The Americans deported to a country they don't know: 'I didn’t know the city or the language'

American but unwanted, deportees must adjust

Mexico

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Sport
footballLive blog: Follow the action from the Capital One Cup semi-final
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century