Sandra Scribner Merlim ordered the watch as a Christmas present for her husband and just trusted that he would be home for the holidays.

More than four years had passed since immigration agents had swooped in on a weekday morning to detain Otto Morales-Caballeros and deport him to Guatemala. Merlim had been fighting ever since to bring him back to Maine, but it was hard to know when his paperwork finally would be in order.

Then his visa came through, and he flew in to Portland on Dec. 4.

She was so happy that she gave him her gift almost right away, unable to wait weeks to put it in his hands. He was grateful and excited, but hesitated.

“What am I going to give you for Christmas?” he asked her. “I have nothing.”

“Are you nuts?” she replied. “I got what I wanted.”

Much has changed in the couple’s years apart. The president whose policies triggered the deportation is no longer in office. A deadly virus has spread across the globe. Merlim, 57, survived emergency heart surgery. Morales-Caballeros, 42, fought back the depression that filled the distance between them.

But today they can sit next to each other on their couch in Brunswick, and he can reach for her hand and press it to his lips for a kiss.

“We can start to live our life again,” Merlim said.

Otto Morales-Caballeros and Sandra Scribner Merlim at their home in Brunswick a few days after Morales-Caballeros returned from Guatemala in December. Morales-Caballeros returned to Maine and reunited with his wife on Dec. 5 after being deported in 2017. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

TORN APART

Early on a Wednesday in April 2017, Morales-Caballeros drove off from the couple’s home in Naples to his job at a lobster processor in Saco. Within minutes, U.S. Immigration and Customs agents in big black SUVs had pulled him over. Merlim was still in her nightgown when agents knocked on her door and asked her to pick up his car.

Morales-Caballeros was in the back of an SUV when she arrived at the scene of his arrest.

“This is the end,” he remembered thinking. “She’s not going to be helping me when I’m over there.”

Merlim wasn’t allowed to talk to him directly, but her words carried through the window glass.

“You’re not alone,” she told him. “I’m going to fight for you.”

Morales-Caballeros grew up in Petén, a mountainous region in Guatemala. His childhood was scarred by a civil war that lasted for more than three decades and claimed more than 200,000 lives. He can still remember the sounds of bullets, of his mother telling her children to get on the ground.

“People, they don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “They are afraid still. That war, it got stuck in people’s hearts.”

When he was 16, he left in search of something better. He entered this country without legal documentation. Young and afraid, he had no idea about the steps he could have taken to apply for asylum. He lived in New Jersey for a time and then made his way to Maine. He met Merlim here in 2006, and they married in 2015.

Merlim grew up in Portland and also left home at 16. She married young and had children, but then left the husband she said abused her. She needed years before she felt ready to marry Morales-Caballeros.

“It took me a couple times to get it right,” she said. “I’m not letting him go.”

Morales-Caballeros said immigration officials learned he was undocumented because an ex-girlfriend reported him. In 2010, a judge issued a removal order, but Morales-Caballeros was not immediately deported. In 2013, he was arrested for using a fake Social Security number and ID to work. He eventually pleaded guilty, and again he was not deported. Instead, he got legal authorization to work as long as he stayed out of trouble and checked in routinely with immigration officials.

Otto Morales-Caballeros and Sandra Scribner Merlim have Guatemalan enchiladas for lunch at their home in Brunswick on Thursday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

The repeated delays to his deportation were because of shifts in federal policy. The Obama administration focused on deporting only people considered a threat to national security, border security or public safety. His government often postponed removal for people outside those categories.

President Trump saw things differently. In his first days in office, he signed an executive order that dramatically expanded immigration enforcement. Agents were directed to deport anyone with a criminal conviction or an existing removal order. Immigration arrests spiked 40 percent in his first 100 days in office, and the largest increase was among immigrants with no criminal record. The Biden administration has shifted away from that approach.

Lizz Cannon, a Florida-based attorney who specializes in bringing deportees back to the United States, agreed to represent Morales-Caballeros and worked on his case for years. It was not unique, she said.

“Otto was a person in a position that possibly hundreds of thousands of people are in,” Cannon said.

Even though Morales-Caballeros was married to a U.S. citizen, the process to get him legal immigration status was complicated. The couple first had to prove that their marriage was legitimate and not just for immigration purposes. Normally, a person who has been removed from the U.S. cannot apply to come back for at least 10 years, so Morales-Caballeros also had to seek a waiver and prove that separation was causing an extreme hardship for the couple. They were approved at every step.

Cannon said the Trump administration created bureaucratic delays, and then the pandemic increased wait times even more. The couple hoped he would be home in a year, maybe two. They waited for nearly five, communicating multiple times a day, starting with a good morning phone call, ending with good night emojis.

STRUGGLING ALONE

Those many days apart were hard, and not just because of distance.

In Maine, Merlim got an overnight job at a group home and slept during the day in a recliner to avoid the empty side of the bed. Then her landlord sold their house in Naples, and she could not find another that would accept her four dogs. So she worked at night and slept in her car for nearly three months in summer 2019 until she saved enough money to buy a manufactured home in Brunswick.

