World News

For Migrants Raised in U.S., Returning to Mexico Feels Like ‘Exile’

Posted March 24, 2018 5:52 p.m. EDT

MEXICO CITY — Lalo Aguilar was born in the Mexican border city of Juárez 29 years ago, carries a Mexican passport and lives in Mexico City. Yet he speaks of Mexico as a kind of foreign country, a place to which he was banished.

“Exile,” he calls it.

In 2012, after living nearly his entire life as an unauthorized immigrant in Utah, he was deported to Mexico after an altercation with some police officers over an immigration-enforcement bill he was protesting.

“Here, I don’t click,” he said. “The land I grew up on, the mountains, the forest: That’s home.”

He is part of a growing population of Mexicans who spent much — if not most — of their lives in the United States without immigration papers before returning to Mexico, either voluntarily or by force.

Many must deal with feelings of loss, dislocation and confusion, adrift in a kind of transitional state between two countries: one they knew and loved but that rejected them, and another in which they have citizenship but lack a deeper sense of belonging.

The experiences of these returnees have become more resonant in light of the intensifying debate in the U.S. Congress about the future of young immigrants who were brought to the country as children.

At the core of that debate is a program, created by the Obama administration, that shields from deportation about 800,000 immigrants who came as children, most of them from Mexico. President Donald Trump called last year for the end of the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and he ordered Congress to come up with an alternative solution for the program’s participants.

Should Congress fail to agree on a solution that would extend legal protections to those immigrants — as well as to another 1 million who were eligible for DACA but never signed up — they would face renewed threats of deportation.

Many of the young immigrants, a group broadly known as Dreamers, have vowed to stay. But the choice may not be theirs. And in Mexico, those who have already returned from the United States warn: Reintegration is rarely easy.

To be sure, voluntary returnees and deportees say that landing in Mexico can have upsides. They can walk the streets without fear of deportation. They can reconnect with long-lost relatives. They can afford college.

But the positive turns can be overwhelmed by the challenges.

Many arrive in a place they never knew as adults, or do not remember. Some may find themselves alone, all their friends and relatives still living in the United States. Not all of them speak Spanish.

They may struggle to continue their education, find jobs and make their experience in the United States count for something in Mexico.

Their return can carry a stigma: the shame of a deported criminal, or a sign of utter failure.

“The early days was just, like, culture shock, man,” said Aguilar, who had grown up in what he called “a small white Mormon town” in Utah.

After returning to Mexico, “I isolated myself in my room pretty much,” he said. “Isolation and depression, trying to figure out what was going on, how I ended up living in Mexico.”

The size of the response by the Mexican government has not matched the scope of the struggle of its young citizens who have returned, according to returnees, their advocates and migration scholars.

This stands in contrast to the Mexican government’s supportive approach toward Mexican immigrants in the United States, where the vast Mexican consular network has provided a range of services, including legal assistance and guidance in obtaining benefits in the United States such as DACA protections.

“Mexico is helping migrants become members of a country where they are not citizens while denying their membership in the country where they do hold citizenship,” said Alexandra Délano Alonso, a professor of global studies at The New School in New York and an expert on migration and the Mexican diaspora.

In Mexico, the federal government did start a program in 2014 that sought to help returnees reintegrate into Mexican society. A cornerstone of the program is a network of reception centers along the border that greet deportees with food, help them sign up for health insurance, provide access to a phone and local transportation, and give information about how to get work.

But critics say the reach of the program, Somos Mexicanos, is minimal and its effects temporary.

“Somos Mexicanos has been a Band-Aid,” said Jill Anderson, director of Otros Dreams en Acción, a support group in Mexico for deported and returning immigrant youth. “It’s a political messaging campaign.”

Following Trump’s call in September to end DACA, Mexico’s foreign ministry issued a statement extolling the economic and cultural contributions of young immigrants to the United States and vowing that Mexico “will receive with open arms the Dreamers who return to our country.” The ministry laid out a series of initiatives intended to help their reintegration, including a job bank, a credit program and scholarships.

In response to a request for information about the status of the initiatives, a foreign ministry spokeswoman sent links to two pages on the website of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute. But neither provided further information about the job bank, credit program or the scholarships. Eunice Rendón, coordinator of Agenda Migrante, an advocacy group for Mexican immigrants, said the reintegration of returning migrants has been a long-standing problem.

“We had a very big quantity of people since before Trump who had difficulty reintegrating,” said Rendón. “It’s not a new problem. What Trump has done is make it visible.”

Amid limited help from the government, a small but expanding ecosystem of community-based organizations has emerged around the country to help returning migrants, particularly Dreamers, find their footing in Mexico.

The ecosystem includes New Comienzos, which started in 2015 and operates out of a sleek co-working space in central Mexico City, near a call center employing bilingual returnees in a neighborhood called Little LA.

Israel Concha, 38, New Comienzos’ founder, said groups like his have become lifelines to unauthorized Mexicans in the United States preparing for a possible return.

“They’re asking the smallest questions: ‘I’m studying. Can I continue with my education in Mexico?” said Concha, who was deported in 2014 after living in the United States for three decades.

Less than a mile away, Anderson’s group, Otros Dreams en Acción, has opened a communal space they named Poch@ House, reappropriating the Spanish word “pocho,” which is mostly used pejoratively to describe those who have left Mexico and have presumably lost their Mexican identity.

The space draws returnees seeking guidance and offers a yoga class, English conversation sessions and a workshop about taxes. Conversation flows seamlessly between English and Spanish, sometimes in the same sentence. The walls are decorated with artifacts reflecting binational lives: a Utah license plate, Day of the Dead skulls, a bumper sticker from an American radio station.

Maggie Loredo, a founding member, said nothing like this existed when she returned to Mexico in 2008. She had moved to the United States when she was 2, and grew up in Texas and Georgia. She made the hard decision to head back to Mexico because she could not afford an American college education and her unauthorized status put scholarships out of reach.

At the time, she said, those who came back often kept their American experiences to themselves and dealt with the emotional struggle and culture shock on their own.

“Everything was very much in the shadows,” she said. “You never heard anyone talk about deportation and returns. You didn’t hear about anyone else with a similar background as you.”

But as the community of the deported and returned has grown, it is finding its voice, helping to create a softer landing for new arrivals.

Those facing return “are scared,” Concha said. “But at least they know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and that there’s a second chance in Mexico.”