Some come by cars packed with all their belongings, driving southward across the US/Mexico border after months of harassment by la migra. Some buy one-way tickets to CDMX because they’ve lost their asylum cases, and are “escorted” to their boarding gates by immigration officials. Still others arrive in handcuffs and leg shackles and chains via ICE AIR, on the twice-weekly charter flights that ship deportees straight out of immigration detention in Houston to Gate N in the corner of the Mexico City airport, often carrying nothing with them but whatever they could fit in a small plastic bag, with no cell phones, no cash, and no family waiting for them when they arrive.
Regardless of how they arrive, the majority of the thousands of deportees and returnees living in Mexico City today have one thing in common: their nightmare began well before Donald Trump took office, under Presidents Bush, Clinton and especially Obama (whom longtime immigration activists refer to as the Deporter-in-Chief). And now that they’re back in their country of birth, the nightmare is far from over. In addition to missing the loved ones left behind, they face rejection on native soil. Many fellow citizens view them as traitors who abandoned their country and have now been Americanized. Some barely speak Spanish, others speak but cannot read or write. Finding work is often difficult. Because of Mexico’s labyrinthine bureaucracies, and despite being Mexican citizens, they often find themselves ironically once again without the necessary paperwork that employers, landlords and educational facilities require. Returning to their country of origin, they most often describe themselves as “ni de aquí, ni de allá”—neither from here, nor from there.
Diego María, 36
In Mexico since 2016
Diego María was born to an indigenous Totomaco family in a small town in Hidalgo. He faced daily racism because of his heritage, even from his teachers, and so moved to Mexico City as a teenager to live with an older brother. Fleeing violence in his brother’s house there, he ran away and lived on the streets of Mexico City for four years. María crossed the border at age 19 and eventually found long-term employment in Dalton, Georgia. He bought a house and started a business breeding show dogs. He was picked up by ICE while he was driving with his four-year-old son Sheamus, and was deported back to Mexico four months later. María now works with Deportados Unidos en la Lucha, a collective that fights for the rights of deportees living in Mexico City.
I decided to leave Mexico when I was 18. I really didn’t have good memories of this place, or any memories really. Maybe because I didn’t want to.
In Georgia I got a job working for a carpet company, making 11 dollars an hour. I sent money home, sometimes 100 dollars every two weeks, every month, whenever I could.
Most of the other people at the company were white kids. They might have been racist to other Mexicans, but with me they would say things like “You’re not Mexican, you’re Indian.” I got treated way better as an Indian there than I ever did back “home.” In Georgia they always wanted to know about my town, the carnivals, the way my family spoke Totonaco at home, the animals we had… They liked hearing about all the brujos in my family and about my grandfather, who was a curandero (shaman).
I kind of grew up with these kids, they were good friends. After work we would go off to someone’s apartment, drink beer, smoke weed, and then drive out to the mountains. We’d camp and make a fire, play guitar, go trout or bass fishing. I guess I’m a country boy.
A lot of my friends voted for Trump. They were just so excited about this guy, they thought he was funny, and you know they didn’t really think more deeply than that. I don’t think they realized what they were doing, or thought about the damage that this person was gonna do.
I got pulled over before, on a roadblock in 2016, where they were checking licenses. We were driving back home after breakfast at Captain D’s cause my son Sheamus wanted this special filet fish they have with some kind of fries. I had insurance but no license, and so I knew I was going to jail. We had to wait by the road, and Sheamus asked, “Are you going to jail?” and then the police came to the car. I was talking to the officer and I said, “I know I’m going to jail but I don’t want to be handcuffed in front of my son.”
The police was pretty cool. He said, “Don’t worry, we won’t do that,” and I called my friend Patty to come get my son. And then right before I handed Sheamus to Patty and kissed him on the head, I had a bad feeling that maybe I might not see him again for a long time.
The police officer then took me to jail and we actually talked on the way, he even said he felt bad that I’d been in the US so long and now this was happening, but that he had to do his job. He asked me why I didn’t come legally, I explained that it’s really not as easy as they make it seem like in the news, not for people like me who don’t have property or proof of a really good job. He said, “Wow, they never really told me that.”
That was Thursday. Only time I saw Sheamus again was once, through the glass, in jail before they transferred me to an immigrant detention center in Atlanta. It was my birthday.
It was really depressing, because you know my son’s mother and I weren’t together. He lived with me, because his mother had drug problems and was in and out of jail. I knew she couldn’t take good care of him—that’s why a judge had given me temporary custody of him. The whole time I was in custody I was thinking, if I can’t be with him, if he can’t be with me, I’d rather die.
