When Otto Morales-Caballeros rode an airplane for the first time in his life last month, he was handcuffed.

The flight brought him to Guatemala, the home country he fled two decades earlier. Morales-Caballeros entered the United States illegally as a teenager and lived for a time in New Jersey before moving to Maine. Now 37, Morales-Caballeros was living with his wife in Naples in April when he was arrested and detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on his way to work. His deportation had been delayed for years under Obama administration policies that focused on deporting dangerous criminals, and his arrest was seen as a sign of the escalation in immigration enforcement under President Trump.

“Coming over here after 20 years, it’s not my world,” Morales-Caballeros said in a phone interview from Guatemala.

Otto Morales-Caballeros is pictured with his wife, Sandra Scribner Merlim, in Antigua, Guatemala, on Friday. Morales-Caballeros was living in Naples, Maine, with his wife when he was arrested by immigration officials and deported. For now, both feeling like foreigners, they are exploring Guatemala together. Photo courtesy of Sandra Merlim

Last week, Morales-Caballeros and his wife, Sandra Scribner Merlim, were reunited for the first time since he was deported in May. A sympathetic donor paid for Merlim’s travel from Maine to Guatemala. They will spend two weeks together, exploring a country where they both feel foreign.

The trip is a brief respite for the couple.

In Guatemala, Morales-Caballeros said he barely leaves his mother’s house for fear of violence. He is still waiting for the identification paperwork he needs to get a job.

Back in Maine, Merlim has had no income since her husband’s arrest. She could soon be evicted from their Naples home.

They have hired a lawyer to represent them in their case to bring Morales-Caballeros back to the United States as the spouse of a citizen, but that process could take years.

So, their joyful reunion Thursday was also bittersweet.

“I’m already dreading it because I know how it ends,” Merlim, 52, said before the trip. “I am going to have to leave without him.”

DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT APPLYING FOR ASYLUM

Morales-Caballeros grew up in Petén, a region in the northernmost part of Guatemala.

Petén is densely forested and home to many Mayan archaeological sites. Adjacent to the border with Mexico, it is also considered by the U.S. State Department to be a high-risk area for gang violence and drug trafficking.

Morales-Caballeros worked on local farms from a young age, growing tomatoes and beans. He grew up without a father, and his mother worked cleaning and laundry jobs to support their family. Violence, like his brother’s murder and the suspicious car accident that killed his niece, was constant. When Morales-Caballeros was falsely accused of killing someone in the village, the victim’s family threatened his life. The real murderer was identified, Morales-Caballeros said, but his mother begged him to flee for a safer place.

“My mother told me, ‘You’re going to have to leave. They are going to kill you,’ ” he said.

Morales-Caballeros had heard stories about kidnappings or thefts committed by “coyotes” – smugglers who help people cross the U.S. border illegally. But he decided he didn’t have a choice, and so he paid one of these guides to help him travel through Mexico to the United States. In 1997, he swam across the Rio Grande to Texas. He was 17 years old.

“It’s very dangerous,” Morales-Caballeros said. “You take a chance. A lot of people die trying to cross in the river.”

He didn’t know he might have obtained legal status by applying for asylum during his first year in the United States, so he never did. He traveled to New Jersey to meet a relative. He found manual labor jobs and took English classes. He sent money to his mother in Petén.

“It changed my life a lot living in the United States,” Morales-Caballeros said. “It’s a better way of living, better pay. It’s a lot of relief for me to be able to help my mother.”

He later moved to Maine with a girlfriend. When they separated in the mid-2000s, she reported him to law enforcement as being undocumented, Morales-Caballeros said.

He was now known to immigration officials, although he was not immediately deported.

“That’s where all my nightmares started,” he said. “I’ve been fighting with immigration for around 10 years. I’ve been fighting to become legal and stay in the United States.”

He met Merlim through a mutual friend in 2006. She spoke a little Spanish, which made him feel more comfortable around her than other Mainers he knew. He was kinder to her than the other men she had dated.

“Otto is the first guy I’ve had that hasn’t used me or abused me or anything else,” Merlim said.

They started dating by the end of that year. The couple worked together on his immigration case, attending court hearings and cobbling together the money for lawyer fees. But Merlim said they were repeatedly unsuccessful because he had not immediately applied for asylum when he arrived in the United States as a teenager.

TREATED ‘LIKE A BIG DELINQUENT’

An ICE representative said a federal judge issued a removal order for Morales-Caballeros in 2010, and court documents show he pleaded guilty in 2013 to a federal charge of felony use of fraudulent documents. He had used false identification and a fake Social Security number while seeking work. State records show he has no other criminal record in Maine.

Merlim said the couple had been assured by immigration officials that he could stay in the United States if he stayed out of further legal trouble. His deportation was repeatedly delayed. Merlim and Morales-Caballeros married in 2015.

It’s not known how many unauthorized immigrants are living in Maine, but the number is believed to be less than 5,000 people, or 0.3 percent of the state’s total population, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2014, the Obama administration instructed immigration agents to focus on deporting only people who are a threat to national security, border security or public safety. Those categories included gang members and felons. This prosecutorial discretion meant removal orders often were postponed for people who were considered a low priority.

