Arrival Stories of Deported Americans

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Photo by Getty Images/jacus.

Excerpted from Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico by Beth C. Caldwell, Duke University Press, 2019.

The process of moving someone who has been lawfully present in the United States from the category of lawful immigrant to deportee highlights the liminal nature of immigration status. Categories are not fixed. Rather, they are fluid and can change at any moment. When people who think of themselves as Americans arrive in Mexico after being deported, they widely report that they do not feel like they belong. They experience their arrival as an ejection from their homes rather than a return to them, feeling like strangers in a strange land.

Arrival Stories: Arriving from the United States

After Victor was dropped off in San Luis Colorado, a town just south of the Arizona border, the soles of his shoes flapped open as he walked because Border Patrol had cut them open to look for contraband. They kept his ID, his money, his wedding ring—all of his belongings. The money and ID presented a particular problem because he could not even pick up money from Western Union without a government-issued identification. He was able to call his wife from a migrant shelter. “I’m cold. . .  and hungry,” she remembers him telling her. He met another deportee whose family lived in the border region. Victor asked his wife to wire some money to this new acquaintance, who was able to pick it up for him. “A risky move,” his wife recalls, given the recency of this friendship. He bought a bus ticket to head south toward Playa del Carmen, where a cousin lived. En route, the bus was in a major accident. He was injured. Others died.

Farther east, David was dropped off in Juárez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas. While he was in immigration detention, he learned that he would be deported to Juárez. He was lucky because at least he knew in advance where he would be dropped off. Most people don’t. He was also unlucky because his destination was Juárez—a border town with an infamous reputation for violence. His wife booked him a hotel room for one night and paid in advance, knowing that he would probably not have access to cash once deported. She also used an internet program to create a detailed map showing him the path to take from the border directly to the hotel. She mailed it to him while he was still in the detention facility so that he would know where to go. He would stay the night in the hotel and would make his way to the bus station the next day to travel to a safer part of the country.

Another deportee tears up recalling the day that his wife traveled from their home in Utah to meet him in Juárez. “She had never been to Mexico,” he recalls, “and there she was standing out on the street in the most dangerous city in the country, holding our baby just waiting for me all day in the sun.” In Reynoso, a government-funded group greets deportees with a sandwich and a ride to the closest bus station. Rumor has it that cartels recruit recent deportees, so the government has a vested interest in helping them to get out of town. “They don’t care where you go—they just want you out of there,” explains one deportee.

People deported to Mexico usually arrive on foot, as in the cases described above. Border Patrol officials watch them walk through the pedestrian gates that lead into the country. The United States also deports some people on planes to Mexico City, which is 1,700 miles from the U.S. border, in an effort to reduce the likelihood that deportees will immediately return. Once in Mexico, people struggle to accept the reality that they have been deported. “I keep looking across,” a deportee in Tijuana told me, referring to the fence that separates Tijuana from San Diego. “Like I can’t believe I’m really here.” From the hills of Tijuana, people look down into a large outlet mall that sits a few feet from the last row of barbed wire–lined fencing on the U.S. side of the border.

Jose was deported after living in the United States for twenty-three of his twenty- eight years. As a child in Mexico, Jose recalls regularly being hungry because the family did not have enough money for food. His mother brought him across the border when he was four. Although he struggled to learn English at first, it quickly became his primary language. He spoke Spanish at home with his parents and older relatives, but his siblings communicated with one another, and with their friends, in English. The stress of his family’s poverty combined with physical and emotional abuse he experienced at the hands of his stepfather propelled Jose into joining a gang. The gang became his refuge; it gave him shelter when he ran away to escape the turmoil at home and became his support system when he felt rejected by his parents. He was arrested at the age of sixteen for participating in a robbery and served twelve years in adult prison. During this time, he maintained strong relationships with his siblings, who visited him regularly. He earned his GED and then an associate of arts degree. He cut ties with the gang that had meant so much to him as a child, and he looked forward to finishing college and spending time with his brothers, sisters, nephews, and cousins when released. His siblings were by now all U.S. citizens. Some had been born in California, while others became citizens when his mother naturalized, and the oldest obtained her citizenship after becoming a lawful permanent resident through her father. He no longer had any family in Mexico.

Like other noncitizens, he served his criminal sentence in the United States before immigration consequences were levied as a result of the conviction. At the end of his prison term, Jose was transferred to immigration custody instead of being released. He was taken to the Mexican border and dropped off in Mexicali, a border town. Prior to his arrest, he had been on track to become a lawful permanent resident; the family qualified through his stepfather. However, his conviction derailed this process. Before he was deported, he consulted with immigration attorneys and was told that he had no hope in immigration court and that his deportation was inevitable.

He was deported at the same time as five others. They figured it would be safer to stick together, so they walked as a group from the border to a bus station, carrying all of their earthly possessions in paper grocery bags with their names and prison ID numbers on them. These paper bags were the obvious sign that this was the newest group of deportees to arrive in Mexico. One of the members of this group of six was from Tijuana. He had been to Mexicali before, so he became the guide, leading the way to the bus station. There they pooled their money to buy bus tickets to Tijuana, those with a little extra covering the tickets for those without enough. Once Jose arrived at the Tijuana bus station, he was the lucky one. His family was en route from Los Angeles to pick him up to take him to a beach house they had rented for a family reunion. Waiting there at the bus station though, he felt unspeakably nervous. His palms were sweating, his heart racing. He was on high alert, concerned that any number of suspicious-looking people were ready to rob him or forcibly recruit him to get involved with criminal activity. Back in prison, he had heard stories of drug cartels recruiting deportees using strong-arm tactics, staking out the places where ICE deposits people every day to tap into this desperate labor pool. His fear was not unfounded. Some deportees have been kidnapped immediately upon their arrival to Mexico, targeted based on the assumption that their family members in the United States have access to ransom money.

Even once he got into the car with his family, his heart kept beating quickly. When they decided to stop for tacos, he didn’t want to get out of the car. “I’ll just wait here,” he said. He felt scared, threatened, and uncomfortable. He had long dreamed of coming home to his mother’s house in Los Angeles—to eating at his favorite childhood restaurant and then stopping by his aunt’s house to say hello before taking his nephews to eat ice cream at his favorite spot. This was different than what he had imagined. “I felt panicked. Scared. No one could have any idea how panicked I felt that day unless they have gone through it themselves,” he recalls.

The challenges with Jose’s adjustment can be attributed not just to culture shock but also to his transitioning to the free world after spending so much time in prison. But this shock, fear, and struggle to adjust is echoed by many other deportees who have not spent time in custody—or who have spent much less time behind bars. Most American deportees speak of feeling fear and alienation when they arrive in Mexico. They also struggle to adjust to day-to-day life. One deportee explained his challenges with transitioning from using dollars to pesos, saying, “When I got here, I had no idea what all the different bills and coins were. The money is all different colors and everything. I would just hold out my money and have people take what I owed.”

Excerpted from Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico by Beth C. Caldwell, Copyright Duke University Press, 2019.

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