Santa Ana, El Salvador — A sudden silence fell across the main soccer stadium in this Central American coffee hub when underdog Independiente F.C. scored first in a match against the home team, C.D. FAS, the most successful club in Salvadoran history.
Independiente’s Lizandro Claros Saravia, 22, sprinted from the defensive line to celebrate with his teammates and the club’s few traveling supporters, which included his older brother, Diego, and seven other family members. From their home in suburban Maryland, Lizandro’s family was also following the action, constantly checking their phones for updates.
For the past couple of months, soccer pundits in El Salvador have been captivated by the dazzling televised performances of this sturdy young defender, whose life and dreams were upended three years ago by his deportation from the U.S.
“Deportation really made me strong. It taught me to keep moving forward in life and to keep going because things will get better in the end,” Lizandro told CBS News during the March 8 match at the Oscar Quiteño stadium, the last before the season was suspended over the coronavirus.
If the routine check-in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the summer of 2017 had gone as they had for nearly a decade, Lizandro would be playing college soccer under an athletic scholarship in North Carolina. His former coaches in the U.S. think he would likely have been drafted by a Major League Soccer (MLS) outfit.
Instead, Lizandro and Diego were deported seven months after President Trump took office and implemented a new immigration enforcement regime that did not exempt any undocumented immigrant from the threat of deportation, not even a college-bound teenager with a clean record and a soccer scholarship.
Lizandro and Diego arrived in the U.S. in 2009 at the ages of 11 and 14 with visas that were not theirs. They came to reunite with their parents and two siblings, who had immigrated to the U.S. years before during different trips. In 2012, the brothers were ordered removed, but they were subsequently granted a temporary reprieve from deportation. When that protection expired, ICE didn’t deport them, but instead required them to check-in periodically.
In 2014, Diego and Lizandro hoped to shield themselves from deportation through an expansion of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. But the expansion was blocked by a federal judge after several Republican states sued, a decision affirmed by a 4-4 deadlock in the Supreme Court in 2016.
The brothers’ swift expulsion from the U.S. forced them to rebuild their lives without their parents in a violence-torn country they left as children. But a mixture of perseverance and good fortune has allowed the brothers to pursue their college degrees and childhood dreams of soccer stardom thousands of miles away from their family.
Lizandro is now one of the most promising soccer talents in El Salvador and part of a young generation of players many expect will ultimately bolster the ranks of the national team.
“The day I came here, I had no dreams, anything to fight for and now I am seeing the light. I am about to graduate from school and I am playing soccer,” Lizandro said during a bumpy ride on the back of his uncle’s pickup truck. “Even people on TV are talking about me going to the under-23 national team.”
“Things can be accomplished the right way”
Lacking the amenities enjoyed by players in Europe’s top tournaments or the MLS, Lizandro drives his aunt’s car — sometimes for four hours — to games and training sessions across El Salvador when his uncle can’t take him. He uses the $500 he earns every month as a new member of his team to pay for gas.
“It is really hard to be a soccer player in El Salvador. Sometimes I get on YouTube and see how players in Europe are treated, which is way more different than here,” Lizandro said. “A player that is coming to the first division for the first time would get $400 to $500 a month. Players that have been there for a few years might be getting $1,000 to $1,500 a month and you gotta find out how that money will last a whole month.”
Despite the economic demands of his fledgling professional career, Lizandro is grateful to be fulfilling his longtime goal. But his journey to the top tier of Salvadoran soccer was one filled with detours.
Weeks after the brothers’ deportation to El Salvador in 2017, an unexpected opportunity arose when the Nicaraguan campus of the U.S.-based Keiser University offered them a partial scholarship to study there and play soccer.
However, Lizandro was already eager to compete at the professional level. While studying alongside his brother at the university in San Marcos, Nicaragua, Lizandro tried out with several clubs in El Salvador during his summer break. After a brief stint on a third division team and an outstanding season in the second tier of Salvadoran soccer, he managed to get a trial with Independiente, his current team in the city of San Vicente, in the heart of the country.
His technical prowess, rare in a defender standing 6 feet tall, distinguished him from other players in the tryout, and after a few scrimmages, the coaching staff decided he could join the experienced roster. Days before the first game of the season, Lizandro’s chance came when one of the starting defenders began serving a suspension. In January, at the age of 22, Lizandro made his professional debut, accomplishing a dream once derailed by his deportation.
