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Mateo Juan Juan Mateo and his wife, Tami Couch, have a lot in common with members of the migrant caravan who traveled from Central America to Tijuana, Mexico in the spring of 2018.
The couple and their three children lived in Guatemala for six years, and wanted to escape the country’s violence and poverty to take advantage of better economic opportunities in the United States. And like many of them, they’re staying in Tijuana working random jobs and trying to make ends meet.
But their situation is also unique among members of the caravan. If they are eventually allowed into the country, it won’t be an unfamiliar place.
Couch and the couple’s children are U.S. citizens. The couple met in Alabama, where they were both living at the time. Juan Mateo – who says his repetitive name makes some people suspicious he’s messing with them when he introduces himself – was deported in 2010.
Couch stuck it out and moved to Mexico and then Guatemala with him. She said that after spending years living in Guatemala, a place from which so many flee – she understands why people try to come to the United States. After about six years there, she said she couldn’t take it anymore and decided to split her family up and take her kids back to the United States.
“People that are from there, they know it’s hard and that’s why they want to make it to the United States,” Couch said. “It’d be easier for their family to be able to survive. I’ve done things that people in this country haven’t done, a lot of things that an American probably wouldn’t go through or even do. But I did it. I’ve experienced it all. Everything.”
Juan Mateo traveled with the migrant caravan that arrived in late April 2018 to reunite the family.
Couch and Juan Mateo are now living in Tijuana together, trying their best to make it through two more years, after which Juan Mateo’s 10-year ban from the United States will expire and he can apply for legal status in the country.
Deportees, like Juan Mateo, have been part of both the caravans that traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border last year. They’re probably part of the group currently making the journey. They’re not just coming back to the United States for better jobs or to seek safety, but to return to loved ones and lives left behind.
“I love the U.S.,” Couch said. “I was born there. I’m from there. I’d love to be there right now. But I can’t. I can, but I can’t because my family is here. I’d prefer to be with my family to being in the U.S. because of the situation we’re in. But I can’t wait until the day he does get to go [to the U.S.]”
When Couch first met Juan Mateo, she fell head over heels.
They met through a mutual friend in Decatur, Alabama, in 2009, where Couch had grown up. Juan Mateo had been in Alabama for about three years. He was an unauthorized immigrant from Guatemala, working in construction.
“When I first met him, I thought he was the handsomest man I’d ever seen, you know?” she said.
Couch was separated from her first husband, whom she had married when she was 17. She and Juan Mateo quickly moved in together, but they struggled financially. In 2010, when Juan Mateo was deported, they had been living in a hotel.
Juan Mateo was arrested after Couch called the police during an altercation one night. Couch said Juan Mateo had pushed her away from the door during the argument, since he was trying to leave the room, so she called to report domestic violence. When she went to try to bail him out of jail later, she said she was informed he was being transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Couch said she still feels guilty for calling the police that day.
“It hurt me because I didn’t mean for none of that to happen to him, but I think because of all that, it’s my fault we are in the situation that we are in now,” she said.
Couch was already pregnant with their first child, Bella. Rather than be deported to Guatemala, Juan Mateo went to Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, on the other side of the border from Brownsville, Texas. Couch went with him.
“When they took him to jail and I found out that they was going to deport him, I was scared because I was pregnant and didn’t know what I was going to do,” Couch said. “I didn’t want my baby to be without her father, and I knew I loved him and wanted to be with him, so I went with him when he got sent back.”
She crossed the border on foot to give birth to Bella in Brownsville.
Weeks later, Juan Mateo was kidnapped one day at work.
He said he was released after a few hours, when his kidnappers realized they had the wrong guy.
“I had no idea this had happened,” Couch said. “I was sitting, waiting for him to come home like he normally does at 5 p.m.” He came home late that night, drenched in sweat, with markings on his wrist from where he’d been tied up, she said.
He was lucky, he said: His boss happened to know the men who took him. But the incident shook them up enough that they decided to leave Mexico. Couch was pregnant again.
“That was when we started thinking that we should try to go back to Guatemala,” Juan Mateo said.
They first lived in Guatemala City, where their middle child was born during their first year in the country.
The experience was traumatic, Couch recalls. She said she remembers staying in a pool of her own blood for two days after her cesarean section. Juan Mateo wasn’t allowed into the hospital.
