Originally published by The Washington Post
She wakes in the top bunk, and there they are: McKenna, Izzy, Sylvia, Molly and other friends from “over there,” in Michigan, smiling down on her from photos clipped to a string of tiny white lights on the wall. Happy lights, happy memories. From before she had to leave America.
She brushes her long, brown hair and pulls on her school uniform: blue sweater and skirt, white knee socks. Another day of struggling, in a classroom packed with more than 60 kids, to study logic and algebra in Spanish. It’s her parents’ language, but it’s not hers. Neither is this country.
And now, at 16, Lulu has to choose.
Here: Her mother and father, both deported, and her little brother, Bryan. They can’t believe Lulu would leave, and she can’t believe she’s considering it.
“They are my whole life,” she says.
There: Ann Arbor, where she was born, the only home she’s ever known. Her top-notch high school, with small classes, in English, and kids who pay attention. Then, she hopes, the University of Michigan and medical school.
She could live with her uncle, a U.S. citizen, and slip right back into her old life of frozen yogurt, the YMCA, Panera, the mall. Where she felt safe. Welcome.
Lourdes “Lulu” Quintana-Salazar’s U.S. passport gives her the option, and the burden, of deciding between two lives.
There are thousands of kids like her in Mexico — U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents who have been deported, who are struggling to adapt to a country they don’t quite know, a language they don’t quite speak and people who often regard them as oddities.
Their numbers are expected to spike in the coming years. President Barack Obama increased arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants, but he focused mainly on those with criminal records. President Trump has ordered authorities to ignore that distinction and deport as many unauthorized residents as possible.
Since his election, deportations of unauthorized immigrants with no criminal record have nearly tripled, from 16,442 in 2016 to 45,789 last year, according to U.S. records.
Here in Toluca, an industrial hub about an hour west of Mexico City, Lulu’s tears come out of nowhere. When she’s in class. Walking to school. Sitting in her room. She has told only three friends about her situation — two of them just a few days ago, seven months after she arrived.
“I honestly can’t think of a good thing about staying here, except for my mom, my dad and my brother,” she says, sitting cross-legged on her bed, trying to decipher a tedious Deepak Chopra essay in Spanish. “I don’t want to leave them. But I don’t know what to do.”
She is going back to Michigan in July for a three-week visit. Everyone knows it’s a trial run to see what her old life feels like without her family. Everyone knows she might not come back.
An uncle in Michigan is paying for her plane ticket. Her dad now earns $83 a week as a maintenance man in Toluca, and her mom sells fruit cups for $1. If Lulu moved back, they couldn’t afford to bring her to Mexico for visits.
It’s Lulu’s choice.
A thriving family is uprooted
Lulu’s mother, Lourdes Salazar Bautista, went to the United States in 1997 and overstayed her tourist visa. She married her childhood friend, Luis Quintana, who had been working illegally in the United States since 1985.
They considered themselves good Americans. Salazar cleaned houses, and Quintana built up a drywall business, paid taxes and hired a half-dozen employees. He cleaned their church on the weekends. They never had any trouble with the law.
They bought a pretty, five-bedroom split-level in Ann Arbor, with a big deck, trampoline and swing set, close to a lake. They began raising three children, all U.S. citizens because they were born in Michigan.
In 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at their house and arrested Salazar on a 1998 deportation order she says she didn’t know existed.
Quintana hired a lawyer, and a deal was struck: ICE officials said they would allow Salazar to remain in the country with her children, provided she reported to their office once a year. But Quintana would be deported immediately.
They kissed goodbye in a Detroit immigration lockup, and Quintana returned to their village in Mexico. They stayed in touch with Sunday phone calls, and Quintana joined birthdays and holidays by video chats when he could find good Internet service.
In March 2017, at her first check-in with ICE during the Trump era, Salazar said she was told: “We have new instructions. You have to leave the country.”
In August, Salazar and her children flew to Mexico City, where her husband, who hadn’t seen his wife in seven years, was waiting. Quintana was thrilled to have his family reunited after so long, but his children couldn’t stop crying.
Eventually, Bryan adjusted. He’s now 14. He likes America. He likes Mexico. He’s crazy about video games and soccer and gets lots of attention from the girls in his class. His Spanish is better than his sister’s. He’s playful and funny and adaptable, and maybe too young to think about it all too much.
Lulu is trying. She has made great friends, and she’s forcing herself to be more social and less shy. She has a quick smile and an easygoing warmth that has made her popular and accepted — if still a slightly awkward fit.
On her first day at school, a boy proposed to her.
She remembers it this way:
“Hey, Lulu, do you want to marry me?”
“Wait, what? Number one, we’re too young, and number two, I don’t know you.”
“I’m just asking so I can get a visa.”
They both laughed, and he has since become one of her close friends.
In Ann Arbor, she was an over-scheduled American kid diagnosed with ADHD, who danced hip-hop and jazz, played soccer, swam, went camping and learned karate. She had just gotten her driving permit. She babysat and earned good money that she spent on lunches with her friends, maybe something sweet at Starbucks.
Here, she struggles with even basic communication. Her friends tease her because she says “copito” instead of “poquito” when she means “a little bit.”
“I miss working,” she says. “But I wouldn’t trust myself babysitting here because of the language.”
