More and more deportations to Mexico are targeting individuals who have lived in the U.S. for years or even decades. For these people, the land of their birth is not where they have made their lives, and beginning again in an unfamiliar place with few resources, greater vulnerability, and far-off family members can be overwhelming, depressing, and sometimes dangerous.
Each day, the U.S. deports thousands of individuals to Mexico. During the Obama years, when deportations reached an all-time high, most deportees were people apprehended at the border, detained, and returned to Mexico. In addition, following a policy of “felons, not families,” the administration focused on deporting undocumented individuals with criminal convictions, though many people with only minor infractions or no convictions were also deported, and even individuals with criminal convictions left families and decades of life in the US behind. As “criminality” has expanded to include illegal entry and re-entry, the Trump administration has taken Obama-era deportation priorities to zero-tolerance levels—arresting people in their homes during targeted raids, at check-ins, traffic stops, and courthouses. From January to July 2017, detentions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were up 38% over the same period in 2016, with deportations expected to rise in kind.
The result is a shift in the demographics of those deported—more and more deportees are long-term residents of the U.S. with families, homes, and community roots. At the comedor and shelter in Nogales, Sonora, the KBI has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who have lived in the U.S. for decades, and a more than two-fold rise in the number of parents separated from their U.S.-born children. From January to September, KBI intake research reveals that deportation of parents away from their children rose 143% and deportation from spouses 192%, compared to the same period last year.
Given the current administration’s policies, this trend is likely to continue, and points to a critical need for more reintegration resources to support people who find themselves in a country they left many years ago or, for those who migrated to the U.S. as children, barely knew in the first place. While each deported individual faces a unique set of options, resources, and decisions, all who have lived outside Mexico for long durations confront a range of common economic, cultural, psychological, and emotional challenges.
Economic: After basic needs like food and shelter are met, often by non-profit migrant support and advocacy groups like the KBI, the most immediate tasks are finding a job and securing a place to live. Deportees arrive with few possessions, little money, and not much else. Their cell phone may have been confiscated, or if returned to them, may need charging. Despite the disorientation and trauma of being uprooted and suddenly destitute in a new place, deportees must dive in, pull together documents, get proof of their Mexican citizenship, and make major life decisions, such as whether to settle close to the border for proximity to their U.S. homes and family there, or return to their cities of origin where the conditions of poverty or violence they left may be the same or worse. Until they are re-established, any remittances to family in Mexico come to a halt, and the deported are not immediately able to send monetary support to U.S. family either. Another factor that impacts livelihood is difficulties getting validation for classes taken or diplomas earned in the U.S. (More on that, below.) Even with perseverance, it can take years to achieve some degree of economic stability and self-sufficiency.
Cultural: Mexican deportees who have resided in the U.S. for decades or DREAMers who have grown up there, are returning to an unfamiliar country and culture. In Mexico, they are easily identifiable, sometimes for the way they dress or behave, sometimes for less proficient Spanish skills, certainly when they arrive carrying a Department of Homeland Security bag making them easy marks for gangs and thieves. They are often targets of discrimination due to their “American-ness”; they don’t fit in. Moreover, the stigma ascribed to returnees is an extension of the “criminalizing” rhetoric used to describe them in the U.S., and negative assumptions about a population that is largely non-criminal are pervasive. Deported long-term U.S. residents often experience discrimination, hostility, social tensions, even work abuses, all without the network of family and community they once relied on for years.
Psychological and Emotional: For people deported soon after crossing the border or even after spending less than five years in the U.S., their sources of anxiety and stress center on their recent traumas of leaving their original homes, undertaking a dangerous journey, or being weighted down by debts from the journey. For deported long-term residents, these experiences are certainly part of their histories, but the more immediate psychological blow is being ripped from their children, families, and communities, making sense of their new reality, and coping with deep loss. And for everyone, the deportation process itself is rife with intrusions, violations, and humiliations that are hard to recover from. Amid all the challenges faced by deportees, the anxiety, panic, depression, and grief they experience often goes unaddressed by government agencies, aid groups, and the media. Mental health services are not easy to come by. On the subject of health, there is also a need for designated medical services to address the needs of the ailing, physically disabled, or elderly who are deported.
