Rethinking Home: A Powerful Look at Return Migration via Film

Contributed by Tatyana Kleyn, The City College of New York and Director & Producer of Una Vida, Dos Países (One Life, Two Countries) 

Una Vida, Dos Países: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico is a 30 minute documentary film with free educator resources that explores the experiences of US-born or raised students who have spent all or most of their lives in the US and returned with their family to Oaxaca, Mexico. The film is a rich teaching tool for conversations in schools about immigration and identity. To read a recent New York Times article featuring the film, please click here.

We drove for four days through California, New Mexico and Arizona to get to the El Paso, Texas border [with Mexico]. There I spent my last moments in the US. I turned around and said, ‘I will be back, I don’t know when, but it’s a promise.’ I took my last breath on that side of the border and turned around, leaving not just friends and family, but a life I will never forget.
— Melchor, 17 years old
Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

People from all over the world dream about migration to the United States for “a better life.”  Some receive permission from the US government to immigrate, in the form of a green card or visa.  Others cross into the country without papers when it is nearly impossible for them to attain the required permission.  Currently, there are more than 11 million people in the US who are unauthorized and are the topic of contentious immigration debates in our country.  Melchor (quoted above) and his family belonged to this subcategory of migrants during their 10 years in the US.  

While we hear a lot about immigrants coming to the US, less is known about what happens when they leave.  The discourse is often around deportations and the rising numbers of individuals the government forces to return to their country of origin.  However, other families who are in the US without papers find that circumstances related to living undocumented also force them to return.  This phenomenon reminds us that migration is not a linear process, but a cyclical one.

Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

Aside from deportations, there are a range of reasons families make the difficult decision to return.  These include reuniting with elderly family members they have not seen in years (or those their children have not even met); medical issues that require long-term healthcare that undocumented immigrants cannot access in most states in the US; discrimination via state policies that prohibit undocumented immigrants from accessing drivers licenses, college education, or financial aid; racism and xenophobia that many immigrants of color face on a regular basis; and the economic struggles of supporting a family while living in the shadows and being exploited of by the labor system.  

In order to share the stories of these returned families, and to focus on their US born and raised children, I was part of a team with Ben Donnellon, William Perez and Rafael Vásquez that created a short documentary to delve into these phenomena.   Una Vida, Dos Países: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico explores how elementary and secondary students struggle with their identity, language learning and loss, and schooling.  The film shows some of the benefits of being “back,” such as meeting grandparents and enjoying delicious fresh Mexican food, but it also shares the challenges that returning youth face - fitting in, using Spanish for academic purposes, communicating with family who speak indigenous languages, and the economic struggles that make education an obstacle for them.  

The goals of the film are to raise awareness about this growing population of students, some of whom are dual US and Mexican citizens.  The film is also accompanied by a Spanish-English bilingual curriculum for secondary schools in the US, Mexico and beyond.  The lessons prepare the students to watch the film and to delve deeper into the areas of identity, language, economics and policies. 

A resource guide for educators in Mexico, whose students cross literal and figurative borders throughout their lives, also accompanies the documentary. These include the most obvious border, the artificial division between the US and Mexico, in addition to borders that are crossed from one state to another while living in the US.  Another border students cross daily is languages, such as English, Spanish, and, in the case of some of the families in the film, Zapotec (an indigenous language spoken in certain parts of Mexico).  These students also cross cultural borders as well as those across school systems.  For all these reasons I use Lynn Stephen’s (2007) term transborder to describe them. 

A group of transborder high school students, who call themselves “The New Dreamers,” meet to discuss the realities and challenges of being back in Mexico. Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

A group of transborder high school students, who call themselves “The New Dreamers,” meet to discuss the realities and challenges of being back in Mexico. Photo credits: Ben Donnellon

That these students are now (back) in Mexico does not mean that is where they will stay.  Those who are dual citizens of the US and Mexico, (if they were born in the US to at least one Mexican citizen parent), can freely travel between the two nations as long as their documentation is up to date.  Many who were undocumented in the US still see that country as their home, and many hope to return.  However, applying and receiving papers or re-crossing countries’ borders without authorization are tremendously costly and difficult for Mexicans.  But regardless of where they will be in the future - the US, Mexico or another nation - they bring with them a wealth of resources. including their multilingualism, cross-cultural capabilities and in-depth understanding of how national and transnational policies – or the absence of them – impacts people at the most human level.  

The film and accompanying resources can be accessed via: For additional updates on the film, screenings and the transborder students, join us on Facebook and Twitter. The film and resources were funded by the US-Mexico Foundation.

This blog was originally published on the American Immigration Council’s Education blog, Teach Immigration on March 28, 2016.  The American Immigration Council’s Education Department strives to promote a better understanding of immigrants and immigration by providing educational resources that inspire thoughtful dialogue, creative teaching and critical thinking. Please click here for more information.