Preparing for Return: Knowing Your Rights on Both Sides of the Border

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, Melissa Hernández, Ewa Bednarczyk

Loyola University Chicago

In the summer and fall of 2017, we spent time in Zapotlanejo, Jalisco and Mexico City to learn more about how Mexican citizens who are deported from the United States understand and navigate resettlement in Mexico. In 2015, the U.S. deported some 330,00 people, including 242,000 Mexican citizens. While many Mexican deportees stay near the US-Mexico border region to remain close to children and other US-based family members, thousands of others return to their hometowns in Mexico’s interior to rebuild their lives there. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, planes carrying these deportees take off from Mexico’s northern border region and, hours later, land at the Mexico City airport.

Mexican youth express their feelings about migration in this mural at a Zapotlanej skate part. Photo Credit: Melissa Hernández

Mexican youth express their feelings about migration in this mural at a Zapotlanej skate part. Photo Credit: Melissa Hernández

There, two community organizations wait in the terminal to receive them. One, Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (Deportees United in Struggle) is composed of US deportees; the other, Yaotlyaocihuatl Ameyal (a Nahuatl phrase roughly meaning Well of Warriors), is composed of various professionals including lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Both groups work to provide socioemotional support and help newly arriving deportees orient themselves, locate family members, and find living and working arrangements. They also help new arrivals apply for Mexican identity documents that they will need to apply for jobs, open accounts, and access services in Mexico.

Applying for identity documents in Mexico can be challenging for people who have lived in the United States for many years or even decades, and who no longer possess valid Mexican documents such as passports, driver licenses, or voter ID cards. Many deportees also lack fluency in Spanish and familiarity with Mexican bureaucracies, and many do not have a local address, which is required information on application forms. Thus, much of the initial intake work of Deportees United and Ameyal involves helping deportees get registered with the Mexican government and accrue the documentation they will need to attain resources such as jobs, housing, health care, and government assistance.

US-born children who accompany deported parents to Mexico face even more specific bureaucratic and social barriers to integration into Mexican society. For example, US-citizen children with Mexican citizen parents are eligible for dual citizenship, but they must have long-form U.S. birth certificates that have been “apostilladas,” or have an apostille affixed within the past year. However, apostilles are only affixed by specified authorities in the U.S. state where the birth certificate was issued—usually in the Secretary of State’s office. The requirement of an apostille poses a significant barrier for parents who attempt to apply for Mexican citizenship for their U.S.-born children. These children may be without Mexican identify documents for long periods of time, during which they may be unable to enroll in school and be ineligible for social services such as health insurance (Medina and Menjivar 2015), compounding the already overwhelming stresses of deportation on children. Without Mexican citizenship, US-born citizen children in Mexico are left “without an identity,” in the words of one parent, or “illegal in Mexico,” in the words of another.

Organizers in Mexico not only help deportees navigate Mexican bureaucracies, but they also work to pressure the Mexican government to broaden access to services for deportees and their children, including a campaign to eliminate the requirement for an apostille on US birth certificates. Meanwhile, organizers in the United States help migrants develop strategies to defend against, but also prepare for the possibility of, deportation. And just as deportation is a cross-border phenomenon, so too is advocacy. To help support and bridge organizing efforts on both sides of the border, we traveled from Chicago to Jalisco, Mexico in May of 2017, and to Mexico City in October and November of 2017 to work with community organizers and gather information about challenges to return for Mexican citizens. We also work with advocates in the Chicago area who organize around immigrant rights.

Residents of Zapotlanejo, Jalisco participate in the Derecho a la Identidad campaign. Photo Credit: Ewa Bednarczyk

Residents of Zapotlanejo, Jalisco participate in the Derecho a la Identidad campaign. Photo Credit: Ewa Bednarczyk

We gathered information to expand upon Know-Your-Rights education in the United States to include information about return. Know-Your-Rights workshops for immigrant communities typically help people develop strategies to avoid apprehension by immigration authorities and prepare them for the possibility of detention and deportation. By extending Know-Your-Rights materials to include information about return for Mexican citizens, we hoped to provide information about preparations people could make to facilitate return, such as getting apostilles for US birth certificates, as well as about resources available to returnees upon arrival in Mexico.

