They Were Brought To The U.S. As Kids—Then Sent Back To A Country They Barely Know

As Trump’s wall threatens to become a reality, four Mexicans deported under Obama watch their hopes of returning slip away.

The San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, is the busiest in the western world, and up until the early 2000s it was surprisingly porous. For decades, Latin American families furtively crossed by the millions, determined to find a better life north of Mexico, and many of them did. But an era of mass deportations began with Bush and gained momentum under Obama, who oversaw the deportation of 2.7 million people, more than any other president in the history of the United States. Trump has pledged to build a wall and deport three million more undocumented people, at times saying he will focus only on those with criminal records. Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014 when he said: "Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom that's working hard to provide for her kids." But the reality on the other side of the border is not so black and white. Tijuana is teeming with deportees from all walks of life, struggling to survive. Many of them spent their entire lives as undocumented Americans before being deported back to Mexico, a country they never knew, didn't remember, and had no ties to. For them, Trump's hard line on immigration is nothing new, but they are still nervous about what the future holds. These are some of their stories.

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Burly, bearded, and covered in tattoos, Alejandro Juarez hovers over a massive, steaming pot of chicken stew. He stops and dips in a spoon that looks comically small in his hands, takes a taste, then adds more salt. He takes another taste, and then adds more spice. It's 7:30 a.m. and he's getting ready to feed about a thousand people at a downtown shelter in Tijuana.

The 27-year-old was deported in May for missing his third and last immigration court date. "I know it seems crazy," he says. "I knew how important it was, but I was super stressed with life and it just didn't work out. I needed to be up and out of the house by five a.m. to make it to my hearing at eight a.m., which was in Los Angeles and I was in Orange County. I had no money for transportation. It would have cost me $100, but it was $100 I didn't have. I was stressed about getting there, but I guess I was more stressed about taking care of my family."

Juarez's parents took him to the States when he was three years old. He lived undocumented and undisturbed until he was caught smoking weed in public with a group of his friends when he was 24.

"That was when they discovered that I was illegal. I served some time and then they made me go through the process of applying for residency. I had to be home every Thursday between eight a.m. and five p.m. so they could check on me. I had to go to meetings with an immigration officer every Tuesday. They put an ankle bracelet on me that monitored where I was at all times. I wasn't allowed to take it off for three years."

Despite all of this, after missing the court date he was still deported.

Juarez stops to help a man unload food. All of the food here is donated by people in Tijuana, he explains: restaurants, hotels, Costco, individual families. He unloads box after box of frozen string onions. "My mom ran a catering business when I was little," he says. "I was always interested in what she was cooking, but it was when I spent six months in prison in the States that I really learned how to cook such huge quantities. When I showed up here and told them I could do that they agreed to let me work in exchange for room and board."

"I had never been to Mexico before I was deported. I arrived in Tijuana with no money and nowhere to go. I was just walking around the streets asking where a homeless shelter was. Someone told me to come here and this is where I have been for the last eight months."

He says he wanted to cross over to the States again before Trump took over, "But I have been advised to wait five years until I can legally ask for a pardon."

Juarez and many others who have a criminal record, no matter how insignificant, are opting to wait and ask for a pardon even though they acknowledge the chances of it being granted are a lot less likely in the Trump era. Pardons are given based on factors such as the reason for deportation, length of time spent in the United States, moral character and family responsibilities. They are not common, but definitely possible. Illegally returning to the United States after removal, on the other hand, is a felony.

* * *

Tanya Mendoza's long reddish-blonde hair billows in the breeze as the waves crash ashore. She is standing on the beach in Las Playas, Tijuana. "It's like a little America, isn't it?" she says.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively

Narratively is a digital publication and creative studio focused on ordinary people with extraordinary stories, such as how hundreds of Iranian citizens who live and work in the U.S. have had their world turned upside down and how a house in San Antonio has become a lifeline for refugee families.

Cover image by Daniel Chang Christensen.

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