Thirty-five year old Carlos Cordero grew up in Dallas, Texas, where he was working and raising a family, when one night authorities discovered that he had been born elsewhere. Six months later, after spending time in a detention center, he was flown to the country of his birth, Guatemala, where he is currently setting up a new life.
My daughter was actually inside my apartment when I got arrested. It was during her spring break and I was going to take her back to her mom the next day, but I never got the chance.
I had been working as a bartender at a restaurant called Lava Cantina, which also serves as a concert hall in North Dallas, and I had come home from work late at night. I was actually in the parking lot of my own apartment complex in my car, listening to music, when an officer approached me. He was trying to figure out what I was doing, and I told him that I was just sitting there listening to music before going up to bed. At the time I had a grinder on me, which cuts up marijuana. He asked what it was and I told him that it was something to grind up herbs, and then he started to ask me more questions, and he asked for my driver’s license.
But I don’t have a driver’s license. I can’t obtain one.
My mother decided to go to the United States from Guatemala when I was four years old — I think she saw an opportunity to come to the States because most of my family, like my grandmother and uncles, were already living there. So that’s when I came. When you come to a place when you are four, it’s basically like being born there, but in my case without any other rights.
I was always worried about driving without a license ever since I was young. Of course, I had gotten stopped before but they would just write me a ticket for no license. I even had insurance on the car I was driving, but I couldn’t get a license. I couldn’t even get a Texas ID with my passport or my consulate card. So, that was always in the back of my mind, thinking that maybe something might happen one day, but since I grew up in Texas and it was my home, it never completely dawned on me that it was gonna’ happen like it did.
So I gave the officer my consulate ID, which is from Guatemala, the only form of identification I had at the time, and that’s when he proceeded to ask me if I was a US citizen, so I had to tell him I wasn’t because I didn’t want to lie to him.
After his arrest, Cordero would be shuttled through a number of local detention centers by police and officials from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
I was first taken to the Lewisville jail in Denton county (north of Dallas) where they put the ICE hold on me so I could not leave. That’s where it all started. I talked to the judge the next day: immigration had 48 hours to come get me from the Lewisville jail, and if not, they were gonna’ let me go.
There was actually a guy in there that ICE never came to get and he left after the 48 hours had passed, so I was thinking I might be able to get out. They came 47 hours later.
They eventually took me to the Bedford jail where I talked to immigration again, and they asked me if I wanted to sign my paperwork to be deported, and I said that I didn’t want to sign anything.
After that, they proceeded to take me to a holding facility in Cleburne, Texas in Johnson County. There was a jail there, but in another area they kept detainees like me.
The only clothes I had were those I was wearing the night I got arrested, but when they booked me in they gave me the jail uniform. For me, I had a beige brownish outfit, but they also had green ones and red ones, which were for people charged with more serious crimes. They also had four different holding tanks to separate people. They separated the greens and the reds from the browns.
It wasn’t the cleanest place for sure, and they actually had us in a holding facility with like 70 other people, all of us in one room, in bunk beds. It was a crazy experience for sure. They kept me there for six months.
One of the worst things was trying to get sleep; there are so many people in there, and not everybody goes to sleep at the same time. At all moments of the day and night there is always somebody awake, some noise going on. Some people sleep during the day because they are up all night, either talking or playing cards or doing whatever, and then they sleep during the day while the people trying to sleep at night are awake and making noise.
They would wake us up around 5:00 for breakfast, then at 11:00, and then dinner was at 5:00. I think the most I ever slept was three or four hours at a time, and that was only when I was really tired.
For beds, they just give you a little mat to place on top of a metal frame. They do give you a blanket and a plastic pillow, but the beds themselves are really thin, so sometimes you have to wait for another person to be released and ask them to give you their blanket so you can stuff the bed to make it more comfortable. There were a lot of people who got severe back pain from those beds because they were just too hard on their backs.
The hardest part, though, was not knowing what was going to happen with the rest of my life. You’re just waiting there, basically to see the judge so she can determine what is going on with your case.
They have a courtesy officer in the tank at all times but they never gave you any information. The ICE officers for the most part came in maybe once a week and I would try asking them what was going to happen, what the process was, and they just basically said I had to wait until I got to see the judge. It wasn’t very useful information.
I was detained three months before going to my first court hearing, to find out what my options were, so those first three months were really hard.
Communication with your family is also very limited. You’re not allowed to have a cell phone or any possessions. No computer, no internet. The cheapest way to talk to your family is to buy phone cards through the commissary and use their system, but they only sold you ten-dollar phone cards and each phone card only lasted 16 minutes.
Cordero has a 14-year-old daughter through his first marriage, and a 5-year-old son through his current relationship of 8 years.
When I was detained, my family was able to come visit me only on the weekends, either Saturday or Sunday, and if they showed up at any time after one o’clock, they wouldn’t let ’em in, so the hours of visitation were from like 9:00 am to about 3:00 or 4:00 pm, but my family had to get there at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning to be able to actually get in to the detention center to come see me. They would have to wait at least three or four hours each time, so a couple of times, you know, they didn’t quite make it. My son was with them, and, if you have a five-year old, you know they can’t stay three or four hours in one place without crying, and not knowing what’s going on.