The resulting materials can be found here. These are working documents, meant to be adjusted, improved, and edited as needed; they belong to no one, or to everyone. And while we hope that these materials provide information that people will find useful, we also want to point out their shortcomings. First, they are very general and not well suited to address specific situations or questions about return; they do not constitute legal advice and should not be substituted for careful counsel with a qualified attorney or legal representative. They will also need to be updated as deportation and reintegration practices change.

Second, they risk painting an overly optimistic portrait of Mexican government programs, whose services can be notoriously difficult for returnees to access. We provide information about these programs in the hopes that Mexican citizens and organizers can use it to demand services, even as we know that many will ultimately be frustrated.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, this work feels defeatist insofar as it is focused on facilitating return instead of fighting deportation. We hope these materials can be used to complement, support, and extend anti-deportation activism, as well as advocacy with and on behalf of deportees in countries of return.


About the authors:

Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Latin American and Latinx Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago. Her most recent book, Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed Status Families, follows families as they navigate the US immigration system in an attempt to stay together lawfully.

Melissa Hernández is an undergraduate Environmental Sciences major and Social Justice Fellow at Loyola University Chicago.

Ewa Bednarczyk is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Mental Health and Migration Studies. She is interested in how experiences of migration, resettlement, and deportation can impact mental wellbeing and works with individuals experiencing trauma, PTSD, and anxiety.

You can help! Support the work of Deportados Unidos here:


Border to Border: The south takes me back north

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others.


By Nancy Landa

¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? is an expression used to greet someone in Tzotzil, one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Highlands of Chiapas.  My Tzotzil colleagues explained to me that its literal translation means “How is your heart doing?” It struck me as one of the most beautiful expressions I had ever heard. I did not manage to pronounce it correctly in my time there, but I was still filled with joy each time someone would respond, “Lek oy” – “very well”. As I learned, this was more than just a question in a different language. Indeed, the expression represents an alternative way of thinking. It counteracts the superficiality many of us have grown accustomed to when someone asks “How are you?” and to which we generally respond with “fine,” as if on autopilot.  

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo courtesy of Nancy Landa

The question ¿K'uxi elan avo'onton? invites us to reflect from the heart, because we are not only able to feel from the heart, we can also think from the heart. To respond honestly, I had to turn to that part of my inner self that I had neglected for so long—it was better to ignore the pain caused by the displacement I had endured throughout most of my life as a migrant. This question became an introspective process, one that made me realize I was unsure about how my heart was doing, or whether it was still intact. Had my heart really returned with me to Mexico or had a part of it stayed in Los Angeles, the place where I lived 20 years of my life before deportation?

The heart wants what it wants: Belonging schizophrenia

Despite my past, I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience life in environments that reconnected me to my roots and humble upbringing. I was born into a poor family. My parents came from rural towns with hardly any schooling, but they were hardworking people. When my time came to relocate for work and moved to Chiapas, a state with the highest rates of poverty in Mexico, I could see the similarities between it and my childhood home in Naulcapan, a municipality located in the State of Mexico. It was not foreign to me to live in towns that lacked sewer systems, or in a house with walls made of bricks and a roof laminated with thick carbon paper—the kind that would slowly start to fall apart and collapse during a hailstorm. Of course, the poverty and social exclusion from where I came was different from the kind that indigenous families in Chiapas endure. I never had to walk more than two hours to school. I never had to drop out of school to start working in the fields to support my family.

Returning to what resembled my pre-migration life was the consequence of being uprooted from my adopted country. Of all the places I have lived post-deportation, I have not found one that feels like home. Despite the encouraging words of friends who say, “welcome to your country,” or “welcome home,” my heart knows: I am not home.

In the past seven years, I have lived in seven cities and three countries, places where I have felt a kind of belonging schizophrenia. Part of me wants to belong, but another fails to do so. Even with the support networks and friends I have made, I can’t entertain the idea of living in any of those places for the rest of my life. I manage to physically move into each new space, but my emotional self never fully occupies it. What is the point of decorating my new “home” if the displacement I carry with me continues to persist? Could I ever attach myself to a place the way I did as an L.A. transplant?

These contradictory emotions forced me to admit there is something wrong with my heart. Even with the passage of time, the scars and the pain are still there. I am not the same person after undergoing the dehumanization of deportation, something only those who have experienced it can understand. At this point, I can only ponder what will make my heart whole again. The answer has yet to reveal itself; hopefully at some point I will know. In the meantime, my heart urges me to keep looking—and not only for a sense of home, but also a political family to which to belong. Finding the latter proves just as difficult.

Searching for home in “advocacy”

The moment in which I came out of the shadows of deportation also marked the start of my search for a place to belong in advocacy. The trigger for my post-deportation activist trajectory was the announcement of the DACA program by the former President Barack Obama in 2012. It began as a hopeful journey, but soon enough I experienced the invisibility that arises when social movements also reproduce the oppression they denounce.

The immigrant rights discourse has created a hierarchy among us, selecting which migrants are “worthy” and deserve to be included, and who should be left out. In the U.S., those of us who have been deported belong in the latter category. In Mexico, we have been similarly ignored. It was not until recently that the political elite have begun to discuss return migration, in great part due to Donald Trump’s antagonism towards Mexico. Still, few have meaningfully discussed the deportations occurring during prior administrations, including Obama’s record-setting removals and the criminalization of immigrants as a result of the 1996 legislative changes to INA that took effect under Bill Clinton.

It has become more convenient for the Mexican government to seek the attention of those belonging to the “good immigrant” category. Following the initiation of DACA, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, Senators, universities, and high-level policy makers invited DACA Dreamer groups to (re)discover their cultural roots via tours of iconic places in Mexico City and the ancient Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan. Political actors attempted to convince us that they supported Mexican immigrants here and abroad. Yet, these educational trips designed to reconnect Dreamers were simply a public relations tool.

Dreamer tourism, as we termed it, has continued to grow over the past couple years. At the same time, there is no real interest in giving the “unwanted” deportee a platform to demand a dignified reinsertion in Mexico. Additionally, and in contrast to our U.S. immigrant counterparts, we don’t have a return ticket to the United States—not even a tourist visa to visit our former homes, the places and people we left behind. Having presented to these Dreamer delegations, I am left with a clear view of the many asymmetries that exist between us. They are platforms that lack the conditions for genuine dialogue about our struggles. And on the occasions when we have raised such concerns, we just become a nuisance: to the government institutions that sponsor the trips, to the nonprofit organizations that welcome such efforts, and to the activist DACA Dreamers who fail to see how they have legitimated our exclusion by accepting a reconnection with their “México lindo y querido”, the beloved Mexico to which they make no indication they would want to return permanently.

In these times, when migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers face an increasing hostile social and political environment here and around the world, we must have ongoing exchanges on how we contribute to the exclusion of others who are below us on the ladder of oppression. This is the introspection I find missing in U.S. immigrant advocacy movements—movements that understand social inclusion as stopping deportations, and that fail to consider the dark abyss one falls into after deportation.

If advocates measured their effectiveness based on reality, they would realize this failure is profoundly consequential. The culprits here are still anti-immigrant policies based in ignorance and xenophobia. And yet, immigrant activists must be accountable for not creating advocacy strategies that respond to the multidimensional and unjust realities created by deportations. This includes (1) family separation, where U.S. children are stripped away of their parents or forced to leave their U.S. homes to reunite with deported family members; (2) harsh treatment and penalties for deported immigrants, including re-entry bans; and (3) lack of reception programs to integrate deportees in the education system or the labor market in the countries receiving them.

These issues are just the tip of the deportation iceberg. Rather than yet another request to include “my story” in someone else’s research or advocacy campaign, I search for collaborations or co-creative efforts to unite our interconnected fights and struggles, not to be “educated” on my own intimate experiences of deportation, long before Trump assumed power.

