Facing deportation, a Utah mother of four spends Christmas in the airport before returning to Guatemala

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maria Santiago Garcia, left, faced with a deportation order to return to her home country of Guatemala, embraces her daughter Natalie Fajardo, 3, during the last hour of Christmas night before catching the red-eye flight with her four children, who are all U.S. citizens.

As Maria Santiago Garcia checked in for her flight at the Salt Lake City International Airport, with five large suitcases in tow, the word “American” loomed above her in clean, bold letters.

It was just a brand, the airline she and her four children were using for their journey to Santiago Garcia’s native Guatemala.

But it was more than that: it was the reason she and her children were leaving. While they are American citizens, she is not. That designation made all the difference this Christmas.

As other children were opening presents, Santiago Garcia’s children — ages 11, 9, 5 and 3 — were saying goodbyes and packing their belongings to start their lives anew in a country they’d never seen because the government was deporting their mother, who’d been in the U.S. for 15 years without residency documents.

“Well, it’s not the best [Christmas,]” said Sarai Reyes, Santiago’s 9-year-old daughter, ”Because we have to go, and what if our new country where we’re going is really mean and bad? What if people are not nice?”

About 20 friends and supporters came to the airport Monday night to send the family off after months of advocating for her to be able to stay in the U.S. Many carried hand-painted signs. They stood silently as Santiago Garcia made her way through the American Airlines kiosk among the other travelers.

The protesters’ appearance at the airport caused some congestion in front of the terminal, and drew some remarks from passersby. One man asked a nearby security guard, “What the hell is going on here?”

As Amy Dominguez, spokeswoman for the activist group Unidad Inmigrante (Immigrant Unity), put it, Monday was the last straw for Santiago Garcia. After months of protesting and speaking with immigration attorneys and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, they had ran out of options.

Their last attempt to keep Santiago Garcia in the country, a stay of removal requested in November, was denied Dec. 20. That left Santiago Garcia no other choice but to buy airline tickets and leave for Guatemala.

Dominguez said Santiago Garcia’s departure was ironic: Just as many Americans were celebrating Jesus’s birth in a shelter given freely by innkeepers to his mother and father, another woman was being turned away, back to a country she’d fled because of violence and abuse.

Santiago Garcia left Guatemala in 2002 and ICE records indicate she entered the country illegally in August 2004.

In 2015, she was convicted of her first and only crime in the U.S.: using someone else’s social security number to work. At the time, she was an employee at a Burger King in Salt Lake County, according to court documents.

It was that conviction, and a missed letter that culminated in a missed appointment with ICE officials, that Dominguez believes put Santiago Garcia on ICE’s radar for deportation.

When asked how she was feeling Monday night, Santiago Garcia told reporters through a translator she was feeling “sentimental” and “very sad” that she had to leave.

Among her biggest concerns was how her children would adapt to their new life in Guatemala.

“They’re afraid. They’ve seen the reports of gangs murdering other kids, and they’re just afraid of that because they’ve seen it on TV,” she said.

Reyes echoed those concerns, saying she and her older brother, 11-year-old Patrick Reyes, were more scared than her younger siblings, who were excited to go somewhere new and didn’t understand the permanence of their trip.

Though her children are U.S. citizens, Santiago Garcia felt she had no other option but to take them with her. She grew up an orphan after watching her mother killed, and Santiago Garcia did not want to separate her family, said Kate Savage, Santiago Garcia’s friend and a member of the activist group La Red de Solidaridad (The Network of Solidarity).

Savage came to the airport Monday to say goodbye to the family, which she says has made a lasting impression on her.

“I’ve gotten to know these families while they’ve fought for their right to stay here,” she said through tears. “And I’ve never known anyone with as much strength and humor and love for each other. They’ve taught me so much about family and community.”

Savage helped the family through security Monday night, as supporters stood nearby holding signs. One read, “No person is illegal.” Another said, “Keep families and communities together.”

As the family walked through security, many watching began to cry.

Easton Smith, a family friend and member of Unidad Inmigrante, said he would continue to search for a legal way to get Santiago Garcia back in the U.S., although the terms of her voluntary departure mean she can’t apply for a visa to the U.S. for another decade. He hopes he can find a way to get her back faster than that.

Until then, he said they’ll check in with her. He’s planning to make a trip there once they’re settled. The children, he said, will likely come visit this summer and stay with teachers who’ve volunteered to take them in for a little while.

That’s Santiago Garcia’s goal, too: to come back “with my head held high.”

“And I want to come back legally so I don’t have to go through this again.”