During visitation, it’s kind of like jail. We are not in the same room and we have to talk on the phones. You can see your family through the glass, but you can’t touch them, you just have to talk to them through the phone system that they have.
How did your family adapt to your absence?
My family did not take the whole ordeal very well.
During the time I was detained, my mother actually had a small break-down at work. She had to go to the hospital because her blood pressure was too high, and she had a minor stroke. Luckily she was at work, and they took her to the hospital where she was taken care of.
My spouse had been taking it really hard as well. She wasn’t used to raising my son by herself, and not having my income to help her out, she had to move in with her aunt because she couldn’t afford the place by herself.
She was working as a medical assistant in a doctor’s office, but they gave her short-term disability because she was getting a lot of anxiety attacks, and a lot of depression from the situation that we had been going through. She was having a lot of chest pains and trouble breathing. Her doctor told her she needed to go on short-term disability to be able to get better, to get healthy. Hopefully soon, within the next month or so, she can start working again.
My son was just crying and asking where I was and wanting to see me. There was a lot of stuff that I really don’t think a five-year old could handle. They don’t really understand what is going on.
So my son had to go to play therapy, which actually helped him out a lot. It’s basically a way for kids to express themselves, their anger and sadness, to talk to someone besides their mom. Me being personally raised by a Guatemalan mother, we don’t really think therapy is good for anything (laughs), but you know I was like, “let’s see how it goes and see if it is good for him,” and I think it helped him out tremendously, because he definitely had a lot of things to let out.
Then my daughter, whom I have with my ex-wife, I think she got pretty depressed. She started failing in school. She started not even turning in her work. I couldn’t really talk to her unless I bought a phone card and spent a substantial amount of money. I think it was hard for her, just a sad phase in her life.
It wasn’t until I got to Guatemala and was able to talk to her every day, to tell her that everything was going to be OK, to cheer up, and that she still had to live her life, then she started to do better in school.
But my family generally really didn’t take it too well. Of course, when someone is missing in your life, you don’t realize how important they are to you until they’re gone. I think a lot of that happened when I was away.
What happened with your case?
I had a lawyer that I contracted and we were gonna’ try to fight for me to stay. There is a thing called “cancellation of deportation” that I could have qualified for because I met many of the conditions: I had to be in the United States for at least 10 years and would have to have US citizen children or someone who could vouch for me saying that I was their father and that they need me in the country. I had all of that.
The only problem was that I had gotten arrested and convicted seven years before for possession of marijuana, a gram, and because I had that on my record I didn’t qualify for the “regular cancellation of removal.”
So we then decided to go a different route, to fight for the NACARA cancellation instead, which was a special type of cancellation of deportation that is rarely being used today.
Under NACARA, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, certain Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Eastern Europeans can still apply for a “Suspension of Deportation,” a form of relief from removal that existed until 1996. It allows people to avoid deportation by showing a continual presence in the US for seven years, good moral character, and the prospect of extreme hardship upon removal. If granted, the NACARA Suspension of Deportation gives the applicant a green card, and with it permanent resident status in the United States. You may not have a felony conviction on your record, which Cordero did not have, having been arrested on a misdemeanor.
My lawyer didn’t find anything in the laws that would disqualify me from the NACARA petition. The judge didn’t know much about it, and allowed for a final court date to be held in Dallas.
Unfortunately, the US government had found a similar petition to mine, which was denied on the grounds of a felony conviction for cocaine possession, but mine was only a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The cases were completely different in that regard, but the judge determined that they were similar enough to rule against me.
That’s when the government gave me the option of “voluntary departure.” It’s better than actually getting deported because if you are deported you can’t legally return to the US for several years, and it’s a federal crime if you do so before the given time.
Either way I had to leave the country, and if I wouldn’t have taken the voluntary departure, they would have deported me anyway.
My mom is the one who motivated me to fight my case and see if there was any opportunity to stay in the United States. After the first there months of being detained, I was just ready to throw in the towel and let them deport me, ’cause I wanted to get out of that place. So, for that part, I thank her because at least I know that even though my petition got denied, I didn’t just give up, that I fought to stay.
After the judge made the ruling against me I went back to the detention center for another three weeks. If I had been from Mexico, they would have had me on a bus the next day, because a bus goes to Mexico every day, but since I was from Guatemala, I had to wait to actually talk to the Guatemalan Consulate for them to give me a travel document, so it took more time.
They finally transferred me to Louisiana where all the flights were going out to Guatemala. We got there by bus, a six-hour ride in handcuffs. It was the worst. Your legs are shackled, and your arms also. The bus had a bathroom in it, but If you had to use it, you had to use it with handcuffs on. You can’t just take that stuff off. The entire bus smelled like pee the whole time.
After my time in detention, I was just ready to finally get to Louisiana and get on the flight to Guatemala. I don’t know if I was just glad to know what was going to happen with the rest of my life, but it’s more like I just finally got through it to be able to be free again — to start to do something to be able to see my family again, eventually.
