• Lizandro Claros Saravia was just keeping ICE apprised of his college scholarship. Days later, he and his brother were deported to El Salvador and have continued picking up the pieces of their lives in Nicaragua.
By Ben Teitelbaum and Priya Desai
February 27, 2018

Nestled in the colorful mountain village of San Marcos, Nicaragua, past narrow potholed streets and rusted stop signs and scraggy stray dogs, a satellite campus of Florida’s Keiser University feels like any college in the states. Students breeze through a grassy quad dotted with religious statues, relics of the site’s monastic past. At lunchtime, the raucous cafeteria exudes that unmistakable scent of ambiguous meat. Smartphones are as prevalent as schoolbooks.

Afternoon soccer practice appears equally ordinary. The team of about 30 boys stretches languidly in the sticky heat, then runs through ball control drills and scrimmages punctuated by friendly trash talk in the players’ native Spanish. And Lizandro Claros Saravia, a star freshman defender on scholarship, seems to belong.

But this is all foreign to Claros Saravia, who grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., playing for the elite Bethesda Soccer Club. It’s not just that the field has no lights and practice ends when the sun goes down. Or that orange cones stand in for painted white lines on the overgrown grass.

It’s that six months ago, Claros Saravia was on his way to Louisburg College in North Carolina, also on a soccer scholarship. It was meant to be a pit stop on the road to a high-level Division I program. But then, unexpectedly, he got deported. And barring a miracle, he won’t be allowed back in the U.S. for at least 10 years.

Lizandro Emmanuel Claros Saravia was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Jan. 25, 1998, the youngest of four siblings. His father, Jose, moved to America when Lizandro was 1, trying to help his family escape the violence that wracks his home country. Jose first landed in California, then eventually settled in Germantown, Maryland, working construction. The rest of the family joined in waves, with Lizandro and his brother, Diego, four years his elder, coming last in 2009.

But the brothers did not slip into the U.S. unnoticed. Lizandro and Diego were caught by customs officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport, trying to enter the country with fraudulent passports and visas. They were issued a notice to appear in immigration court, but they were allowed, at least temporarily, to stay.

“They’ve always been good kids,” Jose says, speaking in halting Spanish as he fights back tears. “When they came here, we both wanted to put them in a sports academy so they could stay busy after school, so they wouldn’t get into problems here. … That’s what I wanted, that they do the right thing here, without any problems, and that’s how they were, right up until the last day they were here.”

Every child in the Claros Saravia household played soccer—uniformed photos line the staircase in their modest townhouse—but at first, Lizandro balked.

“When I got to the U.S., I didn’t care about soccer, I didn’t care about anything,” says Lizandro, the only member of his family who speaks English without a noticeable accent. “I really wanted to go back to El Salvador. And so I just started eating a lot and I got pretty chubby.”

Talk to his family and friends, and you learn he’s not being self-deprecating. A former Bethesda coach, unprompted, echoes the term 'chubby,' and his oldest brother, Jonathan, laughingly says Lizandro was fat. But Lizandro, like his siblings, possessed natural talent, and he quickly began growing into both his body and his new home.

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In ninth grade, Lizandro joined the Bethesda Soccer Club, one of the premier programs in the United States, under the supervision of coach Matt Ney. Bethesda’s most successful alumni include Arsenal's Gedion Zelalem, the Portland Timbers' Jeremy Ebobisse and U.S. internationals such as Bill Hamid, Freddy Adu and Joe Gyau, and 15 players from Lizandro’s team are playing in college. At Bethesda, “if you got hurt in practice, it’s because it was a good practice,” says Lizandro.

While he was talented enough, Lizandro initially struggled to balance the demands of daily grueling training sessions with the rest of life as a typical 14-year-old.

“I remember the first year I wanted to quit, man. It was too much. Everyday practices and then homework and no time for myself,” Lizandro recalls. “But then, I just thought about it and I was like, ‘My parents have done all of this for me and I’m just going to throw it away like that? I’m not going to do it.’”

Four years later, Lizandro was a sinewy 6-foot-1 center back with a high school diploma and a college scholarship. What he still didn’t have, though, was official U.S. documentation.

Wherever you fall on immigration policy, it’s undeniable that Lizandro himself, from the time he landed in America as a homesick 10-year-old, did everything right. And it’s ironic that the source of Lizandro’s American dream was ultimately the impetus for his expulsion.

Lizandro thought it was but a formality. He had sent U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) a copy of his Louisburg scholarship to keep the agency apprised of his movements. He and Diego had a regular ICE check-in scheduled for August 16, but Lizandro had to be down in North Carolina by then, beginning his freshman season. In response, ICE asked the brothers to come in earlier.

“I thought it was so it wouldn’t interrupt my school,” says Lizandro. “So we said yes. I mean, nothing had happened, so we thought it was going to be a normal day.”

On July 28, a rainy Friday, Lizandro and Diego went in. ICE agents said they needed to interview the brothers further about their circumstances.

“They took us to a back room and there were a lot of people in that back room,” remembers Lizandro. “Like a lot of people.”

Lizandro thinks they were all being consigned to detention, eventually to be deported. He doesn’t know for sure.

“We waited for like two hours, and they came out and they just said that they couldn’t let us go because they couldn’t let me go to another state and leave [Diego],” Lizandro says. “If they needed to catch us one day, it was going to be harder on them.

“I was calm at first because Monday came by. And then [people in detention] told us that on Mondays, only on Mondays, Salvadorans will get deported. And so Monday came by and nothing happened, so we thought, ‘Oh, O.K., we’re going to be here a couple more days.’ And then on Wednesday, they came in and took us out of jail, and then we thought we were going to be, ‘We out,’ but no. We asked the officers and they said that we were going to the airport and that we were going to get deported that day.”

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Under the Obama administration, Lizandro and Diego would have been a low priority for deportation. They had clean records, Diego was employed and Lizandro was getting an education. Donald Trump had been inaugurated seven months earlier, though, escorted by proclamations of securing the border and putting “America First.”

As Washington wrestles over what to do about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), it’s worth noting that Lizandro and Diego were not part of the 800,000 so-called Dreamers whose legal status has been challenged by the Trump administration. To receive protection, Dreamers had to arrive in the U.S. before 2007, two years before the brothers reached the country.

Lizandro says he’s “not really into politics,” and he refuses to connect the dots between Trump’s election and his deportation. But his sister, Fatima, who is a recipient of DACA, thinks “it changed when the new person came into the office. Everything changed. I’ll say that some people discriminate [against] Spanish people and maybe because my brother got a scholarship, that’s the reason they found to deport them.”

But according to ICE, Lizandro and Diego long overstayed their welcome. They were issued a final order of removal in 2012, when Lizandro was 14, before being granted a temporary stay a year later. Two subsequent applications were denied.

“Since 2016, ICE deportation officers in Baltimore have instructed [Lizandro] to purchase a ticket for his departure,” the agency said in a statement. “Attempting to unlawfully enter the United States as a family unit or unaccompanied minor does not protect individuals from being subject to the immigration laws of this country.”

Even in the era of Trump, ICE claims to “focus its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” but Lizandro and Diego walked into their lap.

While the brothers were held in detention, their Bethesda teammates organized a rally on their behalf in front of Homeland Security headquarters. The Claros Saravia family retained the services of a lawyer through CASA de Maryland, a Latino and immigration advocacy-and-assistance organization. All to no avail.

Lizandro and Diego were whisked away on August 2, without being allowed to give their family a hug goodbye. It was a Wednesday, five days after they were arrested and the same day that Lizandro was supposed to arrive at Louisburg for preseason practice.

It’s mid-November in San Marcos, and a ceiling fan circulates the stuffy air in Lizandro’s bedroom. His twin cot lies between his two roommates’ on the ground floor of a Spanish-style villa that houses nine Keiser students. 

There’s a half-open suitcase at the foot of Lizandro’s bed, filled with clothes that he hates putting away. Lizandro has no posters on the wall, no pictures on a nightstand. He eschews avoidable reminders of home and of the stereotypical American college life he never got to lead.

“I feel like I’ll never be able to adapt normally if I keep bringing stuff from [home],” Lizandro says. “Like, it’s just going to be harder on me.”

Lizandro and Diego have been at Keiser for three months. They were originally deported back to El Salvador, where they stayed with aunts and an uncle in a small village outside Jucuapa.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Lizandro told The Washington Post at the time. “I feel like in this country, I don’t have a future.”

A couple weeks later, they were on the move yet again. Keiser had heard their story, felt compassionate and extended a hand. 

Back in Maryland, the Claros Saravia family was “really happy and excited” for the brothers to relocate to Nicaragua, on account of El Salvador having among the highest homicide rates in the world. But they weren’t ready to come to Keiser, to them a random college in a random country. Yes, El Salvador had its drawbacks, but at least there was family and familiarity.

