Sunday 17 May 2015 07.30 BST
For the children of undocumented Mexican migrants in the United States, life demands secrecy. They learn to navigate between the two cultures while hiding their illegal status – all the while praying for immigration reform. Their Mexican memories – if they remember at all – are replaced by American dreams. After a few years, they often feel, look and sound so American, they can forget that, in the eyes of the law, they are aliens.
But they are, and they can be arrested at any moment. At least 500,000 young adults who grew up in the US have been deported or have decided to return to Mexico in the past decade. For many it is akin to arriving in a foreign country for the second time, but this time they lack a child’s ability to acclimatise. For years, little was known about what happened to these youngsters, but a picture is now emerging of a well-educated, bilingual, bicultural group whose traumas and talents are being ignored. This is in part due to groups trying to raise awareness of their plight. One such network is Los Otros Dreamers – the Other Dreamers. The name is a reference to the young migrants who would benefit from the Dream Act, a US bill first introduced in 2001, but still not passed, which would have paved the way to citizenship for those brought to the US as children.
Some of these “dreamers” were deported after failed immigration cases or minor offences; many were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Others came back with their parents, or were exasperated at not being able to get a driving licence, work legally or attend university. Fewer than half of American states accept undocumented migrants at university. Regardless of why they returned, many struggle to adjust.
Dr William Perez, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, California, recently interviewed almost 300 returnees aged 18-30, as part of his research into undocumented students. Half reported mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety, while 85% have suffered discrimination since returning to Mexico. Many have become demoralised by bureaucratic obstacles preventing them from continuing their education. “These young people have got huge unmet needs, but also huge potential. They’re stuck doing crappy jobs because the government hasn’t had that lightbulb moment. This group could help solve Mexico’s enormous deficiency in naturalised English speakers,” says Dr Perez.
There are some positive signs. In March 2014, the Mexican government launched Somos Mexicanos – We are Mexican – its first programme to help returnees reintegrate by expediting access to ID papers, healthcare, education and jobs. Progress has been slow, but the Dreamers are at least on the radar.
President Obama’s controversial immigration order last November means around 1.5 million Dreamers are now eligible for temporary legal status. It’s another sticking-plaster fix and ignores all those already deported who would qualify. Obama, who has presided over two million deportations, and is nicknamed the Deporter-in-Chief, has limited legislative options in the face of opposition from the Republican Party. “There’s so much historical resentment and misunderstanding between Mexico and America,” says Dr Perez, “but these young people feel an affinity towards both, which should make them a natural bridge between both countries. Currently, they’re rejected by both.”
Magdalena Ventura, 24, San Luis Potosí
Maggie was a toddler when her family migrated from a tiny agricultural village in Mexico to Dalton, Georgia. “I always knew we were undocumented, but I was 16 when I started to understand what that really meant. Without a social security number, I couldn’t get a driver’s permit. I wanted to be a nurse, but couldn’t apply for scholarships, which made tuition fees three times higher. I even got turned away from a part-time job at Taco Bell.”
In June 2008, a month after she had turned 18 and graduated from high school with top grades, Maggie decided to return to Mexico alone, because she didn’t want to live a lie. “I kept hoping the law would change so I could get my papers and be legal, but it didn’t. I was very attached to God and the Catholic Church, and I didn’t want to break the law, so I said my goodbyes.”
Maggie’s parents paid $500 (£325) to a man-with-a-van to drive her 1,600 miles to San Luis Potosí. “I had actually started to regret my decision as we approached the border, because I suddenly realised that there would be no way back.”
She was dropped off at a petrol station at 3am, hours later than expected. “I didn’t recognise anything, but thankfully found a taxi that took me to my family village about half an hour away, where my grandfather and aunt were waiting for me. In the village there was a problem with the electricity, so there were no hot showers or washing machines – I had to heat water on a fire and have bucket baths and wash my clothes in the river. It was a shock. The first three months felt like someone had died. The grief was so strong, I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t believe I’d left my whole life to come here.”
Her parents moved back a couple of years later and bought a house and a convenience store with the money they’d saved in the US working in restaurants and cleaning. They were glad to be home, but Maggie couldn’t settle.
Maggie’s US school certificates were finally validated by Mexican authorities last year, so she could start college and get her life back on track. She’s studying for a tourism degree, while working in the all-American Domino’s Pizza. “I’m bilingual, bicultural and I want to be binational, so I’m free to cross the border to my home, where I spent my childhood, to see friends and family. I’m starting to love Mexico, to see a future here, but I have a lot to offer both countries, which neither government understands or appreciates.”
Viridiana Hidalgo, 30, León
Viridiana was at college in Davenport, Iowa, studying radiology in 2011, when her father, a chef, was picked up in an immigration raid and deported back to León after more than 20 years of living in the US.
“My younger brother and sister are US citizens as they were born in Iowa, and my parents had invested everything into buying our own house. What we’d had in León was long gone. But we decided to go back to join my dad, to try and keep the family together. Only my older sister stayed. It felt like we were leaving home, not going home.”
The euphoria of being reunited with her father and extended family lasted only a few hours. “I went to bed that first night and all I could think was, ‘What have I done?’ We went for a walk the next morning and the graffiti and trash and rows of tiny houses without any yards just made me feel so sad, it was so different to home.”
It took a year to get the younger children, aged 14 and 15, back into school, as the family struggled to meet the demands of the education ministry. “My brother’s Spanish wasn’t great and he got really bullied at school. We had the wrong accents, wore the wrong clothes, we were too American. Even within our family we felt stigmatised. I couldn’t get into college or get a job as I didn’t have the right paperwork, and sank into a deep depression, barely leaving the house for over a year.”
