"I'm a young person with a sort of old mind. Does that make sense in English?"
Pedro Salmeron says this in Spanish with an easy Salvadoran lilt, one that curls up at the ends of words into a quick tempo, like a song. But he articulates most with his eyes. They are dark and round, widening underneath thick, straight eyebrows that frame his face. Despite a five-o'clock shadow emerging as a patch on his chin, the twenty-year-old barely looks like an adult. But he speaks in a mature cadence, deliberate and sincere, with a deep, calm voice, like someone who has lived a thousand lives.
"We'd say you have an old soul," I tell him.
"Yes, exactly. And, I don't know, I feel like I'm a little boring."
He laughs, explaining how he passes the time watching Charlie Chaplin films and reading Greco-Roman myths. We're having this conversation in September, outside of a supermarket in the province of San Miguel in El Salvador.
The sun begins to set. A couple of boisterous men walk through the sliding doors into the store. On their way in, their laughter grows louder, even mischievous. They're a few yards away from us. One of them stares.
Pedro looks over his shoulder at them. We're sitting at a table by the doors, next to an ice cream outpost. But he doesn't want to stick around for ice cream. The sky is getting darker.
"I should go home," he says.
Pedro has been back in El Salvador for a year, but he doesn't leave his house much. It's too risky. The dangers that prompted him to leave for the United States at age sixteen have only gotten worse. As Pedro puts it, "The gangs are growing and cannot be tamed. They are completely out of control."
In November 2016, Pedro was deported from the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, one of the harshest immigrant prisons in the country (three inmates have died there in less than a year, according to immigrant-rights advocates), where he'd been detained for nine months. Before that, he lived for three years in Charlotte with his family—his parents (who arrived more than ten years ago), his American-born sister, and an uncle. When Pedro was detained, his case became part of the so-called NC6, six Central American youths living in North Carolina who were rounded up by ICE in January 2016.
All of them said they had fled gang violence in their home countries. To date, two, have been deported—including Pedro—both to El Salvador.
Since those arrests, gut-wrenching stories of youths detained and families broken apart have mobilized communities into action, documenting the men and women fighting to stay here. But what happens to those immigrants plucked from American high schools and sent back to an increasingly dangerous Central America—alone?
Pedro left behind a life he was just beginning to build, one hopeful with opportunity despite his undocumented status. His parents remain in Charlotte, in a house they bought with money earned in construction and housekeeping. But soon, they'll face a difficult decision. Next year, the Trump administration will end the temporary protected status program for Salvadorans that has kept Pedro's father in the country legally for a decade.
Pedro's parents will have to decide whether to stay here illegally for the sake of their ten-year-old citizen-daughter or pick up and leave for a native land now considered the murder capital of the world.
"The problem with being an immigrant is that you can't enjoy the same rights as everyone else," says Pedro. "And unjust things happen to you. But despite all that, so many people still live that way."
The Salmerons were never disillusioned by the promise of an American dream. They just want a future free from danger, free from fear.
For Pedro, there's no guarantee of that.