Immigration

Guatemalan Man Who Survived American Airlines Flight in Landing Gear Held at ICE Center

A 26-year-old Guatemalan man appears disoriented after surviving a two-and-a-half-hour flight in an aircraft's landing-gear compartment.
A 26-year-old Guatemalan man appears disoriented after surviving a two-and-a-half-hour flight in an aircraft's landing-gear compartment. Screenshot via Twitter/Only in Dade
Five days ago, a 26-year-old Guatemalan man made national headlines when he risked life and limb by stowing away in the landing-gear compartment on an American Airlines flight from Guatemala City to Miami International Airport. A 25-second video posted on the Only in Dade Instagram page shows a visibly disoriented man clad in a jacket, jeans, and black boots as he sits down on the tarmac beside airport workers. He was immediately picked up by Customs and Border Patrol agents and taken to a hospital.

New Times has confirmed that the man is now being held at the Broward Transitional Center run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Deerfield Beach. Nestor Yglesias, a spokesperson for ICE's Miami field office, stated via email that the Guatemalan man, who the agency will not name, will be "afforded access to all legal processes available to him under the laws of the United States.”

"People would do anything for a better life. He deserves to stay," one user commented on the Only in Dade video, which has garnered more than 537,000 views on Instagram.

"Bro let him stay. That’s well deserved bc damn," wrote another.

"Do not deport this guy!" added another.

It's unclear what circumstances motivated the man to risk his life by stowing away in the landing-gear compartment β€” an often deadly gambit, but South Florida's immigrant advocates explain that circumstances in Guatemala are dire and getting worse. While the man's harrowing escape story is unique, they say it is unsurprising as refugees from around the world seek asylum on U.S. soil. "No one makes this extremely dangerous journey unless it's a matter of life and death," says Marian Blanco, assistant executive director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth. "We have people who come for a lot of reasons, a lot of it is to escape from gang violence in Guatemala, and there's a lot of poverty."

According to a 2021 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly half of Guatemala's population (49.7 percent) suffers moderate to severe food insecurity. Guatemala experiences the fourth-greatest prevalence of undernourishment in Latin America and the Caribbean, behind Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, the report says.

The majority of Guatemalan migrants in Florida reside in Palm Beach County, and Blanco says many of them are undocumented. The Washington Post reported last summer that roughly 80,000 Guatemalan Mayans of indigenous descent lived in Palm Beach County. Blanco says the exact number is hard to pin down owing to the limited number of U.S. Census workers in the county who speak Spanish and indigenous languages. She says many Mayan people were marked as "White" or "Hispanic" rather than "indigenous."

Many Guatemalan Mayans emigrated to Florida and the U.S. in the 1980s after a wave of government genocide murdered more than 200,000, an atrocity referred to as the "Silent Holocaust." Blanco says violence and poverty are still prevalent in those communities today, and many Guatemalan citizens risk the arduous journey north to seek asylum, though they rarely attain legal status in the U.S.

"We're not sure what this man's narrative is, but the fact that he did this shows he was desperate enough to travel that way," she says. "I can assume he was being persecuted back home."

Neither Blanco nor members of the advocacy group Florida Immigrant Coalition say they have been able to make contact with the man but intend to lend him support and legal services.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos