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Francisco Rodriguez-Guardado: One immigrant’s story

From Disney World to MIT

Francisco Rodriguez-Guardado is an MIT Custodian facing possible deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was detained by ICE in July of 2017 and released conditionally in December. His lawyers are currently working to reopen his asylum case.

The Tech sat down for an interview with Rodriguez-Guardado last week to learn more about the life he left in El Salvador and the life he built here in the U.S. Rodriguez-Guardado first came to the U.S. when he was six years old. When asked what his first job was in America, he joked that it was “to have fun” at Disney World. This was back in a peaceful time before the Salvadoran Civil War. This bloody 12-year conflict is commonly perceived as the root cause of the gang violence that has overtaken El Salvador.

“If you don’t pay, they kill you,” says Rodriguez-Guardado, the hint of a cynical smile playing at his lips. This haunting quip is an unspoken truth in El Salvador where the gang Mara Salvatrucha has reigned since the ’90s. Commonly known as MS-13, the gang was born in Los Angeles in the 1980s from the children of Civil War refugees, and has since expanded transnationally. Their lucrative drug trade, explosive rivalries, and tight hold on politicians have turned them into one of the most feared gangs in the Western Hemisphere while also transforming Central America into one of the world’s deadliest places. El Salvador, for instance, with 81.2 murders per 100,000 people in 2016, currently stands as the most lethal (excepting actual war zones) place in the world.

It is from this violence that Rodriguez-Guardado fled in 2006. At the time, he owned a car wash, worked at a car dealership, and also maintained several side jobs as a skilled industrial construction worker. A graduate of an elite Salvadoran university, Rodriguez-Guardado lived a good life as a highly successful entrepreneur and engineer. That is, until a co-worker of his was murdered by MS-13, bringing the threat of targeted gang violence all too close to home.

The decision to leave one’s home cannot be taken lightly, especially given all the complicated migrant laws. When asked if it was easy for him, as a financially stable Salvadorean, to obtain a U.S. visa, Rodriguez-Guardado relayed that the system in his home country is “almost like a lottery.” He knew financially well-off people who couldn’t get visas and people who couldn’t even afford plane tickets but still got visas very quickly.

Luckily for him, he had an excellent travel track record due to his frequent trips to the U.S. in his youth. His first non-Disney World job in the U.S. was with a jacuzzi construction company in Utah. Although denied proper asylum, he was granted a stay of removal and a work permit every year until last year. His detention by ICE in June of 2017 sparked outrage across Massachusetts. Students attended rallies in his honor and faculty members raised over $30,000 via GoFundMe to support his family while he was detained.

The Tech asked Rodriguez-Guardado if he was surprised by the outpouring of support from MIT. He says it “felt like a blessing” to see the entire community so involved. “At other jobs, people wouldn’t have that type of help, but at MIT, they really see the employee as valuable. Sometimes people work in this field and they want to hear thank you all the time. But I understand, I know that people are busy and in a hurry. For me, the thank you is that people feel comfortable, that they are happy, it’s my pleasure.”

When Rodriguez-Guardado left El Salvador in 2006, the homicide rate was 64.4 per 100,000 people, significantly lower than today’s figure. He came to the U.S. looking for safety and found so much more. He never imagined that he would become part of such a strong community. Or that he would be the father of three beautiful children. “My entire family is here,” he told The Tech. The threat of deportation looms over him daily as he awaits his appeal. ICE will soon decide whether they will grant Rodriguez-Guardado asylum or send him back to the so-called murder capital of the world. If ICE chooses the latter, Rodriguez would not only lose his family — he could lose his life.