“I could go to any country and you could give me the best education,” Lizandro says. “But if I’m not close to my family, if I’m not where I want to be, it’s just not normal.”

The difficulty of the transition was exacerbated by Lizandro and Diego’s identity uncertainty. They weren’t sure how to define themselves when they got to Nicaragua, caught between feeling both American and Salvadoran, unable to embrace either part of their identity.

“We couldn’t say that we were from USA,” says Diego. “We’re not [U.S.] citizens, but we can’t say that we’re from El Salvador ‘cause we don’t even know the place.”

Lizandro has a quiet energy about him, a forceful composure that draws you in. Neither brother is gregarious, at least not in this setting, but Lizandro cuts through his stoicism with a forthcoming willingness to talk. Diego is more reticent, his eyes frequently darting away from the conversation, looking down. Both, though, were unflinchingly polite.

According to their sister, their true personalities are the opposite. Diego is “a fun person. He likes to joke around,” says Fatima. Lizandro, meanwhile, “is a serious person. Like he makes jokes and then gets serious again.”

When asked what he misses the most about America, Lizandro mentions both his baby nephew and Chipotle, which he believes is the “best food in the U.S.” The brothers’ parents have instructed them to discuss how they’re feeling, to make sure the other is all right. But they don’t speak openly about their emotions together.

“I feel like he’s going through the same thing I’m going through,” Lizandro says, “So I feel like he knows.”

If he could do it all over again, Lizandro would not have shown up at the ICE agency back in July, in consideration of his brother more than himself.

“At first I used to blame it on myself ‘cause I was the one who sent that letter, I was the one who was going to college and my brother had nothing to do with it, and just because he was there in the process with me he was also a victim,” says Lizandro, his voice wavering.

“I used to be like, ‘I’m sorry man, I know it was all on me. I know I’m the one who f***ed up. We shouldn’t have went there.’ But later on he was just like, ‘No, we’re brothers and we’re in this together and we’re here together.’”

Lizandro concedes that he might have faced “full depression” were he stuck in Nicaragua alone. And while he’s still not adapted to his new normal, he’s at least trying to embrace it. Discussing his attempts make the best of his situation, Lizandro talks of “things happening for a reason” and “taking advantage of opportunities.”

Lizandro does sound genuine, although it’s hard not to wonder if those clichés have been rehearsed, not for anyone else's sake, but for Lizandro’s own.

“I mean there is nothing I can do now,” he says, “so it’s just a matter of getting used to being here and doing the best that I can.”

Enter the Claros Saravia house in Germantown, and nothing immediately seems out of place. The brothers’ upstairs bedrooms are just like they left them, and you almost expect the boys to come home any minute. Lizandro’s ex-girlfriend drew daisies on his walls; they haven’t faded.

“I don’t even dare go in their rooms, because those bedrooms give me so much sadness,” says their mother, Lucia. “The house is really empty, lonely.”

A poster declaring “Our family is a circle of strength & love” holds court in the living room, amid varied Christian symbols and dozens of family photos.

Lucia spreads even more photos across the dining room table. There’s chubby Lizandro, smiling alongside his brothers. She recalls watching them play soccer, says how proud she is that they “dedicated so much to sports.” Lucia grabs a vitamin bottle from the side of the table and eyes it as if she sees reflections of her sons.

“They never wanted to take the vitamins,” she says. “I always have them. I feel like I’m always waiting for them.”

The family is glad that the boys settled at Keiser, that they’re safe and getting an education. Lucia takes solace in their studies. Diego, who had been working as a car mechanic in the states, is studying software engineering, and he’s been telling Lucia that he plans to buy her a house someday. They all agree with Lizandro that it would’ve been more difficult had he been deported alone.

“I think they’re getting used to it, but they’re not happy,” says Fatima. “And I can see through their eyes that they’re not happy.”

Soccer once was Lizandro’s redemption. Now it’s his refuge.

“It’s literally all that I had when I came here,” he says. “When I’m on the field, when I’m with the ball, there’s nothing. No problems. I’m back home where I’m supposed to be. Like nothing. And it’s all about the game at that moment.”

Both Lizandro and Diego look visibly at peace with a ball at their feet. Lizandro, taller and lither, glides across the pitch, while the stockier Diego moves with a more staccato burst.

Still, Lizandro admits that the level of play and commitment at Keiser don't compare to that at Bethesda. He says the team rarely practices with a full squad, with homework and headaches cited as reasons to miss training. Compare that to his former club, where “you’ve got to be in bed, in a hospital bed, if you don’t want to go to practice.”

