In the little northwest Honduran town of Agua Blanca, Wilfredo Alvarez is trying to build a new life. It’s not easy.
The town looks different than it did when he left for the United States 20 years ago and found his way to Tampa. Gangs, drug cartels and petty crooks control the surrounding area with guns, extortion and fear.
Four months ago, Alvarez, 42, was deported to Honduras, packed with dozens of other undocumented immigrants onto a charter plane for the flight from Miami to San Pedro Sula, the Central American nation’s second-largest city.
“Imagine being separated from your family,” Alvarez said in a recent telephone interview. “They are my life, they are my reason to be in this world. There’s no sense to be here in Honduras without them.”
U.S. immigration authorities hold a different view of what makes sense.
Alvarez, a husband and father of five children born in the United States, was arrested and released with a court date soon after crossing the Texas border in 1999. But he fled to live in the shadows. He came to the attention of immigration officials again 13 years later and has been fending off deportation since then under a humanitarian waiver.
To his surprise, Alvarez learned his time was up in October during a routine appointment about his passport with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Tampa. He recorded a goodbye video for his family on his attorney’s phone and was sent straight to Miami.
He has an attorney and still holds out hope of returning to the United States. Through WhatsApp, he chats daily with his wife, Veronica Hernandez, 41, and their children.
Meantime, he has picked up where he left off in Tampa, opening a small restaurant with four tables inside the home where he lives again with his 77-year-old mother Carlosa Alvarez.
In 2015, Alvarez and Hernandez opened a small eatery at a gas station in Land O Lakes. Business was good in the first year so they opened a Mexican restaurant, Alvarez Authentic Latin Food, on Florida Avenue in north Tampa.
The restaurant supports the family and four employees and brought in some $5,000 a month, Alvarez said. Since he left, though, revenue has fallen below $2,000 a month.
“My wife has to take care of five children and she’s alone,” he said. “I think this is too much pressure for her.”
An added challenge is that their 4-year-old daughter Dariannellys, born 28 weeks prematurely, suffers from the often fatal genetic disorder Edwards Syndrome and has to be fed through a gastric tube.
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“Her father was an angel for her," Hernandez said. "She needs him every day.”
Joshua Collins, a friend and customer at the Tampa restaurant, said he shocked to learn of Alvarez’ deportation and hopes he can make his way back.
“He is one of those people who prefer to help others rather than himself and was dedicated to his business,” Collins said. “It is very sad.”
In Agua Blanca, Alvarez struggled to find work before going into business for himself again, collecting wood, vegetables and fruit to sell local businesses. He saved up and with help from family and friends, he opened the restaurant.
“My new restaurant is not too big but people like it. I make $50 dollars per week. Sometimes $90 dollars. It is not too much, but in Agua Blanca that means a lot”.
Alvarez spent his childhood in Agua Blanca, working the fields for less than a dollar per day. His 15 siblings did the same thing to help the family.
His journey to the United States took him to Tennessee, where he met Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. They moved to Tampa 10 years ago.
Emel Ersan, Alvarez’s attorney, has argued that immigration authorities entrapped her client when they made him sign the order in 1999 to appear in court. He didn’t speak English, she said, and the court date was unintelligible.
What’s more, she said, his passport was taken away then he was denied a humanitarian pardon because it later expired.
“I have been a lawyer for the past 25 years and I have never seen anything like that," Ersan said.
Immigration authorities in Tampa defend their actions. Alvarez received due process through the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, where immigration judges issue rulings based on the merits of each case, said Tamara Spicer, public affairs officer with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ersan said her client deserves a pardon because he was his family’s sole provider. She said she first is helping resolve Hernandez’s immigration status and then will petition to bring Alvarez back.
The process could take 18 months or more, Ersan said.
Said Alvarez, “Life has always been very hard for us and when we are doing the right thing, we have this problem. I think it is not fair."