Sandra Scribner Merlim of Naples, whose husband was deported a year ago, sits near the kitchen table where his jacket has rested on a chair ever since. “Nights are really long” without him, she said, so she got a third-shift job to keep busy and help make ends meet. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Sandra Scribner Merlim isn’t sleeping much anyway.

That’s what she told herself when she applied for a third-shift job to make ends meet. Her bedroom in Naples felt too empty without her husband, Otto Morales-Caballeros, who was deported to Guatemala one year ago this month.

Otto Morales-Cabelleros reclines near a wedding photo. After being deported to Guatemala a year ago, he now lives in a boarding house while he looks for work. He says he feels “like it’s been 10 years” since he left. Photo courtesy of Sandra Scribner Merlim

So now she works overnight at a residential treatment center in Saco, trying to fill the darkest hours of the darkest time in her life.

“I don’t have to spend all night without my husband,” said Merlim, 53. “Nights are really long here.”

Morales-Caballeros, 38, entered the United States illegally as a teenager and lived for a time in New Jersey before moving to Maine. He and Merlim started dating in 2006, and they have been married since 2015. A deportation order had been delayed for years under Obama administration policies that focused on deporting dangerous criminals, but he was arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on his way to work last spring. His arrest and eventual removal were seen as a sign of the escalation in immigration enforcement under President Trump.

“I feel like it’s been 10 years,” Morales-Caballeros said in a phone interview from Guatemala. “The time goes so slow over here.”

Florida attorney Lizz Cannon, who has been representing the couple since last year, said they have cleared an important first hurdle in the case. Their Form I-130 was approved in February, which means the federal government recognizes their marriage as real and not just for immigration purposes. But Cannon estimated they still have months or even years until they are reunited, especially as a national backlog of immigration cases lengthens processing times.

ARRESTED DURING ICE CRACKDOWN

The case is a glimpse into what happens after deportation – the endless forms and fees, the constant delays, the days that turn into weeks of waiting.

“He’s not a criminal,” the attorney said. “I’m not concerned about getting him back. It’s just getting through the steps of the process.”

During Trump’s first 100 days in office, ICE announced it had arrested more than 41,000 immigrants, up nearly 40 percent from the same period in the previous year. While the majority of those people had criminal records, including gang members and fugitives wanted for murder, the largest increase was among immigrants with no criminal records.

Sandra Scribner Merlim of Naples kisses her phone as she speaks last week with her husband, Otto Morales-Cabelleros, who was deported one year ago. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says New England experienced an even bigger spike – 58 percent – in arrests during that period. The total number of removals in fiscal year 2017 was 226,119, slightly less than the year before. But an end-of-year report shows the percentage of removals tied to ICE arrests increased by 25 percent. A Freedom of Information Act request filed this year for data on the number of deportations from Maine has not yet been fulfilled.

Morales-Caballeros grew up in Petén, a rural region in the northernmost part of Guatemala. Adjacent to the border with Mexico, it is considered by the U.S. State Department to be a high-risk area for gang violence and drug trafficking.

When he was a teenager, his mother urged him to flee the violence in their home country. Morales-Caballeros was 17 years old when he swam across the Rio Grande into Texas. The teenager didn’t know he might have been able to obtain legal status by applying for asylum during his first year in the United States, so he never did.

Sandra Scribner Merlim of Naples wears a necklace with half a heart that she and her husband, Otto Morales-Cabelleros, had made on a recent trip to Guatemala, where Otto has been living since he was deported one year ago. Otto wears a matching necklace with the other half of the heart. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

He went to New Jersey to meet a relative, work and study English. He later moved to Maine, where he met Merlim in 2006. The couple have said they worked together to secure legal status for him for years, but were unsuccessful.

An ICE representative said a federal judge issued a removal order for Morales-Caballeros in 2010. However, his deportation was repeatedly delayed. Federal court documents show he pleaded guilty in 2013 to one felony count of use of fraudulent documents, which he had used to work. State records show he has no other criminal record in Maine. Merlim said he had been assured by immigration officials that he could stay in the United States if he stayed out of further legal trouble, and he regularly checked in with local immigration officials as he was required to do.

Merlim and Morales-Caballeros married in 2015. He supported their household with his job at a seafood processing plant in Saco. He was driving to work on April 12, 2017, when he was arrested by ICE agents around the corner from their home in Naples.

Merlim held a news conference to tell her husband’s story and raised more than $17,000 through a GoFundMe campaign. But she said the money was quickly spent on initial lawyer fees and last-ditch attempts to stay her husband’s deportation. Morales-Caballeros was held in four different locations from Maine to Louisiana in as many weeks. On May 11, 2017, he was put on a plane with other detainees bound for Guatemala City. It was the first plane ride of his life.