Last fall, she drove herself to the hospital with chest pain and found out she needed quadruple bypass surgery. That emergency almost killed her. She spent months out of work and in recovery.

“I survived this open heart surgery,” she said. “I survived all the crap they kicked at us.”

The one bright spot: Her medical needs ultimately would expedite her husband’s return.

Otto Morales-Caballeros holds the photo of he and Sandra Scribner Merlim on their wedding day that he had with him in Guatemala. Scribner Merlim brought him the photo when she visited him in Guatemala before the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In Guatemala, Morales-Caballeros felt helpless to do anything for his wife. He spent more than a year in the city of Antigua, which is ringed by volcanoes, and he sent his wife pictures of ash in the air after an eruption. He looked for work, but he said many jobs there required connections he did not have. He spent days at a time in a rented room in the city, feeling isolated and low.

Eventually, he moved to his mother’s house in Petén. He again struggled to find work in the more rural community, raising chickens and even going to Belize to pick green beans for $3 a day. His mother struggles with diabetes and dementia, and he looked after her until the family found someone to care for her in her home. The pandemic forced a lockdown for weeks, and only one household member could leave at a time for essential errands. He found solace in fishing when he was allowed to get out, but he still had to be mindful of the curfew.

With his visa in process this fall, Morales-Caballeros left for Guatemala City without telling anyone why because he could have been a target for violence if anyone knew he was bound for the United States. He slept on a friend’s floor for weeks as he waited for the document to arrive. When he got vaccinated against COVID-19, he was careful to ask for the Pfizer vaccine because the county has access to vaccines that aren’t approved in the United States, and he didn’t want the wrong shot to block his return.

“When they sent me the passport with my visa, I was jumping up and down,” he said.

Merlim booked his ticket home for that Friday. But his first and only experience on a plane had been the one that deported him. So he didn’t know about such things as how early he needed to arrive at the airport in Guatemala City, and he missed his flight. A helpful ticket agent rebooked him for the next day, and he slept in the terminal to make sure there would be no further problems.

He made it to Atlanta on Saturday, but missed his connection by the time officials who detained him there verified his visa. He was so flustered as he rushed to the gate that he lost his bag, but the airline staff helped him find it once he realized his flight had left. He spent a second night in the airport, and sent his discouraged wife a selfie, holding a green-and-yellow sign that said “Baby, I’m Coming Home.” He flew on Sunday to Detroit and then Portland.

Otto Morales-Caballeros cries as he hugs his wife Sandra Scribner Merlim after being reunited at the Portland Jetport on Dec. 5. The two had not seen each other since Merlim’s trip to Guatemala in 2018. Morales-Caballeros was deported in 2017 after 20 years of living and working in the United States. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

HOLDING HANDS

The airport was quiet when he landed at 4:29 p.m. Sunday. Merlim craned her neck to scan the faces of the passengers getting off the plane.

She’d flown to Guatemala twice to see her husband, in 2017 and 2018, but three years had passed since then. When she spotted him, she saw from the way he was moving that his travels had drained him. Still, he took the steps quickly to meet her at the bottom of the stairs.

They clung to each other, faces nuzzled into necks. They wiped away tears and pulled down masks to kiss. He shifted his bag to his outside shoulder so he could take her hand as they walked together. They released hands only for a moment when he pulled his blue suitcase off the baggage carousel, and she still stayed close behind him.

“He’s not getting out of my sight,” Merlim said with a laugh.

She kept her hand on his elbow as they wheeled the suitcase out of the airport and into the parking garage. His voice was still hoarse with tears.

“When I was losing my faith, I got so much faith from her,” Morales-Caballeros said.

They went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and he returned to the buffet four times. Then they were on their way home.

His green card, the proof of his legal permanent residency, is expected to arrive within a few weeks. He will then be able to get a Social Security number and a job. In three years, he will be allowed to apply for citizenship.

For now, Merlim jokes that they are finally living a boring life. They sit together on the couch while a talk show silently plays on the TV. He seems content to listen, eyes focused on her, while she tells their stories. Her laugh is a boom; his grin is quiet but full. He holds Skippy, one of their dogs from before his deportation, and rubs his face against the animal’s soft fur.

They say they’ve had no trouble throwing off the anxiety that followed them for more than a decade.

“For us, that part is over with,” Merlim said.

Merlim is now a shared living provider, so she has a client who stays in their home. Morales-Caballeros volunteers to come along when she drives the woman to appointments or when she has to run to the grocery store. He loves to fish all year round, but he hasn’t gone yet because he knows his wife doesn’t like to sit in the cold and he doesn’t want to spend time without her.

They went back to the Chinese restaurant for a second time. They had a belated Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. They are saving money for the honeymoon to Hawaii they never took, but really, they aren’t in any rush.

He has a new watch on his wrist, but who’s checking? Now, they have nothing but time.

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