Legal Considerations: Alongside these already considerable challenges, and central to determining the futures of the deported, are practical legal matters, from getting Mexican IDs to finding legal assistance for abuse complaints, family reunification, and asylum claims among other matters. The criminalization of border crossing in recent years (rather than the administrative way it was once treated) has resulted in criminal records for deportees, harsh consequences for re-entry, and complicated, if not entirely blocked, legal channels for pursuing an authorized means of returning to the U.S. Seeking free or affordable legal advice is yet another issue many deportees must navigate.
Reintegration Resources in Mexico
Begun in 2014 and recently expanded, the Mexican government’s reintegration program for deportees, Somos Mexicanos (We Are Mexicans), is essentially inadequate to the task. Aside from rudimentary services—phone calls to family members, bus tickets to their city of origin, job search assistance, and computer access to print IDs and other documents, for example—this program does not come close to meeting reintegration needs, particularly since those eligible must apply for programs within 15 days of arrival. And there are questions about whether Mexico, with about half its population living at or below the poverty line and slow economic growth, is equipped to fully handle the requirements of reintegration. Deportees are, as Mexican citizens, entitled to six months of unemployment compensation (about $US100/month), but this provides only modest support and is difficult for individuals to access.
In the area of education, deportees are confronted with a discouraging bureaucracy—meeting prohibitively high and hard-to-prove curriculum equivalency standards, providing middle- and elementary school transcripts—when trying to transfer credits or validate degrees from U.S. institutions. This year, the Senate reformed the country’s education laws to make it easier for newly arrived students to meet government requirements and continue their studies, but the changes have been minimal (reducing the equivalency standards from 75 to 60 percent, for instance), and don’t recognize professional skills acquired in the workplace, a huge help for those pursuing work opportunities rather than further education.
Finally and critically, all levels of government have been slow to address a major looming issue as deportees who have lived abroad for years return—homelessness. Migrant shelters, mostly run by non-profits, don’t have the resources to house the growing number of deported individuals, and there has not yet been a comprehensive government effort to step in. In fact, there are worries that the government response may adopt the approach used north of the border, and build detention centers (effectively, jails) rather than shelters or transitional housing.
Reintegration Support Organizations
Filling the gap for reintegration services, non-profit shelters and migrant aid organizations, like the KBI in Nogales and Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, are shifting and expanding their programs to meet new demands. More importantly, and indicative of the resilience and heartfelt solidarity among migrants, a grassroots movement of migrant-led activism and accompaniment has emerged in Mexico. In the last few years, support organizations founded and administered by deportees themselves, such as Otros Dreams in Acción and Deportees United in the Fight, are offering help with orientation, citizenship validation, benefits registration, job-hunting, language skills, transportation, and that critical connection so important during devastating and life-altering disruptions—a community who understands, has been there, and will remain a resource throughout.
This dynamic network of Mexico-based, migrant-run organizations have adopted a multi-faceted approach to supporting the deported, for example, advocating for better government services and legislative reform focused on reintegration needs. Deportees United recently opened a screen-printing business, with money raised by donations, that will only hire deportees, and plan to open a shelter in the near future. Their motivation is strong—both personal and collective—and they are leading the way in demonstrating what viable, effective, and inclusive reintegration looks like.
In evaluating reintegration programs, many scholars and advocates point to the importance of a transnational approach—understanding both cultures and countries to better assist those who are transitioning. The migrant-initiated efforts in Mexico are examples of this, successful not only for the empathy they bring to their efforts, but also for their insights and knowledge about life in the U.S. and hard-won, first-person lessons in adapting to Mexico. In addition, organizations with a transnational perspective can better serve deportees coping with reintegration, modifying or introducing programming as needed. The Kino Border Initiative, bi-national from the beginning, is well-organized for this shift in deportee demographics, recently adding legal aid and job-hunting help to our services, and the KBI’s ongoing research keeps us informed on changes among the migrant population we serve. These offer models for the Mexican and other governments to better meet the rising and urgent need for reintegration services going forward.
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More and more people deported to Mexico are long-time residents of the U.S., some since childhood, and face major economic, social, and cultural challenges in adapting to the country of their birth.
Photo by Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images.