Lives Derailed

Lives Derailed

Originally Published in The New York Times

Over the past decade, more than a million undocumented immigrants have been returned to Mexico.  The majority of them lived in the United States for the better part of their lives.

Anita Isaacs is a professor of political science at Haverford College. Anne Preston is a professor of economics at Haverford. Patrick Montero is the photography editor at Haverford College. They are the co-directors of the oral history project

A week into his term, President Joe Biden is already making good on his campaign promise to reverse President Donald Trump's immigration policies, confront the nativism that infuses our treatment of immigrants, and pursue comprehensive reform that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The contributions of immigrants, and the human toll of anti-immigrant policies should take center stage as we renew our national conversation on immigration. Between June 2018 and June 2019, we interviewed 430 former immigrants living in Mexico City. More than a third left the United States during the first 18 months of the Trump administration. They were either deported or chose to go because they saw no future for someone who was undocumented in the United States.

The vast majority were brought to the United States as young children, by parents fleeing poverty and violence. In their journeys to become Americans, they tried hard to fit into a society that could be unwelcoming. They often forgot how to speak Spanish. Some starred in high school musicals; others ran for student government. More than half graduated from high school; a quarter obtained a college degree. As adults, they raised families and paid taxes. Several built successful painting, landscaping, construction and transportation businesses that employed American workers.

But others struggled to find their footing amid the constant fear of being detained and deported. A man grasped how few opportunities were within his reach after a high school classmate asked if he planned to be a waiter all his life. Despairing over the future, some like that man decided to return to Mexico. Others had no say. A college graduate who was deported shortly after paying off his student loan debt compared the disbelief he felt to that of a distorted black and white image suffused with static and flickering across a television screen. “I felt out of it,” he said. “It was hard to process.”

Many of those who return face a different kind of stigmatization in Mexico. They are often singled out for the way they dress; teased for their halting, accented Spanish; and stereotyped as arrogant, as failures, as criminals. Disoriented and overwhelmed by culture shock and the trauma of being separated from their families in the United States, most suffer from anxiety and depression. Some find the resilience to start over and pursue new dreams in Mexico.

These photos and quotes give a small glimpse into a handful of the many lives derailed.

9 Years in AmericaOlimpya Ceja, 28
I wanted to join the Army, to serve the country that has given me a lot. Every time I saw a police, I was like, “Hey, thank you for taking care of me.” The firefighters — you’re the best. Every time I saw somebody dressed in the Army uniform, I was like, “Damn, I just want to look like that.” That was my biggest dream.

51 Years in AmericaBen Moreno, 54
When I got to Mexico, I didn’t have any identification — no paperwork, no driver’s license. I had a harder time getting a driver’s license and my voter registration, which is the main source of ID here, than I did in the United States. And I was illegal there.

20 Years in AmericaMiguel Solis, 31
Being deported really forces you to think about the meaning of life. What am I going to do? It’s a new world. You become a new person, reinvent yourself. You’re experiencing two different cultures and learning how to adapt. It’s an existential crisis; it’s urgently philosophical, and it forces you to think.

13 Years in AmericaJuan Uriel, 25
Supposedly the law here says that every Mexican citizen has the right to have a decent house. And now they don’t follow that, and so I want to be able to provide it to the community. I want to build houses out of plastic in the outside parts of the city where it's really rural.

12 Years in AmericaJeimmy Leyva, 25
They take their family away. They take their jobs away, houses away. And at the end of the day, once they’re here in Mexico, they employ them for a way cheaper cost.

16 Years in AmericaMelani Juarez, 20
For four years I worked in a coalition that helped kids apply for DACA, but I never applied because I was scared. You have to go give all your fingerprints and your information. “What if it, like, all falls down and we’re the first ones to get deported?” my parents told me.

15 Years in AmericaBrenda Sosa, 28
I really wanted to go into theater and major in theater and live in New York. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to have the whole American experience of university and eventually move out and go to a big city.

20 Years in AmericaRodolfo Perez, 24
I finally really understood what it meant to be an immigrant when my debate team in my middle school won the top prize and we were invited to go to D.C. I asked my mom if I could go, but she said I couldn’t go because I didn’t have state I.D. It broke my heart.

17 Years in AmericaJesus Butanda, 39
To have a child that I’ve never met before is like I’m watching a movie of my life. Somebody was recording, and I was just a spectator, and I’m like, that’s me! I’m supposed to be in that movie! My character was kicked out of the scene.

20 Years in AmericaMiguel Mendoza, 28
How they dropped us off in Laredo was very inhumane. Armed border agents threw sandwiches on the ground and told us to leave and never come back. I love America, but I don't like how they’re treating people, especially immigrants. They see us as dogs or worse.

31 Years in AmericaAbel Martin Muñoz, 47
I ask my friends here in Mexico to imagine what it would be like if all of a sudden you were told that you can’t be here and you’re taken somewhere else. What would you do? How would you go about finding friends? How would you go about finding work? I mean, it messes with you psychologically.

20 Years in AmericaBilly Jack Solis, 27
I miss speaking English, being able to, like, speak very quickly and express myself. When I speak Spanish, a lot of times I’m trying to express an idea but I don't know how to use certain words. Let’s say that I'm telling this guy, like, “Oh, dude, that was a great experience.” I don’t know how to say experience in Spanish, you know?

19 Years in AmericaJose Humberto Castro, 43
American breakfast is the best. I miss the taste. I liked going to this restaurant for my hash browns, bacon and orange juice. They always smiled at me, they remembered my order. I know why Starbucks puts your name on the cup — it signals that you’re part of this place.

25 Years in AmericaJulio Cesar Ibanez, 47
You don’t have to let us back, but just figure out another way to do things. Stop wrecking more lives. You don’t have to fix my son’s life, but don’t take another person’s son’s life away from them too. What’s happened to me is done, and I’m trying to deal with it, but just stop doing it to other people.

24 Years in AmericaCristian Guzman, 28
People think everybody that gets deported is either a murderer or something, you know? I was a real hard-working blue-collar American, and I consider myself American. I just didn’t have that piece of paper to prove it.

23 Years in AmericaMike Flores, 28
In America you’re taught that if you really want something, you can achieve it. When you realize that it doesn’t apply to you, it can cause you to spiral down. A lot of kids just give up and lose hope.

12 Years in AmericaLuisa Rodriguez, 26
There is a stigma with coming back. You had what everyone else wanted, and you got kicked out. People look at you like they're better than you here too. It feels pretty awful because you came back from a place where you weren’t considered American either, so where does that leave you?

13 Years in AmericaLaila Martinez, 25
All I ever wanted was to finish high school, go to college, get a job. I wanted to go to the University of California to study marine biology. At first, I wanted to be a vet. But then I thought, “Why settle for vet when I can go and explore the sea and study marine life?”


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.


%d bloggers like this: