Sandra Scribner Merlim craned her neck and stood on her tiptoes to see the top of the staircase at the Portland International Jetport on Sunday. The flight from Detroit had landed at 4:29 p.m., and the first passengers had started to trickle down from the gate.

“I’m so nervous,” she said.

More than four years had passed since immigration agents detained Otto Morales-Caballeros on his drive to work. He fled Guatemala for the United States without legal documentation as a teenager, but the federal government did not act on a deportation order for years because he was not considered a priority for removal. His arrest in 2017 signaled an escalation in immigration policies under the Trump administration.

Merlim vowed to bring her husband home. The couple worked with an attorney to submit the necessary forms and then to expedite their application after Merlim had emergency heart surgery last year. The process still took longer than expected because of changes made under the previous administration and then the COVID-19 pandemic.

But on Sunday evening, there he was, at the top of the staircase.

He rushed down the stairs, and she hurried across the tile floor. They wrapped their arms around each other for a long moment. Merlim had visited Guatemala twice, once in 2017 and again in 2018, but she stopped traveling because of her health and then the virus. They talked on the phone multiple times a day, but they had not held each other in more than three years. Even when they released their embrace, their hands remained intertwined.


Morales-Caballeros wiped tears from his face and struggled to speak at first.

“We made it,” he said. “We made it.”

Otto Morales-Caballeros and Sandra Scribner Merlim walk to the baggage claim area after being reunited at the Portland Jetport on Sunday. The two had not seen each other since Merlim’s trip to Guatemala in 2018. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Morales-Caballeros, now 42, grew up in Petén, a rural region in the northernmost part of Guatemala. He said he fled violence in his home country and crossed the Rio Grande into Texas when he was just 17 years old. He 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. He lived in New Jersey before he moved to Maine. He met Merlim in 2006, and they married in 2015.

A federal judge issued a removal order for Morales-Caballeros in 2010, and federal court documents show he pleaded guilty in 2013 to one felony count of use of fraudulent documents, which he used to work. His deportation was delayed for years, however, because the Obama administration frequently granted reprieve to undocumented people with U.S.-born children or those who did not have criminal records.

That policy changed under the Trump administration. Morales-Caballeros was driving to work on April 12, 2017, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested him around the corner from the couple’s home in Naples. He was moved between four 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 feels like decades,” he said Sunday.

The couple released their hands for only a moment, when he needed to pull his blue suitcase off the baggage carousel. Merlim, now 57, moved to Brunswick while he was gone, and they wondered whether the two dogs waiting for them would recognize him. They talked about going out for Chinese food and taking a trip to Hawaii.

“You’re never leaving again, by the way, without me,” Merlim said, laughing. “Anywhere you’re going, I’m going with you.”

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