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Our estimated time of flight this morning is 2 hours and 36 minutes.
Another flight attendant demonstrates how to fasten seatbelts, wear oxygen masks and inflate life vests in case of emergency. This plane, like any other taking off from the United States, must follow federal safety regulations.
Some of the detainees stare blankly at the flight attendant. Others look entranced.
For about a dozen guards scattered in seats throughout the plane, this is a familiar scene. They take several deportation flights a week.
But for many detainees onboard, this is the first flight of their lives.
The flight attendant offers a final message.
We thank you and have an enjoyable flight.
When she finishes, a few men cheer.
“Do it in Spanish!” one shouts, drawing laughs from others around him.
No translation is offered as the flight moves down the runway. FAA regulations don’t require it.
Regrets and relief
The cheering starts up again as the plane climbs into the sky.
First one man hoots. Then several rows around him join in.
But many detainees are silent, their faces reflecting a sea of emotions.
Two women in Row 6 bury their heads in their hands.
A few rows behind them, a man shifts in his seat and looks frantically at his fellow passengers.
Mota, the detainee who’s wearing a T-shirt celebrating a soccer championship, sits in the plane’s last row, smiling as he chats with the man beside him.
It’s no surprise, Mota says, that some of his fellow passengers sound happy. He’s relieved to be returning to Guatemala after spending nearly a month behind bars.
“I just want to get there quickly,” he says.
The 25-year-old called Providence, Rhode Island, home for almost eight years. He was one of more than 600 people arrested in a recent operation aimed at detaining undocumented immigrants who came illegally to the United States as unaccompanied minors.
Mota did not face any criminal charges. Border Patrol officers apprehended him after he entered the United States illegally in 2009. A judge ordered his deportation in May 2011, according to ICE, but Mota remained in the United States. ICE described him as a fugitive who’d failed to comply with the judge’s decision.
Mota says ICE officers were waiting for him outside when he returned home from his construction job one Monday evening this July.
He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see the United States again. Returning and risking another stint in immigrant detention, he says, isn’t worth it.
“I don’t want to go back to jail without committing any crime,” he says.
He’s sad to be leaving behind siblings in the United States. But he’s ready to return to Joyabaj, Guatemala, where his mother and sister will be waiting to welcome him. He wants to focus on starting fresh there, far from the threat of immigration authorities.
The plane is soaring at nearly 500 mph now, 33,000 feet above the sparkling blue sea.
Calling the shots
From the front cabin, a man with a goatee, polo shirt and black sunglasses atop his head surveys the scene.
For most of the flight, he’s quiet. But it’s clear this ICE officer is the one calling the shots.
He decides when the guards will pass out bottled water, turkey sandwiches and chocolate chip granola bars.
He decides when they should escort detainees to the bathroom.
He decides when it’s time to remove the detainees’ handcuffs and shackles.
On this flight, the chains come off about an hour and a half into the journey.
Guards throughout the plane spring into action, unlocking the restraints. Once again, the sound of clinking metal fills the air, this time as they pack away the cuffs, dropping them into worn green duffel bags.
When these detainees step off the plane in Guatemala, they won’t be shackled.
The last bathroom break on this flight occurs about two hours after takeoff.
“Shut it down,” the ICE officer tells the guards. “We’re about 20 minutes out.”
Ladies and gentlemen, in approximately 30 minutes we’re going to land. We ask that you sit in your seats with your seatbelts fastened.
The view from above
In seat 5E, Erminio Leiva Cano leans so far over his 17-year-old son that their faces are practically side-by-side as they look out the window.
On this plane, there aren’t in-flight movies or magazines. Gazing out the portals is one of the few ways to pass the time.
Leiva looks through the puffy white clouds that dot the sky, searching for a sign of something familiar below. Could that be Mexico, the country they passed through on the way to what they thought would be a long future in the United States?
It’s their first flight. Leiva, 54, says he never imagined they’d fly in an airplane. And if they did, he never thought it would be like this.
Leiva says he and his son came to the United States 10 months earlier, hoping to stay for years. He thought they’d have more time.
“In the short time we were there,” he says, “we didn’t really accomplish anything.”
Leiva and his son did not face criminal charges. Border Patrol agents apprehended them in Arizona after they illegally crossed into the United States, according to ICE. Officials issued an expedited order of removal but released them from custody.
Leiva says he and his son moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he wore an ankle monitor and checked in monthly with immigration authorities.
His son found a job at a roofing company. Leiva worked for a pallet factory.
Just yesterday, Leiva says, authorities detained them and said their deportation day had come. It happened so quickly, he says, they didn’t have a chance to tell their loved ones in Guatemala that they were returning.
Leiva’s eyes are wet as he looks out the window. He’s been trying to keep his own emotions in check and cheer up his son.
“No matter what in life,” he says, “we have to be brave.”
The view below the clouds shifts from blue sea to lush green land, from flatness to mountains covered with trees, from trees to small buildings with metal rooftops that reflect the sun, from small buildings to taller ones with clotheslines on the roofs.
The clouds get bigger. The ground gets closer.
People on the plane begin to cheer again.
A warm welcome
At Guatemala City’s airport, officials hustle the deportees off the plane to a reception area that most passengers arriving in the country’s capital never see.
The small building beside a Guatemalan Air Force runway is a hive of activity.
Marimba music pipes through loudspeakers as deportees who’ve just arrived file through the door. Staffers hand out water and juice and point them toward rows of folding chairs.
The music stops. A man at the front of the room wearing a vest that says “MIGRACIÓN” runs through a list of announcements in Spanish.
He assures the group that the interview process they’re about to go through will be quick. He knows they’re eager to reunite with family members.
“The last thing you want is to stay here, right?”
Please, he asks, even if you were using another name in the United States, use your legal name here.
An average of six deportation flights from the United States arrive in Guatemala every week.
So far this year, the United States is deporting fewer Guatemalans than it did during the same period last year, according to local government figures. Still, as the Trump administration vows to ramp up its crackdown on illegal immigration, Guatemalan officials are bracing for an influx. And local media coverage of the latest waves of arriving deportees has been bleak.
“Their American dreams are over,” one recent report said. “Many return with more debts than hope.”
But in this room, the government is sending a positive message.
“I want you to reflect on something,” the official says. “If you’re sitting here, you are someone who has risked a lot. There is no reason to be ashamed.”
A few hours ago, most of the people in this room were deportees handcuffed on an airplane. Now they’re getting a hero’s welcome.
The official paces in front of the room, addressing the crowd with the fervor of a preacher at a tent revival.
“I want to remind you that big or small, rich or poor, whatever you are, countryman, this is our homeland,” he says. “Welcome.”
Cheers erupt again.
Over the PA system, officials read out names, calling up each deportee for an interview.
Like the guards on the runway in the United States, Guatemalan authorities know this routine like clockwork.
Leiva steps forward. He hands his paperwork to an official, who’s sitting in front of a brightly colored wall emblazoned with a patriotic message in Spanish and the indigenous language of Quiché:
YA ESTÁS EN TU PAÍS Y CON TU GENTE
It ko chupan ri a tinamit ki kin ri ka winiäq.
Now you are in your country and with your people.
Back on the runway, the engines on the ICE Air jet start again.
The flight is almost empty as it takes off toward Louisiana.
But tomorrow the plane will head to Honduras, packed again with passengers in handcuffs and shackles.