In a working-class neighbourhood of Mexico City, a group of young people chat and smoke outside an English-language call centre where they work shifts for little over £2 an hour.
From a distance, they may look like ordinary Mexicans on the bottom rung of the employment ladder, but they draw bemused glances from passers-by. Their Spanish is peppered with American-English slang and their clothes – hoodies, baggy jeans, sports jerseys – are a novelty even in the big city.
“We get strange looks sometimes,” says David Ramirez, a call centre employee and recent deportee from the US. “But usually, people are nice. They just don’t look at us as Mexicans.”
Ramirez is among the more than a million Mexican citizens deported from the US since 2009, when President Barack Obama took office promising comprehensive immigration reform. Many moved to the US with their parents when they were children and were never able to attain legal status. Many have little or no connection to Mexico when they return, uprooted from the country they consider home after committing summary offences or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ramirez was deported in 2011 after he was arrested for speeding, at which point immigration authorities discovered that he had been living in the US illegally since he was five years old. He left a girlfriend and three-year old son behind in Phoenix, neither of whom he has seen for two years. “Obviously I miss them,” he says. “It’s my dream to be with them again.”
During his first term in office, President Obama announced a deportation policy that would focus on criminal aliens as opposed to those who have simply entered the country illegally. Yet according to the most recent statistics from the US Department of Homeland Security, of 391,953 deportations in 2011, 52 per cent were for non-criminal offences. Even non-criminal offenders can be barred for between three and 10 years.
“There’s no typical case,” says Charles Munnell, a retired US immigration lawyer looking to create a legal clinic for deportees in Mexico City. “Families don’t have the same problems as single men; the rich don’t have the same problems as the poor. People with convictions don’t have the same problems as those who were simply apprehended.”
Nancy Landa, a 32-year old from Los Angeles deported in 2009, found herself on the streets of Tijuana with no contacts and just $20 (£12.40) in her pocket after US immigration officers detained her on her way to work and dropped her across the border the same day. She had lived in California since she was nine and has a degree in business administration.
“I was in shock,” she recalls of the day she arrived in Mexico. “I didn’t know the city; I’d forgotten most of the Spanish I learnt as a little girl. It was like being dropped in a foreign country.”
Last week, Obama delivered a speech intended to bring the issue of immigration reform back into the spotlight. “It doesn’t make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any... way to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, meet their responsibility and permit their families, then, to move ahead,” he said.
In June, the Democrat-controlled Senate passed a Bill which paved the way towards providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, if they meet requirements such as passing criminal background checks and learning English. But the Bill has languished in the House of Representatives where the Republican camp has said securing America’s borders is a higher priority than resolving the status of undocumented migrants.
Although she eventually found an apartment and a job at an English-language call centre – where some 60 per cent of deportees end up working, according to research by the non-profit group Los Otros Dreamers – Landa and many others are hampered by a lack of services for returning migrants.
“There’s no government programme to help Mexican citizens who return to the country after years away,” says Landa, who is now pursuing global migration studies and has become an activist on migrant issues. “I literally went from one government department to another to get my papers, often struggling with the language and the bureaucracy I was faced with.”
While the number of deportations from the US has increased in recent years, some returnees came to Mexico by their own free will, only to be denied entry when they attempt to go back.
Diane Hernandez, a 28-year-old university professor with a Master’s in international law, moved to Indiana with her mother in 1998 to escape domestic violence. Her grandparents were US citizens. Hernandez quickly learned English and lived as an American for the next 10 years, earning a Bachelor’s degree and planning to marry her boyfriend. But when it came to study for an MA, her immigration status prevented her from claiming financial aid and she decided to study in Mexico.
“Up until then I’d been through high school and college, and it was very much a case of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’,” Hernandez says. “I wasn’t hiding from anybody. I was involved in clubs at school; I was sociable. I stayed out of trouble and it was never an issue.”
Six months into her course, however, Ms Hernandez decided to take a trip home to see her family. Upon landing in Chicago, she found herself detained by immigration agents at the airport and sent back to Mexico.
Hernandez settled back in Mexico City where she focused on finishing her MA. “I hated it here,” she says. “I don’t want that to sound bad, but I’m not Mexican and I don’t belong here. I’m Mexican by birth, not by anything else.”
“People have a number of legal remedies at their disposal if they know how to craft their claims,” says Munnell. “Unfortunately, every statement of the law has 2,500 exceptions depending on 10,000 variables. Their most common form of relief is that their absence causes extreme hardship to a US citizen, usually a spouse or child, but these petitions can take years and it obviously costs a lot of money, which many people don’t have.”
Hernandez hired a lawyer in Mexico City who told her to go to the US embassy and ask for a pardon. It was a scam. Shortly afterwards she received a letter telling her she had been barred from the US for 10 years.
“The first three years were the hardest,” says Hernandez. “You slowly start to adjust, not out of desire but necessity.”
Like Nancy Landa, Hernandez is also looking to study in Europe as she continues to rebuild her life. “Little by little, I have less desire to go back to the US,” she says. “Part of it is wanting to keep my dignity. I don’t want to beg or have to prove I’m not a criminal. The only reason I’d go back to the States now is to be with my family.”