According to Lizandro, this Keiser teammates are also mostly soft on the field. “Here, if you barely touch them, ‘Ah, don’t touch me. It hurts,’” he says.

When Lizandro’s Bethesda teammates and coaches describe his playing style, it’s clear why this bothers him. Coach Ney calls him a “physical, imposing kid” who plays like a bull let out of a cage.

Foster McCune, a freshman at Georgetown University, delineates two Lizandros: the “caring, soft-spoken dude” and the intense competitor who was known for “screaming and yelling to make sure we’re all fired up and keeping us going.”

McCune is currently leading the life Lizandro was supposed to. In early December, after Georgetown was upset by SMU in the second round of the NCAA tournament, he takes daily study breaks to kick a ball around with his teammates. Finals are approaching, but McCune’s schedule is relatively light, and he isn’t concerned.

Although McCune went to St. Albans, an all-boys prep school, whereas Lizandro attended public Quince Orchard High School, they now refer to each other as “brothers.” McCune is certain that Lizandro “would have made waves in the NCAA and the soccer world because he was a super impactful player.”

McCune says they text pretty regularly, though the level of connection clearly has changed.

“We do talk from time to time, but it’s not the same, you know?” Lizandro says. “It’s like they have their lives. They’re in college. They’re stressed. They have soccer. They have a lot to do. So it’s not really like we talk everyday or we are in contact all the time.”

Meanwhile, Lizandro and Diego are becoming closer with their teammates at Keiser. They recently spent a weekend in San Juan del Sur, an iconic party town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. Lizandro, like a quintessential college kid, plays coy when asked about the trip, simply saying it was “amazing.”

It’s Diego’s 23rd birthday, and practice is interrupted by the delivery of a black forest cake to the field. The team sings “Happy Birthday,” in English, as Diego smiles sheepishly. The boys consider eating it immediately, before better sense kicks in.

Dusk falls, and scrimmage begins. Lizandro and Diego helm the back line on one side of the pitch. Lizandro, wearing a blue Bethesda jersey, barks out occasional orders in his baritone, seeming to position his fellow defenders or alert them to threats. During the hour-long scrimmage, they only face a few chances on goal, while their attackers net a handful the other way.

At one point, Lizandro clatters into an opposing midfielder streaking down the wing. He stays down for a minute, as thunderclouds start to gather overhead, before brushing himself off and continuing about his business. He hasn’t lost his physicality.

Lizandro and Diego are exploring the possibility of playing professionally in Nicaragua or Colombia, but Ney calls them “wild dreams.” They’re also looking into the idea of college in Canada, which might afford them improved options down the road.

At Keiser, Lizandro’s major is still undecided. As is his mind about what the future might hold.

“For me personally, it’s not really a plan in the future,” he says. “I don’t think about that yet. I’m just trying to focus on getting my education, graduating, and then from there, seeing where I can go.”

He picks up steam.

“Because, I mean, I had my whole future planned out in the U.S. I was going to go to college. Get an education. Go to a lower division for two years and then try to go to a Division I school... And then I come to a country where, O.K., I finish my education, now what do I do? Where do I go? Where do I get a job? So, yeah, I’m not yet in the process to think about the future, ‘cause I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As far as Lizandro and Diego’s prospects of coming back to America, right now they look bleak. Even if Congress passes immigration reform, paving a pathway to citizenship for America’s undocumented, it’s too late for the brothers.

“It’s not going to happen in this administration, no matter what,” says Ney, who has become an advocate for the Claros Saravia family.

“You look at a kid like Lizandro. And Diego. And despite the fact that they came here at 10 and 14, despite the fact that they have no criminal record, despite the fact that they have been vital contributors to our community, they were deported. And how is that just? I don’t know.”

Foster calls Lizandro and Diego “great people that were doing great things in this country that benefited a ton of people and impacted a ton of people that were wrongfully taken away.”

Back in Germantown, Lizandro and Diego’s family speaks less forcefully. They’ve reacted more with sorrow than anger or injustice. And the hope they hold onto can’t be litigated in Washington.

“I hope God creates that miracle and brings them both here,” says Lucia.

Lizandro doesn’t consider divine intervention. He’s focused on doing whatever he can—physically, mentally, emotionally—to make each day worth living.

After practice, the team retreats to the cafeteria and finally dives into Diego’s cake. Lizandro thanks us for coming.

“Even if it doesn’t help us,” he had mentioned the day before, “hopefully it helps someone else in the future.”

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