On the night of November 8, 2016, 26-year-old Maggie Loredo, like millions of others, was messaging her friends with growing anxiety. “Watching the election… It just all fell apart,” she recalled two months after Donald Trump’s victory. But Loredo was watching the election results not from the United States, a country where she lived for most of her life, but from her hometown of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, where she had returned eight years before.
Loredo came to the United States as a toddler with her family and decided to move back to Mexico after graduating high school. Barred from receiving financial aid from public universities in her home state of Georgia and with no way to legally work in the United States, Loredo thought it would be easier to attend college in the country where she was born. But in San Luis Potosí, she found that the officials at the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretary of Public Education) were incompetent and unable to give her the appropriate guidance to validate her high-school diploma.
In the meantime, she says she became the victim of labor abuse in a job at an English school that exploited and stole from her. “There was no way I would get another job, because I didn’t have a college diploma or experience or a lot of recommendation letters,” she explains. She says it almost felt like being undocumented again, despite being a Mexican citizen. It would take five years of navigating the government bureaucracy before she would be able to start college.
Loredo is one of around 500,000 Mexican youth who were raised in the United States but have come back to the country of their birth. Some have found themselves or family members deported, while others, like Loredo, left because they felt chewed up and spit out by the US government due to their undocumented status. In 2014, Loredo co-founded Otros Dreams en Acción (Other Dreams in Action, ODA), a support group for Mexican deportees and returnees. Along with the organization’s other co-founder, Dr. Jill Anderson, a Mexico City–based researcher, ODA members help each other readjust and respond to life in Mexico.
ODA is part of the growing migrant-led activism network in Mexico doing this kind of work. These groups help returned and deported people who have not lived in Mexico in years—oftentimes they have no memory of living there—revalidate their legal status in Mexico, access educational and job opportunities, and re-acclimate to the culture. They also advocate for public policies to support them, like easing documentation requirements for deportees and returnees enrolling in education institutions.
Since the election, the reality that deportees and returnees have already faced has become a more urgent fear for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, including the more than 702,000 Mexican-born immigrants protected under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. An executive order passed by Barack Obama in 2012, DACA allows some undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors to receive work permits and two-year, renewable relief from deportation. Although President Trump has not repealed DACA, he has sent mixed messages about whether the program will continue. News recently broke that Juan Manuel Montes-Bojorquez, a DACA recipient, was mistakenly deported on February 18, after the Department of Homeland Security erroneously claimed his protected status had expired. Montes-Bojorquez is suing the US government with the National Immigration Law Center. Inconsistent deportation targets, expanded definitions of criminality, and more leeway for federal immigration agents to act autonomously has sent the immigrant community and their allies into panic.
As US-based immigrants-rights organizations organize and fight for their rights to stay in the United States, groups like ODA and others, such as the newly founded Iniciativa Migrante (Migrant Initiative, IMigrante), feel it is crucial to prepare US-based Mexican immigrants for the possibility of deportation, and what comes after.
Treating deportation like “a black hole, or death” only increases the anxiety, panic, and vulnerability that undocumented people in the United States experience, ODA’s Anderson says. “I feel like it’s not just strategically a good idea, but humanely a good idea, to call attention to the fact that there’s hope and life and political struggle after deportation.”
IMigrante co-founder Fredi García-Alverdin, who was deported in 2011 at the age of 35, echoes this perspective. He says that all too often, the reality faced by deportees after they arrive in Mexico is ignored in policy debates about immigration. He and Nancy Landa, a Tijuana-based migration scholar and co-founder of IMigrante, who was deported in 2009, say there is a need for a more-inclusive immigrants-rights movement that takes into account the transnational perspective that groups like IMigrante and ODA advocate for.
Linda Sánchez, who works with the immigrants-rights collective 67 Sueños, based in San Francisco, says that not addressing life after deportation is a huge problem for US-based immigrants-rights organizations. “Talking about what happens to people once they are deported, and once they self-deport, is not part of the narrative that we are constantly using to change and shift policy,” she says. “That’s really problematic because it takes away accountability from the Mexico side.”
