As the plane descended into Guatemala City, María tried to calm her six-year-old niece. “Mami, I feel like I’m falling,” the girl told her from the window seat next to her. María, 26, was scared too, and not just because this deportation flight was her first time in the air. They were returning to Guatemala – the country they had fled after a gang murdered all their living relatives.
The pair had been reunited in a Phoenix-area airport just a few hours before, nearly a year after border officials at an Arizona port of entry separated them. María had raised her niece as a daughter since the girl was an infant. But border officials did not recognize them as a family unit and sent the girl to foster care in New York and María to an immigrant detention center in Arizona.
María, who could not shake the memory of her little girl being ripped out of her arms, had waited a year to hug her niece. They both wept. The moment was bittersweet.
María and her girl landed in Guatemala as the coronavirus was taking hold in countries around the world. On the day of their deportation flight, the World Health Organization declared the rapidly growing outbreak a pandemic.