Couch worked at a restaurant for a while and Juan Mateo also worked, so they could save up money for his visa application to the United States. The application was rejected. Juan Mateo faced a 10-year ban on re-applying for legal status in the United States because of his deportation and other issues during the process.
Eventually they moved to Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, in the northwestern part of the country, where Juan Mateo’s family was from.
Their youngest son, Mariano, was born there. It was in Guatemala where Couch and Juan Mateo finally married.
In 2012, Santa Cruz Barillas was the epicenter of a major violent conflict over the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the region, though Juan Mateo said the family was living in Guatemala City at the time.
“It was probably the worst thing I’ve ever went through in my whole life,” Couch said of her time in Guatemala. “Being in a place you don’t know, not speaking Spanish, not having a washing machine to wash clothes, not having food to eat, not having people who can help you. I had to learn everything to survive there. I mean we did it all, we did everything. I don’t think I ever want to do that again. Ever.”
Juan Mateo was making roughly 300 quetzales a week – about $38 U.S. dollars. As a family of five, they were struggling. With the birth to their third child, Couch was no longer working.
After seven years of trying to make things work for their family abroad, Couch said she couldn’t do it anymore. Life in Barillas was too difficult and she felt like she couldn’t give her children the life she wanted for them. Together, she and Juan Mateo decided that she would return to Alabama with the children.
Their youngest son was five months old.
“After a while, I just got so tired,” Couch said. “I told him, ‘You know, I’m going to go home.’”
She said they didn’t have money for the plane tickets and had to turn to the U.S. embassy in Guatemala for help. Couch and the children went back to Alabama without Juan Mateo.
Couch and Juan Mateo stayed in contact, calling each other and talking via Facebook several times a week.
In 2018, Juan Mateo decided he would try to head north again.
“I couldn’t afford to pay someone to take me to the border, so I decided to try to come up on my own,” he said.
He was in Tapachula, Mexico, in the state of Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, when he heard of a caravan that was heading to Tijuana. He joined them.
Couch and Juan Mateo decided rather than being apart, they’d try again to make things work in Tijuana, until his 10-year ban on re-entering the United States expired.
Juan Mateo arrived in Tijuana. He started working, selling tacos and other items in the border vehicle line. He and a few other men from the caravan rented a house.
Couch and their three children drove for nearly five days from Alabama to Tijuana to reunite with Juan Mateo roughly a month later in June. Couch and her children moved into the home he had rented with the other men, who moved elsewhere.
Life in Tijuana is still difficult, but its proximity to the United States has helped.
About three weeks after moving to Tijuana, Couch said she packed all her things up in her car and told her kids to get in.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this no more. I want to be in my country, where I’m from. It’s time for me to do something for myself and my kids,’” she said.
She said she made it to the border.
“They were inspecting my car and I started thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said. “Taking my kids away from their father again. I was only thinking about myself, so I decided to turn around and come back home, here.”
Now the family is struggling to make ends meet. For a while, Couch said she was able to work in San Diego cleaning Navy ships, until she hurt her back a few months ago.
Couch said she’s unable to get public benefits she and her children are entitled to as U.S. citizens, like CalFresh or Medi-Cal, because they don’t have an address in California. She doesn’t know anyone in San Diego, but she’s hopeful they’ll make it through the next two years. If Juan Mateo can get legal status in the United States, they can start over.
Couch said she feels constantly torn. She wants to send her kids to better schools in the United States. During the year they spent in Alabama, she felt her kids had everything.
“They had rooms full of toys, tablets, hot water, food when you want to eat it,” she said. But the cost of that life was separating the children from their father.
“I know it would hurt him, and it would hurt the kids,” Couch said. “I don’t want to do that again. We was all together for six and a half years and I took the kids away from him for a year. He didn’t see the kids for birthdays, Christmas, Easter, none of that. He was deprived of that and I don’t want to do that again. I don’t think I’d be human if I did that. I’d prefer our whole family to be together instead of separating again.”
Couch said that she’s even asked her kids what they’d prefer. Bella, the oldest who is 7, is especially aware of the family’s situation. Couch said when she asks Bella if she wants to go back to the United States, Bella says no, because she wants to live with her father. She doesn’t want to see him upset.
“So I leave it at that,” Couch said. “It’s hard, but I guess everybody makes it. It’s all you can do.”