SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Guatemalan woman who left Utah on deportation orders last Christmas has since made the heart-wrenching decision to send two of her children back to the United States without her.
Maria Santiago Garcia, 41, reluctantly determined the future would be bleak for them in her small village, where there is little work and education often ends after the sixth grade, the Deseret News reported from Guatemala.
Garcia left the state with her four children in 2017 after months of failed efforts to win her a reprieve to stay in the U.S., including protests and letters to a judge.
She had been working as a manager at a McDonald's in Salt Lake City. Her husband, a construction worker, stayed in Utah since there was no work for him in the village of Jerez.
Garcia grew up in orphanages and foster homes, and got a job at a clothing factory when she grew up. But at 27, she saw a female food seller killed with machetes at a market. She spoke to police and soon a gang was after her, she told the newspaper.
She fled to the United States in 2004, crossing illegally in Brownsville, Texas, and claiming asylum.
Her boyfriend helped her get a lawyer, but through a serious of misunderstandings she said she never heard about her court date. In 2006, a judge ordered her deported in absentia.
Unaware of the order, Garcia would eventually find work as a hotel maid, get married and have two children. Her marriage ended shortly after their daughter was born, and she took a second job at Burger King.
She married again in 2010 and got a higher-paying job as a manager at McDonald's. The family moved into a rental house and added two more children. She began dreaming about college for them.
But in 2014, she got a letter from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She would later be convicted of using someone else's Social Security number to work.
She got a lawyer, but under the Obama administration, deportation was unlikely since she wasn't a public safety threat and her children were U.S. citizens, the Desert News reported. When President Donald Trump took over, that changed. Her habit of checking in with officials made her easy to locate, and on Dec. 20, 2017, her final appeal was denied.
In Guatemala, Garcia moved in with her in-laws, who support themselves on her father-in-law's salary of $6 a day. Garcia tried to add to the family income by selling tamales, but she didn't make enough money to cover the ingredients.
The one-room house has no shower or water heater, so they bathe by dumping buckets of cold water on their heads.
The drinking water gave them digestive problems for months. The small bowls of tortillas and beans leave them hungry every night. Her oldest son Patrick lost 25 pounds in six months, the newspaper said.
The elementary school serves eight grades in shared classroom spaces. Most kids don't go past sixth grade, and college is out of the question, teacher Erick Ramos told the newspaper.
Being from the U.S. has sometimes made her older children a target for bullies. A boy once held down her 12-year-old son until he passed out.
That's when she started thinking about sending him and her 10-year-old daughter back to the United States. Her younger children, 4 and 6, were too young to go.
Her husband couldn't care for the older kids by himself full-time since his work often takes him away from home for weeks at a time, but two of the children's former art teachers had offered to take them in.