Toluca has fewer options for her, and even a trip to the mall usually means having a parent along for safety. This isn’t among the most dangerous places in Mexico, where homicides hit record levels last year. But relatives here have been mugged and had their houses broken into; a cousin who drives a taxi was robbed at gunpoint.
So Lulu stays mostly at home. She has been sick constantly. Respiratory infections, allergies, chest pain, colds. Doctors say it’s probably just the change of climate, or stress, or the food, or all of it. She thinks it’s the pollution, and she sometimes walks around with her collar pulled up over her mouth and nose.
Lulu doesn’t want to talk down the country of her heritage, but she hasn’t felt truly safe, healthy or happy since she left Michigan.
She wonders whether that happiness is still out there, 2,300 miles to the north, waiting for her. But she also wonders whether she can live without her mother.
“I want you to stay with me,” her mother tells her at the dinner table. “I think you are mature, but it’s a tough decision to go and be alone, without me to help you.
“If you can do it, okay,” she says through rising tears. “Just promise me you will study hard and be well. I want you to be happy. But we will always be here waiting for you.”
Her father doesn’t like to talk about his daughter’s decision.
“I finally just got her, and now she wants to go back,” he says, and here come the big tears down his sunburned cheeks. “It hurts so much. It’s like a knife in the heart.”
If her parents forbid her from leaving, she will obey them.
Her best friend at school, Stephanie Sanchez, 15, was the first person Lulu told the truth. Everyone else thinks she moved to Mexico for her dad’s work.
Stephanie, still in braces, counsels realism.
“It would be better for her to live in the United States,” she says as they eat nachos in a sunny courtyard at their school. “If I were her, I’d remember all the friends she made here, but I would go back to the United States for a better education and a better life.”
In her logic class, Lulu sits in the front row, listening closely and filling pages with notes. Most of the kids are talking, giggling, playing with their phones, flirting, staring up at windows with torn newspaper for curtains.
The teacher tries to defeat the din, but he’s losing.
“If ‘All dogs are aggressive’ is true, SHHHH, then ‘No dog is aggressive’ is false, SHHHH,” he says.
Lulu tries to ignore the indifferent clatter.
“It’s hard for her without the language or the cultural background, but her effort is impressive,” the teacher says later.
Lulu’s older sister, Pamela, 19, never considered leaving the United States. She’s an adult, a sophomore at Michigan State University, planning a career in dentistry.
In a telephone interview, Pamela says she has been pressing Lulu to return, but she’s careful not to push too hard.
“She’s struggling a lot right now, she’s feeling overwhelmed, and I don’t want to make it worse,” Pamela says. “She will call me crying and say that she doesn’t want to leave my little brother.”
Pamela came for a visit in December and saw that Lulu and Bryan had “completely changed.” She says Bryan is putting on a brave face, but he hurts inside. Lulu is quieter than before, more withdrawn and anxious.
“Their eyes just gave it all away,” Pamela says. “They are not happy.”
Bryan is too young to come back, she says, but Lulu must make up her mind.
“I just hate the fact that she has to choose between growing up with her parents or leaving for a better future,” Pamela says.
‘They are welcome here’
Lulu’s life in Mexico has been better than what most deportees face. For starters, the government helped her family buy a house, a tiny, shiny-white box of a place in a new development of identical two-bedroom rowhouses on the outskirts of Toluca.
Before she was deported, Salazar went to the Mexican consulate in Detroit to get Mexican identity papers for her family. There, she was introduced, by chance, to Carlos Manuel Sada Solana, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States who now heads North American affairs in the foreign ministry.
Sada, in an interview, said he was moved by Salazar’s story, especially about her teenage children.
“That’s the toughest age,” Sada said. “They are not old enough, and they are not young enough, to adapt easily.”
Friends had started a campaign to stop the family’s deportation, which generated media coverage in Michigan. Sada took note and said he thought they deserved support. So he called his friend Eruviel Ávila Villegas, who was then governor of the state of Mexico, where Lulu’s parents were raised and where Toluca is located.
Ávila met the family after they landed at the Mexico City airport and gave them about $16,000, which helped them buy their new house and pay for a car and school expenses for the kids. He also gave the children each a new laptop.
Ávila, whose term ended last year, said his administration provided financial support of varying amounts to more than 400 deported families.
“It is lamentable how our brother migrants have been treated in the United States,” Ávila said in an interview. “They are welcome here, and we are going to treat them with compassion and love.”
A simple life, in limbo
For spring break, Lulu’s family drives two hours north from Toluca, through dry corn fields and sheep pastures, up rutted dirt roads to San Nicolas Solis, the tiny village where Lulu’s parents were born and raised.
This is where they would have lived if the government hadn’t helped them buy the house in Toluca. But there are almost no jobs here, the only high school is in a village across the valley, houses don’t have enough electricity to run a washing machine and Lulu won’t pet the dogs because of all their fleas.
On Palm Sunday, they headed to Mass at the little whitewashed church, where they were greeted with nonstop hugs and kisses. Everyone seems to be their aunt, uncle, cousin, niece, nephew.
Bryan loves playing with the animals, running on the big soccer field, hanging out with his posse of cousins. Lulu loves it all, too, especially big family meals and spending time with her grandmother.
At night, Lulu and Bryan climb to the roof of their grandmother’s house, high on a hillside overlooking the broad valley. They play hangman in English, using a rock to scratch words into the concrete roof. It’s simple and happy.
It’s also where Lulu can get better cell reception.
From here, she can reach her friends “over there.”