Editor's note: Patrick Montero's photographs of the interview subjects accompany the original version of this article at the New York Times, linked below.
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 America
Olimpya 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 America
Ben 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 in there.