After four months, they put me back on a plane back to Mexico with a bunch of other people. I’d say 90 percent of us were being forced to leave children behind. And of course they treated us like criminals. The guards, they won’t let you move, they won’t let you touch anything. I had handcuffs on my hands, shackles on my feet. I don’t know why they did it, none of us were dangerous. Maybe just to humiliate us. When they put me on the plane, all I could think was, “I hope it crashes.”
I found out there were more people like me in Mexico City, people trying to fight for the right to be with their families. With some of them we now have a print shop where we make these different t-shirts with art on them about being deported and about Trump, and people seem to like them. We use the money to help the new deportees coming in.
I have ten years before I can legally try to go back. And as long as I can’t see Sheamus, that means that being in Mexico is like serving a prison sentence. But if I’m gonna be “in prison” that way, then at least I want my time here to mean something. That’s why I can deal with it. But seriously, my soul and heart will always be up there, with him.
Leni Alvarez, 24
In Mexico since 2009
Leni Alvarez’s father was arrested at a traffic stop when she was 15 years old. Her parents decided to take all four of their children back to Mexico, out of fear of what his deportation might do to the family. For several years they lived in Veracruz. Leni got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Veracruz, and became politically active on behalf of migrants from both north and south of the Mexican border. Today she lives in Mexico City and works for a coding bootcamp that teaches programming skills to deportees and returnees.
I was 16 when we crossed the border to go back to Mexico. I remember my dad saying, “Mejor comer frijoles en mi país,” which means: “If I have to eat beans I’d rather do it at home.”
This was in 2009, and all the news on TV was about Felipe Calderón and his war on drugs. I thought it would be a war zone and I thought Mexico was going to be the worst place ever.
In a way I was right.
In Florida we had it pretty good. My dad ran his own landscaping business—he named it after me, and I used to help him translate for customers. My parents were leaders in their church, I was in AP English. It was the American dream, right?
And then suddenly here we were, crossing the border to go back to a country that was in the middle of all this violence.We went to stay with my grandmother in Acayucan, Veracruz, which was one of the most dangerous places to be. The street that we were going to be living on didn’t have pavement. My first step there was literally in mud.
It was six of us and a dog, all crammed into one room with that cement roof, and it was a dirt floor. The material was crumbling down: Some part had a roof, and some part didn’t. We also had a garden table that somebody had thrown away, and some chairs that my aunt had donated to us. For a long time, all four of us kids wouldn’t leave the bed. We would spend all day just lying there, watching American movies—especially Jackie Chan. I’m the oldest, so I was the one to first put my feet down on the floor.
And the thing is people thought we had money because we had come in a car, and had come from the US, so my mom would get phone calls saying things like: “We know where your kids go to school.” There were gangs stationing falcones (lookouts) on the bus stop right in front of our house.
We pulled ourselves together, as a family. And my dad was able to help me get through the bureaucracy so I could apply to college. If he hadn’t known the mayor of the town, I’d never have been able to cut through the red tape. That’s one of the reasons I consider myself an example of a privileged returnee in Mexico. And most of all my family came back with me; we didn’t have to split up like so many people I know.
And you could say, well what’s the problem? You’re doing well in Mexico, you’re making a difference. And that’s true. But I want to walk the streets of my childhood. My brothers both have citizenship, and moved back to Florida. I want to be able to go back for Thanksgiving with them. And I can’t.
I was also raised on the American Dream, saying the pledge of allegiance, feeling all patriotic. And suddenly I had to see my dad have to turn himself into jail when he isn’t a criminal? When all he’s done is work really hard, and try to provide for his family? What has he done?
I was always raised to believe that America was a place where you can try your best and then succeed. I believed in America. But it turns out America didn’t believe in me.
Jesus Ortiz, 36
In Mexico since March 2018
When Jesus Ortiz was 17, he got smallpox and missed his last year of high school. He moved up to the US from Mexico City so he could earn money to pay back the monumental medical debts his mother incurred during his illness. Ortiz ended up staying almost 20 years. He joined a church, got married, and started a house painting business. After a long court case to fight for his right to stay, he was told that the presiding judge ruled against him. One week later he found out his wife was pregnant. Two months later, he was deported.
I loved my church in Charleston. It’s mixed, I’d say maybe 50 percent Latino, 50 percent other people, white, black Asian. Even if we were different races, it felt like family. At my church, it doesn’t matter if people are white or black or Latino or whatever. No matter what, people will come to you and hug you; we used to say that’s what heaven would be like.