Viridiana’s despair deepened when President Obama handed a reprieve to young undocumented migrants, the Dreamers, just a few months after she had left. “It was like a punch in the face. I felt happy for my sister and friends who qualified, but I was so angry with the US government, and with myself for making such a bad decision.”
Unable to settle, in 2013 she decided to go back as a mojada, or “wetback”, the colloquial name given to undocumented migrants who cross the border. But after a few disastrous months in a dangerous border town trying to find a guide, she turned back.
“I was desperate to get back. But, there was so much violence at the border – dismembered bodies of women were turning up – that I realised it wasn’t worth risking my life for.”
Viridiana still misses the snow, friends and her favourite ice cream, and hasn’t given up hope of returning to the US legally one day – she isn’t banned as she wasn’t deported.
“Life isn’t easy here, but we can make it. Sometimes I still pretend that I am just visiting, that soon I’ll be home. But most of the time my mind is on a different track now, I know I have to get on with it, and I want to show the US that they lost someone great.”
Eric Sanchez, 22, Michoacán
Eric was five years old when he crossed the border with two cousins and a “coyote” – an illegal guide paid by their parents to take them from Michoacán to Portland, Oregon. His father was already there, his mother joined them a month later, and so began his new life. “I was so small when I left Mexico that I didn’t remember it all. Of course, I spoke Spanish at home and we ate Mexican food, but I grew up feeling American. I wanted to be a marine.”
In December 2009, Eric was an average 10th-grade student struggling to pass maths. After school he hung out with friends at the mall, loved jazz and hip-hop, and played football for his school team, a devoted Portland Timbers and Manchester United fan. By this time, his parents had split up and his dad, a printer, was a legal citizen, having remarried an American. “My dad applied to get me a visa so I could travel to Mexico to visit my sick grandmother and apply to the marines. On the second day of the interview, the immigration officer said I was being deported because of my criminal background. I had never been in trouble with the police and they wouldn’t tell me what I had supposedly done, only that there was no way to appeal. I was taken to a detention centre, handcuffed and was on a plane to Mexico City that night. It was like a bomb had dropped into my life. I was 17.”
Most probably, Eric had been confused with someone else, but he’ll almost certainly never know for sure. Eric arrived in Mexico City at around midnight with only the phone number of an aunt and uncle who his dad had said would help him, but he had never met. “I felt totally alone as I waited for them to come and pick me up – I had no idea if they’d accept me or not. I kept thinking about home, I hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to my friends or even speak with my mum. Those first few hours were so scary.”
He moved in with his relatives just outside Mexico City, and his cousins tried to help him adjust, but he didn’t fit in. “People kept making fun of my Spanish, it felt like I couldn’t say a sentence without making a mistake. I felt like a foreigner, it really hurt.”
For the first three years, he was depressed, could barely eat and lost a lot of weight. But most of all he felt very scared. His mother had returned to his home state of Michoacán in 2011 and he was stunned by the “narco” violence. One evening, a carload of armed men in balaclavas pulled up alongside Eric and his friend. “They asked us to join them, the Knights Templar cartel, it was terrifying, but thankfully they let us go when we said no. There were gun battles in the streets most nights, lots of people were being killed, I wasn’t sure I would survive.”
Today, Eric says he still misses feeling safe, “but I do now feel 80% Mexican – and people don’t laugh at my Spanish any more. Maybe one day I’ll make it back to America – I still dream about joining the marines.”
Nancy Landa, 34, Mexico City
In the 20 years that Nancy lived in Los Angeles, she only told a handful of people that her family was undocumented. Still, she overcame the obstacles to sail through high school, and became the first in her family to go to college, graduating in 2004 with a degree in computer science and business administration.
Around that time, her parents, a builder and a textiles worker, filed an immigration case to obtain legal status with the help of a notary. It looked positive: they got social security numbers and temporary work permits, which helped Nancy to find good jobs, first as an NGO fundraiser and then for a state politician. But the notary kept making excuses while taking their money. In 2008, Nancy discovered that removal orders had been issued against the family years earlier. “We were victims of fraud, but there was nothing we could do, just hope that Obama would follow through with immigration reforms. I even campaigned for him. It was then I told my boyfriend about my status, though I never thought they’d deport me.”
They got her a year later, flagging her down while she was driving to work, put her in the deportation van and carried on with their raids. “The nightmare began. I was dropped off in Tijuana at 8pm [at a repatriation centre], without any ID, my phone battery dead, and nowhere to go. I had $20.”
Nancy called a friend in LA for help, who agreed to drive down with her laptop, some money and clothes. “This was at the height of the violence in Tijuana and I was terrified to leave the centre, so I just hung around the transit area until my friend arrived at 1am. Even then, I was still thinking I’d be able to fight the case. I didn’t understand that I’d spent my last day in LA, my home since I was nine.”
It took more than a month to obtain Mexican ID, and several months to find a job in a call centre. “I felt like a complete nobody during the first four years in Mexico, like everything I’d done in the US counted for nothing.” Although the education ministry would not accept her Californian degree, the UK would. She moved to London in September 2013 to study for a master’s in migration at University College London. “London helped me recover my dignity. I was free to cross borders, explore, prove to the US that I could be trusted. Returning to Mexico from London the proper way, like everyone else, also gave me some closure. I know I need to go back to LA to close the circle completely.”
If Nancy hadn’t been deported, she would probably qualify under President Obama’s most recent immigration order as a Dreamer. Instead, she has a 10-year entry ban.
“Dreamers don’t stop dreaming just because they’re deported. We have strong ties to both countries, so stop ignoring us, stop stigmatising us. We understand both cultures, so start using us for transnational policy issues. We’re an untapped gold mine that only the call-centre industry is exploiting.”