The flights come out of a military base in Louisiana and are filled with people who are being sent back, either voluntarily or by forced deportation. I met all kinds of different people from all over the United States in that place where we were getting flown out. But I was just there one night, and we flew out the next day.
Can you describe how it was to be out of detention?
It was a good moment, I was finally free, but I have to say that it was good and bad: I was no longer detained, but at the same time I was being sent to Guatemala, where I don’t know anything. It’s like going to a brand new country that I have never been to and starting all over again from nothing. I didn’t really know where to begin and I had to figure out what I was going to do. Luckily, my family in the United States is helping me out here and there with some money. And luckily, I still have an uncle who lives near Guatemala City, in Villa Nueva, who was gracious enough to let me stay with him. So, at least I had somewhere to be, somewhere to stay.
I’ve only been in Guatemala now for about a month and a half, and the plan is, since I’m not married to my spouse (a US citizen), to get married here in Guatemala so we can start the process of getting me legalized to go back to the States. She has to get her passport and my son has to get his passport too to come over here. The whole thing is very money consuming; I didn’t realize how expensive US passports were.
Luckily I’ve found a job bartending here in Antigua (a town outside of Guatemala City famous for its tourism and colonial architecture). I’m just trying to get on my feet, find an apartment to rent and save enough money to be able to start my life over.
When I was living with my aunt and uncle in Villa Nueva, they were letting me stay there for free, but there wasn’t really that much opportunity to find a job nearby, unless I decided to get a job in the heart of Guatemala City, which was probably an hour bus ride away each day, and I think the only jobs that were offered me were at a call center. Since I really didn’t have that much experience doing that, I decided to come visit Antigua to see how everything was over here, and I decided that there was more opportunity to find the kind of job that I had been doing in the States than to actually work at a call center. So, by bartending here in Antigua, I’m hoping to pay my bills doing what I have been doing throughout my life.
What is your view of what is going on with respect to immigration in the US right now?
I think just recently law enforcement has really been cracking down. I’ve been stopped before by police, and they’ve always asked me questions about the license and registration, but I think not until recently was I asked if I was a US citizen, and now it just seems like that’s one of the questions they’re asking every time they see someone like me, an hispanic person. They immediately start asking if we are citizens, if we have papers, and I think nowadays, it’s just getting worse. Cops are trying to pull you over for anything.
I’ve met a few people who were just catching a ride to work, and the police pulled them over and interrogated everybody in the car, and found out that none of them had papers, and immediately they arrested all of them and took them to immigration. Eventually they got deported, just because they were catching a ride to work. They weren’t doing anything wrong. I also know a guy who got pulled over for a burned-out light on his license plate, and they ended up arresting him and didn’t care that his daughter was with him, and he had to stay in jail for ten months, and eventually they ended up deporting him too. So I think they are finding any excuse to deport somebody nowadays, and I don’t think it was like that before.
In my case, for instance, I used cannabis, I would say because it helps me with anxiety and to relax, and I do not consider it an every-day thing. It was illegal in Texas, but, say, if you go to Colorado or Washington, it’s legal. So if I had been there, maybe I never would have gotten deported, but just because I lived in Texas, they denied my petition. I just think they are looking for any little reason to deport anybody now. It’s kind of scary.
It makes me wonder what is going to happen next, if it’s going to get worse. No one really knows what’s going on right now in the United States. It’s a different mentality, especially with the current president putting so much emphasis on stopping immigration, and even saying he’s going to build a wall. That causes a lot of people to have that mindset, like “hey, deport everybody,” or “he looks Hispanic, ask him for papers.”
There are even people who have papers, who have a visa, they have a green card and their rights are getting taken away, and they are being deported as well.
It just doesn’t really feel safe to be an immigrant, to look different or talk like somebody who is not from the United States. It’s difficult not to be afraid because you feel like you’re going to get questioned — that’s how it is over there right now.
My entire life has been in Texas and I consider myself a Texan. I grew up in north Dallas and went to school in Richardson where I graduated from Richardson High. (The exact area was a little poorer and more run down than other parts. There were a lot of Mexican people there, Latinos generally, black people. We actually had a lot of Kurdish people there also.)
During high school I did a work program and that’s when I got into the restaurant industry. My first job ever was at Jack-in-the-Box, and I was there for a few years and became a shift leader, like a supervisor. After that, I worked at a restaurant named Chucks. I don’t know if they are all still open, but I did everything there; I was a cook, a dishwasher, a cashier, a manager. That’s pretty much the industry I’ve been in my whole life. Later, I started serving and bartending.
Before I got arrested, everything was good with the family. We were in the process of buying a house and had plans to actually move in together with my mom, so she could have a room, and that way we could stop renting like we’ve always done.
Then I got detained. In my case, they just didn’t care that I didn’t have a choice of being in the United States when I was four; I was there my whole life and graduated high school and have children.
To them that didn’t matter.
Our discussion took place on October 22, 2019, in Antigua, Guatemala. Cordero is currently working as a bartender at La Sala in Antigua.