That church is where I first met Norma, my wife. She is so beautiful, she is my everything. When people ask me what I miss most from the US, like is it hamburgers or is it a certain food, I say no, it’s not that, it’s my life. My life is there. She had two children when we met, and they are my children too. Thalia. Josh. And Victoria, who will be born in a few months.
My wife and I found out that she was pregnant with Victoria on the same day we found out that I was definitely being deported.
I had been fighting my case for almost two years. What happened was, the day they came for me was right around the time I was officially proposing to Norma. I knew I wanted to do it the right way, and so I was getting the engagement ring fitted. It was a solitary diamond, but I was trying to get two small stones to represent her two children, because like I said, I consider them my children, too. When ICE came to take me, I was in the car. They wouldn’t let me go get the ring out of the car, so when they took me back to the station I called Norma and told her to get the ring so it would be safe. She found out about the ring and me being picked up by ICE at the same time.
When I finally lost my case, I still didn’t tell the kids that I was being deported. There is a Lego factory here in Monterrey. I started playing with Legos because of my son, so I told Joshua that I am moving to Mexico to work in the Lego factory. Thalia’s 15 now, and she’s at that age where, you know, they think they don’t need adults. Josh is 10, he knows I’m here but he doesn’t know the reason why. My kids don’t understand… and I don’t want them to have to deal with all those negative things. They see all these things on TV and the radio all the time about illegals.
Of course I want my wife to come to Mexico, at least to visit, but she is 43 and it is a complicated pregnancy so she can’t. We won’t be able to be together for the delivery. I have a lawyer and will keep fighting for the chance to live in the US legally.
There is nothing I would love more than to be able to take care of my family here, but it’s not fair to them. My kids don’t speak Spanish well, and if I bring them, they might not be accepted here. When we Mexicans go to the US, we go because we hope our children can have a better life. And my children in the US have that life: their friends, their school. How could I take it away from them?
I’m still talking to lawyers, trying to fight my case so I can get back to my family. In the meantime, I read my Bible every day. One of the books I love the most is the book of Job. No matter what happened to Job he never lost his faith, he never blamed God. And that is something I’m trying to do, to learn something from what is happening to me, and not to blame God. I would like to start a church group for deportees here, so we can support each other. There is always a reason for what happens to us. I just have to find it.
Sayra Hernández Bernabe, 19
In Mexico since 2016
Sayra Hernández Bernabe came to Michigan from Mexico with her parents when she was six months old. She did not discover her undocumented status until her father was picked up by immigration ten years later. To keep the family together, Sayra’s mother brought her back to their home state of Michoacán. After several years of struggling against death threats and attempted extortion, mother and daughter returned to the US, this time through a formal application for asylum designed to help women fleeing violence. They moved back to Ann Arbor and hired a lawyer to plead their case.
I came over when I was six months old, so I don’t have papers. My sister Isabela is four years younger than me, and she was born in the US. So that’s always been a difference between us.
Isabela was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was six years old and she was two. She was with the babysitter, and were an hour away, because I had a field trip to the zoo, and my mother took me and left Isabela with the sitter. We got the call to go to meet her at the hospital, and I remember one of my classmate’s moms gave us a ride there. The doctors explained that she had epilepsy, and that we’d have to watch her from now on and be ready to inject her with a shot in case it happened again. After that we would buy her medicine that she would take in the morning and night.
My dad got deported when I was 10, and she started having more seizures. She gets this sound in her breathing at night right before she is about to have one. It gets brought on by stress. And I remember, it’s kind of like I grew up overnight. Before that I was just this normal American kid. I had my friends, my birthday parties, my games. But then I had this idea that I had to be responsible for my sister. I remember thinking: Don’t cry. Take the big hits so your sister won’t feel so bad.
When me and my mom were fighting our case to try and not be deported, the lawyers thought we might have a chance because yes, my sister is an American citizen, and we thought that we could argue that we had to stay in the US to take care of her. And when we lost that case we decided she should stay in Michigan with my grandmother. Since she was born in the US it would have been really hard to get her medical insurance in Mexico.
The day Mom and I left for Mexico for good, I didn’t even say goodbye to her, because she was still sleeping the morning we had to leave. I didn’t want to wake her up, or cry in front of her. It was the same on the plane with my mom: I was just looking at all the other people on the plane, thinking, they can leave, they can come back without any problems. But me, I knew I couldn’t come back.