Morales-Caballeros spent his first weeks in his home country back in Petén, rarely leaving his mother’s concrete-block home. He soon moved to the tourist city of Antigua, where he hoped there would be more job opportunities. He rented a room in a boarding house, where many of the other tenants are just passing through the city. He starts his mornings with a cup of coffee and news reports from Univision. But he spends most of his time out in Antigua, applying to jobs and teaching English words to children in the park. He eats simple meals of eggs, tortillas, rice and beans.

“Being in the room, if you don’t find a way to get out, it’s so stressful,” he said.

LAWYER HELPS OUT

Otto Morales-Cabelleros, who is living in the tourist city of Antigua, Guatemala, above, says employers are reluctant to hire a deportee who wants to return to the United States. Photo courtesy of Sandra Scribner Merlim

If he is allowed to return to the United States, Morales-Caballeros said his first request would be to visit an all-you-can-eat buffet. His second would be to go back to work. He has struggled to find a job in Guatemala. Spanish is his first language, but Guatemalans often think he is not from their country because his accent has changed over two decades away. He also speaks English, but he lacks the education to work in a call center or engineering job. He is more qualified for manual labor, but he quickly learned employers are reluctant to hire a deportee who wants to return to America as soon as possible.

“I been applying many places, putting my paperwork in,” he said. “Sooner or later, someone will have to say yes. I’ve always been the guy who is working hard.”

Back in Maine, under threat of eviction and with no income of her own, Merlim found Cannon online and pleaded with her to take their case pro bono. The lawyer, who specializes in these waiver cases, agreed. But the couple is still responsible for hundreds of dollars in filing fees and related expenses.

Merlim, who had not worked for several years, got her overnight job in the fall as a youth and family counselor at Sweetser in Saco. She said she makes just enough to pay her rent and bills, and then she sends $300 a month to her husband to help him pay for rent and food. She gets most of her food from a local pantry where she volunteers, and she recently began renting out a room in their house for extra cash. Morales-Caballeros talks about moving back to his mother’s house to save money, but Merlim constantly worries he will be targeted because he has American connections.

“If they find out you’ve got anybody sending money from the United States, they’ll kidnap you and extort you,” Merlim said. “They don’t know how broke I am.”

They talk multiple times every day, texting or video-chatting on apps like WhatsApp and Line. When Merlim calls her husband, an old photo of him holding a lobster pops up on her phone.

Otto Morales-Caballeros and Sandra Scribner Merlim text or talk multiple times a day. They try to stay positive about his case to return to the United States, but Merlim said her husband is depressed and homesick. Photo courtesy of Sandra Scribner Merlim

Donations have helped her visit him twice in Guatemala – once shortly after his deportation and again for their wedding anniversary in March. Morales-Caballeros does not eat much meat in Guatemala, so he asked his wife to bring him beef jerky. Instead, she turned her suitcase into a cooler of frozen corned beef from a St. Patrick’s Day sale at the grocery store. On her return trip, she filled that space with a T-shirt that smelled like her husband and a stack of documents, including a police certificate certifying Morales-Caballeros does not have a criminal record in Guatemala.

Those documents will be submitted in the next phase of their case. It took nine months for the federal government to approve the Form I-130, a process that included an interview with Merlim at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in South Portland. The case will move to the National Visa Center, but Cannon cannot send the next round of forms until she gets confirmation from that office. She still had not received it last week.

BEST SCENARIO: BACK IN 16 MONTHS

Eventually, Cannon said she will submit an electronic visa application for Morales-Caballeros and a form establishing Merlim as his sponsor in the United States. Morales-Caballeros will be called to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City for an interview, and he will have to pass a medical exam. Then, Cannon will submit an application for a waiver on the grounds of inadmissibility. Because he was deported, Morales-Caballeros is barred from the country for 10 years, but that waiver would allow him to return sooner. That approval alone could take as long as 14 to 18 months, and then Morales-Caballeros would go through more interviews and medical examinations before he could get a green card. Merlim hopes their GoFundMe will draw new donations to help pay for filing fees and other expenses, which she estimates will cost more than $2,000.

In the best-case scenario for the couple, Cannon said they would be reunited in 16 months.

“There’s so many moments when a snafu can happen,” the attorney said.

In the meantime, husband and wife can only wait. Just as she cannot bear to sleep alone, Merlim cannot bring herself to move her husband’s belongings in their kitchen. His red lunchbox still sits on the counter. His boots are by the door. With the warmer weather, she switched his winter and spring jackets on the back of his chair at the table.

“He’s coming back,” she said.

 

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