In his first days in office, President Trump issued an executive order that dramatically expanded the federal government’s priorities for immigration enforcement. Agents are now directed to remove anyone with a criminal conviction and anyone who already has been issued a removal order, for example. The Washington Post reported immigration arrests had increased more than 30 percent in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Morales-Caballeros was arrested around the corner from his home April 12. He was driving to his job at a lobster processing plant in Saco. Morales-Caballeros said he checked in regularly with immigration officials, but it is unclear why they chose that morning or that place to arrest him.

“They arrested me in the middle of the road on the way to work,” Morales-Caballeros said. “They pulled me out of the car like a big delinquent.”

Otto Morales-Caballeros at his mother’s home in Guatemala. Courtesy of Sandra Merlim

STAYING CLOSE TO HIS MOTHER’S HOME

In less than one month, Morales-Caballeros was detained in four locations.

Upon his arrest, he was held at the Cumberland County Jail, but he was soon moved to the Strafford County Jail in New Hampshire because it is the nearest federally contracted detention center. By the beginning of May, he had been transferred to the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Massachusetts. By the following week, he was moved to a detention and removal staging facility at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana.

On May 11, without notice, he was put on a plane with other detainees bound for Guatemala City. He was dressed in the work clothes he had been wearing when he was arrested, and he later told Merlim he smelled like old lobster.

“They don’t let nobody make a phone call to their wives or parents,” Morales-Caballeros said. “They handcuff you with your arms and legs very tight right on the airplane.”

When he landed in Guatemala City, staff from the American consulate gave the passengers each a bottle of water, a piece of bread and a tamale – a traditional dish made of meat and dough, wrapped in a corn husk. Anyone facing criminal charges in Guatemala was turned over to local officials, while others like Morales-Caballeros were allowed to go freely. Merlim had previously connected on Facebook with an expatriate couple – an American woman and her Honduran husband who had been deported – living in the southern Guatemalan city of Antigua. Morales-Caballeros used his one-minute phone call to contact the couple from the airport. They brought him new clothes and stayed with him until his sister could pick him up the next day.

Since arriving in Petén, he hasn’t strayed far from his mother’s concrete-block home.

“After so many years, I didn’t know how to live my life over here,” Morales-Caballeros said. “A lot of people, they are telling me, be careful, don’t go outside. People know you are coming from the United States, and they think you have money. I am living with my mother, and for the most part, I stay inside.”

Back home, Merlim started a GoFundMe campaign and held a press conference to tell her husband’s story. She filed a Form I-130, the first step in obtaining legal resident status in the U.S. for a non-citizen spouse. The federal government uses that form to verify a marriage is genuine and not just for immigration purposes.

Morales-Caballeros will need to be interviewed at the American embassy in Guatemala as part of that process. He will also need to obtain a waiver to re-enter the country; typically, someone who has been deported cannot return for 10 years. Lizz Cannon, an immigration attorney who specializes in these waivers, has agreed to represent Morales-Caballeros pro bono but was not authorized to talk about the case last week.

Merlim said the process will take a year or longer.

“I still believe that this is the United States of America,” Merlim said. “I do not believe for one minute that someone like him is not going to be allowed back in this country.”

More than 3,000 miles apart, the couple are trying not to think about what would happen if his case for re-entry is denied. They send messages to each other constantly on chat apps like WhatsApp, and they talk on the phone multiple times each day. During a phone call last week, the cell service in Guatemala was weak because of a recent earthquake, but the couple laughed about the rooster crowing in the background of the call.

“I learned from my wife that no matter what, I always try to be positive,” Morales-Caballeros said.

NOT THINKING ABOUT GOODBYE

Their separation is painful, however.

Morales-Caballeros wants to use his English to work at a call center or as a tour guide, but he is still waiting for the identification paperwork he needs from the Guatemalan government to get a job. He hopes to move to Antigua, which is less dangerous than in the rural region where he grew up.

Otto Morales-Caballeros and his mother at her home in Guatemala. Courtesy of Sandra Merlim

He spends his time with his mother and his sister, and he occasionally goes to the nearby market. He described robberies on motorcycles and a shooting that killed a child near his mother’s church.

Merlim worries about this violence constantly. She sleeps on the couch because she can’t bear to be in their shared room alone.

Because her husband was the breadwinner for their household, she has also struggled financially since he was deported. She recently received an eviction notice from her landlord, and she is trying to sell belongings online to come up with rent for their small one-bedroom house. She plans to get a job when she returns from her trip to Guatemala, which was paid for through a donation. In the meantime, she frequents the food pantry in Naples. She goes without her anti-anxiety medication.

“I am going through a lot, but I worry more about her,” Morales-Caballeros said.

Merlim’s journey to Guatemala started Thursday on the 3:15 a.m. bus from Portland to Boston. She flew to Miami and then to Guatemala City, and the expat couple picked her up at the airport.

Morales-Caballeros took a bus south from Petén, and he told Merlim about passing police officers investigating a murder along the road. Merlim had insisted on staying in safer regions of the country during their trip, so the couple planned to spend their time in Antigua.

Morales-Caballeros and Merlim finally reunited at a bus stop in Guatemala and arrived at their hotel in Antigua at 1 a.m. Friday. They will spend two weeks job searching, exploring and not thinking about goodbye.

“We did nothing but hold each other and cry when he got to the car for a good half-hour,” Merlim wrote in a text message Friday. “I was so relieved to see him. He kept saying ‘IS THIS REAL? ARE YOU REALLY HERE???’ ”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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