I wanted to cry again, but I looked at my mom and I thought, she’ll feel even worse if I start crying.
So now my sister is in high school in Michigan with my grandmother, and I live with my mom and dad in Nezahualcóyotl. Coming back was difficult. I started having health problems, I think because of the heat. I was used to the snow. I started having heart problems, depression, and I started having to use an inhaler for asthma.
I didn’t want to go out, I stayed in my room all the time. It’s really different out here. There is a drug dealer right on the corner of our school. I got robbed in February. They had a pistol but didn’t touch me. When people do things to you, like when they catcall you on the street, you’re not supposed to fight back, because then they might harass you even more.
Meanwhile my sister was feeling depressed because she felt lonely. At first my mom would call her every morning before going to school and called her two or three times a day. But my sister was feeling depressed because she felt lonely. She would go to school and stay as long as she could to not be at home, she would do as many extra activities as she could because she felt lonely. She went to a psychologist every Wednesday. We weren’t with her and she was able to help. I think about missing my sister. I am an example for my sister.
It is kind of weird for both of us that she is a citizen and I’m not, because there are these places she can go that I can’t. I used to feel jealous. I still sometimes do, because I’m seeing her with me and I know that she can be in the US. But I tell myself that she is lucky to have that mobility to come visit us in Mexico, to apply for colleges, to try for scholarships.
She feels pressure from school to be perfect and get good grades and work. I try to remind her that she has these advantages because of the citizenship. I tell her if I was in your place I’d be smart and not mess things up. I’m not jealous anymore but I do have a feeling of frustration: with the law. My mom and I tried to stay in the legal way, but there really isn’t a legal way. They don’t care.
Abimael Hernandez, 25
In Mexico since 2016
When Abimael Hernandez was deported from Florida, he left behind two small children and his American wife, who was already pregnant with their third child. He had been recruited by local gangs as a young teenager, though he left the gang life behind by the age of 15. By the time he was deported, he had gotten his GED and was working as a sushi chef. Hernandez just graduated from Holacode, and continues to plan for the day when he will be earning enough money to bring his three children to Mexico.
I’ve been away from my kids for almost three years now. My wife and I are still technically married, but the romance part of our relationship is over. Now it’s just about keeping up the communication and trying to do the best thing for the kids. It’s not easy. I have a hard time trusting her. We were always planning to fight my case, but then when she says she wants $5,000 to pay the lawyer, it gets me worried and I’m not sure if I know for sure what she’ll spend it on.
I do understand though. I’m not there to help, and she’s doing this on her own. Of our three children, the only one I was really able to be there for was our oldest daughter. She’s six now, and we had enough time together for me to be able to make real memories. We talk all the time, and she recalls what we did. I took her fishing, she fishes now. Sometimes I’ll talk to her about things that we did, but she doesn’t remember them. That hurts.
Alejandro, her little brother, I talk to him a lot too, but he doesn’t remember much since he was a baby when they deported me. He only calls me dad because his older sister calls me dad. So yes, the two oldest, they know who I am. They just haven’t seen me in a long time. But then there’s my youngest son. I’ve never seen him: just pictures and audio.
When you go back to your apartment and there is no one there—that’s when it hits you. Even if you have been partying, having fun with your friends or whatever, you go home and there’s nothing, it’s just you and your stuff.
As for adjusting to being back, I think I always felt Mexican. I was encouraged to know my roots, to know where I belonged. My accent says I’m from here, but they hear me talk and hear me speak and it’s like, “whoa, what’s up with this guy?” I’ll be speaking Spanish but switch to English, and then people don’t know how to label me. The tattoos always say “probably a gang member.”
Not all my tattoos are connected to having been affiliated back then, but some of them are. These next to my eyes? You see them and say, “hide your wallet.”
But that hasn’t been a problem at Holacode, where they taught me to be a software engineer. Programming just opened up a whole different spectrum of things. Like nerdy things. I mean I know a lot of us are ex-gangbangers, with our tattoos, and we’ll all be in the corner watching Dragon Ball Z or making jokes about, like, stack overflow.
I just graduated, and I’m on the job market now. Maybe if I get enough money together, they can at least come for the weekend. But first I have to have an apartment, with sufficient space for the kids. Until I show her that I’m capable of sustaining that time with them, it’s a no.
Nadia Baram is a photographer and co-founder of Fuego Lab, a digital design studio in Mexico City, where she also lives.
Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer and journalist who lives in Mexico City. She is a former editor for Salon, whose work has appeared in LA Weekly and Variety.