At the Oscar Quiteño stadium in March, Lizandro found himself serving as an impromptu interpreter for his Trinidadian teammate during the head coach’s halftime instructions. Diego cheered his brother on from behind a metal fence.
“When he’s on the field, I am on the field. When I see him kick the long ball, it is beautiful,” Diego, 25, said while donning his brother’s No. 2 jersey. “Just to see him kick the ball so hard, oh my God, you feel something inside you.”
Unlike Lizandro, who is finishing his junior year at Keiser University online from El Salvador, Diego is living on campus in Nicaragua, where he plays for the school team. For the March 8 game between Independiente and FAS, Diego drove nearly seven hours to support his brother.
Diego is only one member of Lizandro’s legion of supporters. The young deportee is a household name in the small community in El Salvador where he and his brother were born. Like his parents and siblings in Maryland, the families in the village of El Cantón El Níspero follow all of his performances.
Lizandro’s uncle, Romeo Mejicanos, said his nephew’s success has challenged the stereotypes associated with young, working-class Salvadoran men, who are often recruited by the country’s warring gangs. Lizandro is a beacon for the entire municipality of Jucuapa, which used to be known for its thriving coffin-making business, fueled by El Salvador’s extremely high murder rates.
“That stigma that you have to turn to violence if you are young has been eroding. We can no longer say that the local youths are heading down the wrong path,” Mejicanos, a longtime Jucuapa resident, told CBS News in Spanish. “Jucuapa now has a new face, and it is that of Lizandro and of Diego, who are both excelling and have humbly demonstrated that things can be accomplished the right way.”
“Seeing a little bit of light”
In the second half of the March 8 match, Lizandro continued his impressive season form, winning most aerial contests inside the penalty box and executing clean, timely tackles. But it wasn’t enough. FAS would go on to score twice, overtaking Independiente for the win.
However, Lizandro has learned that soccer is not just about winning. The 22-year-old embraces the social responsibilities that come with being a role model.
“It makes me proud that kids in Jucuapa see me as an example. I started playing soccer like them, without shoes and getting your toenails [torn] off your feet because you kicked a rock,” Lizandro said.
The match against FAS was the last Lizandro played before the season was suspended as part of El Salvador’s national lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Lizandro, who now spends most of his time studying online, is looking forward to the start of the next season. His family in the U.S. is also anxious to see him on television again.
For years after the brothers’ deportation, their mother, Lucía Saravia, refused to watch any soccer. It was too painful because it conjured memories of her sons’ exploits on the soccer fields of suburban Maryland. “My passion was to go watch them play,” Lucía told CBS News in Spanish at her home in Gaithersburg, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Her love for the sport, however, has been rekindled. “It was very emotional because ever since they left, soccer had ceased to exist for me,” Lucía said, describing how she felt watching her son play on television for the first time.
Lizandro’s first televised game was also a stirring experience for his father, José Claros. “I cried,” he told CBS News. “He’s playing in the top league. It’s an honor to play there.”
Fátima Claros is proud of her brothers, who she said could’ve easily relinquished their dreams after their deportation. She still thinks the U.S. made a mistake.
“With this administration and all its changes, the U.S. has lost a lot of people that could have achieved a lot of things, just like my brother, who was not a danger to the country, but a person chasing his dream,” she said.
The Trump administration’s hardline immigration agenda has cast a long shadow of uncertainty over the rest of the family in Maryland. Fátima is protected from deportation under the DACA program, while José has Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. The Trump administration has tried to end both programs, but courts have so far prevented it from doing so. Lucía, meanwhile, is undocumented.
Fátima hopes that her brothers may have a legal avenue to return to the U.S. if a new administration comes into power next year. “I know my brothers will return to this country one day. And they are going to return better than before, better prepared and with more education. They are going to be role models for other young deportees.”
But Lizandro and Diego are banned from entering the U.S. for another eight years because of their deportation — a reality Lizandro often contemplates, despite his recent accomplishments in El Salvador.
“Being in the first division is like seeing a little bit of light, but until I am reunited with my family I won’t be completely happy,” he said.