I’m left asking: Does social justice have a time limit or does it expire under “new” political realities? Will deportations prior to Trump take a back seat to the somehow more “urgent” situation under the current administration? So long as new movements answer these questions affirmatively, then there is a dire need for a new paradigm for immigrant activism. We must learn to speak of struggles in ways that do not re-victimize those who have suffered or to render them invisible by privileging the “good immigrant” narratives.

Heading north to reclaim my own fight

Today, I am back in Tijuana—and this time by choice. After years of chronic emotional burnout aggravated by those internal battles I had not anticipated, I am stronger. In the southern region of Mexico, I learned that there is an alternative perspective to activism—one that is designed from a collaborative and participatory approach. This work creates spaces of dialogue and reflection where migrants are the migration experts, the protagonists in all processes and organizing work. We are not just research subjects to be studied, or whose stories should be collected.

This takes decades to master, and in no way have I reached competency in it. At the same time, I am encouraged to engage on initiatives created by migrants, for migrants, and am filled with a sense of responsibility and the urgency as when I first started this journey. Seven years ago, it would have been impossible to engage in this type of work: I was putting back together the pieces of a shattered life. Yet the south has reenergized me to reclaim my own fight back north. You can’t be in a place like Chiapas, one that embodies the resistance of the country, without it changing you in some way. So, what comes next?

In 2009, the year of my deportation, there were between 300 to 400 of us arriving every day in Tijuana.[i] Today, that figure is slightly over a quarter of such deportation levels, with nearly 100 deportees arriving daily. With the anticipation of the continued expulsion of Mexicans from the U.S., there is still much work ahead.

The needs and demands of deportees: From reinsertion to family reunification

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

Photo Courtesy of Nancy Landa

People often ask how they can support the cause south of the border. Just as I’ve struggled to find a home for my cause, I always struggle to provide concrete actions. I have come across many organizations that are doing important humanitarian work in Tijuana. Here, many nonprofits such as Desayunador Padre Chava, Casa del Migrante, Insituto Madre Asunta, and The Salvation Army focus on providing immediate food and shelter. There are also emerging youth-led organizations like Espacio Migrante and countless other churches and individuals who helped when thousands of Haitians and Africans were in limbo and looking for refuge. And most importantly, migrant-led organizations like Unified U.S. Deported Veterans, Deported Veterans Support House, and Dreamers Moms USA/Tijuana have also gained presence and visibility. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I certainly hope all continue to grow as sustainable organizations along with other up-and-coming efforts.

However, there is a lack of programs aimed at the mid- and long-term integration of returning migrants and families. Although many of us have developed survival strategies to rebuild our lives, there is still a need to support others who face obstacles such as obtaining identity documents, continuing their education or finding work. These challenges also require political advocacy, as local and federal government agencies must address the structural barriers that hinder reintegration.

An important demand from migrant-led efforts is family reunification—an opportunity to return to homes, communities, and family in the U.S. Given the current U.S. president’s fixation on a “big, beautiful wall,” this sounds like a fantasy. Yet, we believe, more than ever, that supporting projects that create bridges between nations rather than walls are imperative. This is what inspired Friends of Friendship Park to launch a petition last year to garner support to ask San Diego Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to create a binational park, a border space where transnational families to meet and hug. Currently, CBP only allows five families to meet for 30 minutes once a year. It is an effort that remains at a standstill as CBP has yet to respond to the request. However, binational families and allies are committed to counteract the politics of separation. Perhaps having a region without borders, for now, it is just a utopian dream. But in my heart, I know that our sense of family, home and belonging will not be dictated by the physical and emotional borders placed upon us.

Families Reunite At U.S.-Mexico Border At Friendship Park

Nancy Landa is a migration scholar, activist, writer and translator. She writes on transborder activism, her experience of being a deportee under the Obama administration, and the social injustices migrants face due to the increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the Americas and beyond. To follow Nancy and projects she is currently working on, visit her bilingual blog at Mundo Citizen and via Facebook or Twitter.

[i] Personal interview, Mexican immigration authorities (INM), Tijuana, 2016.

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.