Nancy Landa also expressed her frustration at the lack of attention this issue receives from US-based immigrant rights organizations. “I would assume that people in the United States would think it was more urgent to connect to people like us, and our struggles here, because we’re so interlinked,” she says. “People are still coming to Mexico, and people are going to continue to come, and people are in denial about that reality.”
Landa was deported in 2009 at the age of 29. After graduating from California State University at Northridge, where she served as student-body president, Landa was pulled over by Customs agents who arrested her because of her undocumented status. After being detained for eight hours, she was put on a bus to Tijuana with nothing but the clothes on her back, her purse, a cell phone, and $20.
Her struggles continued once she returned to Mexico. Landa had no support from the government upon her return other than being allowed a single phone call to a relative. She didn’t know anyone in Tijuana, and relied on friends of friends. She hoped that she could find a job using her education, but quickly confronted barrier after barrier.
Landa was advised by multiple universities in Mexico that it wouldn’t even be worth pursuing the process of validating her college degree. At best, she could get a partial revalidation, which would mean she have to redo—and pay for—significant portions of her degree. Most deported and returned immigrants cannot bear this financial burden. In the end, Landa was only able to validate her high-school diploma in Mexico. After a few years, she moved to London to obtain a master’s degree in global migration. That degree is not officially recognized in Mexico either.
Landa’s experience is not uncommon. Returnees and deportees often have trouble accessing and validating education in Mexico, resulting from undue bureaucratic requirements and a lack of resources and services. These hurdles include requiring that students provide not just their high-school diplomas to be eligible for college, but also their middle-school and elementary-school diplomas. Additionally, to fully validate a college degree, the applicant must demonstrate that their degree carries 75 percent curricular equivalency with a degree in Mexico, which in most cases is not possible.
After Trump’s win, the Mexican government proposed a law to supposedly ease the documentation requirements for deportees and returnees enrolling in schools and universities in Mexico. The law would lessen the burden of educational documentation for some institutions and require a slightly lower level of curricular equivalency to validate a college degree. While Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has said that the process for students continuing education from the United States will be “almost automatic,” these provisions only apply to graduates of about 11 universities in the United States, most of them elite institutions.
For other universities, the new law would reduce the curricular equivalency requirement for college studies from 75 percent to 60 percent, a response ODA finds “laughable,” according to Anderson. In February, she testified before the Mexican Senate, arguing that even with modifications, the requirement presents an unfair burden to students hoping to continue their education in Mexico.
To the activists working on behalf of this community, the proposal is political opportunism. It proposes few actual changes while making it look like the government is adequately responding to Trump’s threats of increased deportations and stripping of DACA. “There’s been gestures, there’s a lot of headlines, there’s been press conferences, but there’s been very minimal concrete [action],” Anderson says.
Landa, for her part, says that IMigrante refused to participate in discussing the proposal with the Senate to avoid what she saw as legitimizing the government’s agenda. Not only would it not present a solution for DACA recipients to easily validate their education in case of deportation, she says the proposal also ignores the majority of the return population, who are not educated “Dreamers.” Some major Mexican universities have jumped on the “political bandwagon,” according to IMigrante’s García-Alverdin, offering a free or discounted college education to returnees and deportees, but again they’re only offering this opportunity to a selection of Dreamers.
Landa is concerned that such government proposals do not address the needs of the majority of undocumented immigrants, like her parents, who have an elementary-school education and would benefit from having their professional skills recognized. “My dad worked in construction for many years, and what sort of document can he have so he can document his own experience in construction?” she asks. “So besides the whole official studies [track], they need to have a track for people certifying their skills, if they really wanted to help people who are returning.”
