In the weeks after she was deported, Mayra Machado sat alone in a dark room, staring at her phone.
In video chats, her three children bombarded her with questions. Where was she? Why had she abandoned them? When would she come home to Arkansas?
She couldn't bear to tell them the truth -- that she was in a remote village in El Salvador overrun with gangs -- so she lied. "I'm fine," she said. "I'll be home soon."
The United States deports hundreds of thousands of people each year. But for Machado and other parents of American-born children, staying in their home countries sometimes isn't an option, despite the risk.
To keep her promise to her children, Machado had to embark on a dangerous journey abetted by abusive smugglers linked to a powerful drug cartel.
She would eventually make her way back to Siloam Springs in Northwest Arkansas, but a reckless decision from her youth -- and a little-known feature of American immigration policy -- would threaten to separate her family yet again.
Machado was 5 when she and her mother crossed illegally to the United States, fleeing bombings in their village during the final years of El Salvador's civil war.
She grew up speaking English during her childhood in Santa Ana, Calif. Later, after she and her mother moved to be near family members in Arkansas, she adopted a gentle Southern drawl.
At age 19, Machado made a foolish mistake. After she fell behind on loan payments, her car was impounded. To get it out, she forged a friend's signature on two checks totaling $1,500.
She was found guilty of three felonies and, after completing a court-ordered boot camp program, vowed to never mess up like that again.
A decade later, Machado said, she had turned her life around. She worked at an ophthalmologist's office, drove a BMW and had three photogenic kids. The father of her children was out of the picture, but Machado had met a kind man with a good job and they were engaged.
Shortly before Christmas 2015, a routine traffic stop changed everything. Because she had an unpaid ticket, Machado was taken to a police station. There, an officer deputized to act as an immigration agent found Machado's felony convictions and began the process that led to her deportation.
Unlike previous administrations, which had often targeted people for deportation using arbitrary traffic checkpoints or workplace raids, President Barack Obama promised to prioritize removals only of people with criminal convictions, saying he would target "felons, not families." Machado thought she had paid her debt to society but learned that as a person in the country illegally, she didn't have the luxury of making mistakes.
After fighting her case for 13 months, Machado was deported in January 2017. She arrived in El Salvador in shackles on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement plane.
Distant relatives had offered her a place to stay in the rural hamlet of Hacienda La Carrera, but her broken Spanish and American clothing made her a target. Many homes had been abandoned by residents fleeing gangs that levied "taxes" on locals.
Still, what kept her up at night, as she listened for occasional bursts of gunfire, was fear for her children: Dominic, 12; Dyanara, 11; and Dorian, 8. They were living in Siloam Springs with their grandmother.
Machado knew the dangers of trying to return to the United States. But, she told herself, she was a mother, and mothers are supposed to be with their kids.
In March 2017, Machado used $8,000 of her savings to pay a smuggling network that promised a short journey to the United States. But arriving that April in Tamaulipas, the northern Mexican state where drug gangs had entered the human-trafficking business, it didn't matter that Machado had paid all that cash weeks before. The smugglers said she would have to wait to cross the border until they were ready.
After months in captivity, the smugglers helped Machado cross the border on July 4, 2017.
Two family members picked her up in Texas and drove all night to Arkansas. Shortly before sunrise, she opened the door to the bedroom where her children were sleeping and woke them up with hugs.
In March this year, she and the children moved in with her fiance, Tony, whom her youngest son had started calling Dad. But she still lived a life in the shadows. Machado didn't have an ID or a job. On the rare occasions she drove, she scanned the rearview mirror for police.
On a hot afternoon in May, she took the risk of picking up her daughter, who had just completed fifth grade. At a roundabout, the car in front of her stopped suddenly. Machado didn't.
The woman's Mercedes was not badly damaged, and Machado offered to pay on the spot for repairs. But the driver was angry and called the police.
Machado panicked. She phoned her best friend, who urged her to flee. That would be wrong, Machado said.
"OK," her friend said. "When the police come, give them my name instead of yours."
That's what Machado did, but the officer became suspicious.
When he threatened to call a fingerprint expert, Machado told him her real name.
The officer charged her with a felony for obstruction of government operations. The charge was eventually dropped, but by then Machado had been flagged by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and she was again taken into immigration custody.
Only this time, she would be charged with a more serious crime.
The Washington County jail in Fayetteville is a cluster of buildings in a suburban office park. Machado has been there for months, living alongside women charged with federal crimes that include drug trafficking and murder.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government stepped up criminal prosecution of people illegally in the country, reversing its longtime practice of treating immigration offenses as civil matters. Machado is one of thousands of people who have been charged this year with the felony crime of re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation.
Her court-appointed attorney has asked Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican whose was endorsed for re-election by President Donald Trump, to pardon Machado for the check forgery, in hopes of eliminating the rationale for deporting her. A grass-roots campaign also has taken up Machado's cause, recently holding a rally outside the Arkansas prison where activists chanted "Free Mama Mayra!"
If those efforts fail, Machado faces up to two years in prison -- followed by a second deportation.
The idea of remaining behind bars pains her, but it is less scary than the idea of being immediately deported again. "At least I'll be safe in prison," she said.
Metro on 09/16/2018
Print Headline: Mother risks all to return to kids; Salvadoran again faces deportation