Beyond the limited proposal to reform the education-revalidation procedure for deported and returned immigrants to Mexico, after the election the Mexican government announced an expansion of a program called Somos Mexicanos (We Are Mexicans) to provide support to returnees and deportees. According to the program’s website, Somos Mexicanos will send its staff to meet deported migrants at the airport or bus station when they arrive in Mexico to provide lunch and identification documents. They will also facilitate a phone call to family members. Once the deportee reaches their home state, Somos Mexicanos can offer them assistance finding job opportunities, but only if the deportee contacts the local Somos Mexicanos chapter within 15 days of their arrival. That often doesn’t happen: A 2015 study by the Instituto de Investigación y Práctica Social y Cultural (Institute for Research and Social and Cultural Practice) found that up to 80 percent of deported Mexicans are unaware of their rights to any of these benefits. Since the US election, Mexico has launched a splashy new website as a resource for potential returnees and deportees, and President Enrique Peña Nieto has even met some deportees on the airport tarmac to publicly welcome them back. According to Anderson, government representatives have promised to publish more concrete information on the program’s administration, but have yet to provide it.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government has used these initiatives to sell its vision of a welcoming, generous nation to groups of DACA recipients, who it has sponsored with support from the US-Mexico Foundation to visit the country. The foundation arranges opportunities for these groups to meet with high-level government officials, takes them on excursions to tourist sites, and gives them the opportunity to visit extended family in their hometowns in Mexico. For Landa and Loredo, who would have qualified for DACA had they been able to remain in the United States, these delegations have left a bitter taste.
“When Dreamers come from the US, they put [out] the red carpet,” Loredo says. “They say, ‘Mexico welcomes you.’ And I was like, they never welcomed us! Nobody has welcomed us.”
Landa also noted the disparity, saying it was “almost like a slap in the face.” She adds that the Mexican government seems to advocate only for the most accomplished Dreamers, doubling down on troubling narratives that stigmatize and criminalize some undocumented people. Soon after the delegations started, she and García-Alverdin decided to stop referring to themselves as “Dreamers” at all.
Loredo and others also doubt that the Mexican government actually wants these DACA students to return to Mexico. “Once we’re back in Mexico, they have to start taking responsibility for us, in terms of policy and action,” she says. “And if they’re in the US, they’re going to keep sending money, so they can keep supporting Mexico.”
Despite ambivalence about the delegations, ODA has met with groups from the United States, hoping to deepen their connections and create a platform for transnational activism. While not every delegation has chosen to include ODA, some have been receptive, according to Loredo. “I know it’s not easy to be a Dreamer in the US, or be an immigrant in the US, especially right now. I’m honored that they’re here,” she says. “We’re fighting for the same rights, whether we’re over here or we’re over there.”
That fight feels more urgent now than ever. Barack Obama’s deportation policy prioritized deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal records, deepening the idea that certain “model immigrants,” Dreamers, were more deserving than others to stay in the country. Donald Trump has seized this narrative, expanding the definition of criminality to include people not only convicted of crimes but also simply charged with a crime, which includes unauthorized crossings.
As Cesar Vargas recently wrote in this magazine, in a discriminatory criminal-justice system where immigrants are targeted and over-penalized, there aren’t any immigrants who can be comfortable that their achievements or young age will protect them from deportation, especially under Trump. The arrest and detention of Daniel Ramirez Medina, a DACA recipient who was released after being detained in Seattle for 46 days, is a case in point.
“I think we need to rethink the way we talk about human rights for migrants, and also really highlight how the system has criminalized us just for being immigrants, or for being undocumented,” Landa said. “At the end of the day, that’s what really needs to be tackled, to really highlight the inhumanity of those policies.”
The irony of the impacts of such policies is certainly on full display in Loredo’s current job, where she works remotely as a bilingual interpreter, where she fields 911 calls, calls from the Medicaid office, welfare services, hospitals, and immigrant detention centers. At times, she’s had to interpret exchanges between ICE officers and undocumented detainees in deportation proceedings—a situation she could have easily been in herself had she stayed in the United States. “Last week, an officer from ICE said to me, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you.’”