The Deported Americans
More than 600,000 U.S.-born children of undocumented parents live in Mexico. What happens when you return to a country you’ve never known?
The school day at Escuela Secundaria Técnica Número 26 starts early. As the first rays of sunshine make their way over the foothills of Popocatépetl volcano in central Mexico, the narrow streets fill with students in ones and twos and little laughing groups.
Ashley Mantilla’s day starts earlier than most. On a Monday last June, long before the sun rose, the 15-year-old left the small cinder-block house she shares with her sister, brother, and parents. She walked past the lime tree under which the family entertains guests, past the outhouse and the thin horse tied up next to her grandparents’ home, to the road that winds by a deep ravine, and into the center of her small town, perched high in the ridges below the volcano. There, she waited for a minibus that would drive her half an hour to Número 26. It’s not a cheap trip to make every day, and her parents are willing to pay for it not because they have extra money but because they think it’s a better option than the local school. There are real teachers there instead of video lessons, and specialty classes include coding in addition to agriculture, food preservation, and beekeeping.
By 7:30, the school’s courtyard was packed with teenagers. They lined up in straight rows and placed their hands across their chests as the Mexican national anthem played on a loudspeaker. Ashley had PE that day, so she had her dark hair pulled back and was wearing her gym uniform: track pants and a polo shirt embroidered with the words Niños Héroes, or heroic children, a group of historical figures that the school honors as a kind of mascot. The heroes were six military cadets, the youngest of them 13, who died defending a castle in Mexico City from American invaders in 1847.
It was, in other words, a long way from the school days Ashley used to experience, back when she was an American student growing up in an American town and studying in an American public school. In those days, her father, Felix, worked as a cook in a restaurant and did maintenance on swimming pools. Her older sister, Lesly, earned a much-treasured certificate of academic excellence with President Barack Obama’s signature on it. They studied the history of South Carolina, their home state; they ate turkey on Thanksgiving and built snowmen in the winter. Sometimes classmates bullied Ashley, telling her to go back to Mexico, but their taunts mostly confused her. “I don’t know Mexico,” she would say. “I’m from here.” She knew, of course, that her parents were from Mexico and that they sometimes talked about a plan to go back, but she didn’t like to think about that. “My mom always said, ‘Come here, I’m going to teach you Spanish.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not going to need it.’ ”
In 2011, South Carolina’s then-governor, Nikki Haley, signed what was known as a “show me your papers” law, modeled on Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, which allowed police to turn routine traffic stops into immigration checkpoints. The state also made it harder for undocumented immigrants to get jobs or driver’s licenses. The new laws were part of an effort to make immigrants’ lives more difficult, pushing them toward what some politicians at the time were calling self-deportation.
Ashley’s parents began to feel anxious. Basic parts of their daily lives — driving, working, shopping — suddenly seemed risky. They thought of what had happened a few years before, when a South Carolina poultry plant was raided and many of its workers deported without their children. “What happens if they separate us?” wondered Berenice, Ashley’s mother. “We were thinking of the good of the family.” They decided it was time to move their three children — Lesly, 12; Ashley, 9; and Angel, 5, all American-born citizens — from the only home that they knew. In the jargon of immigration, the family was planning to “return migrate.” But the kids could hardly return to a place where they had never been. They were just … leaving.
The flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, landed in Mexico City two months after the new immigration law went into effect. The family took a series of buses away from the city, toward the tiny community where the children’s parents and grandparents had all grown up. The stores and highways dropped away as they climbed higher, along steep hillsides draped with dozens of thin black pipes, the local farmers’ ingenious but jury-rigged solution for irrigation. The buses passed adobe-brick buildings with tin roofs and donkeys carrying loads of wood. Oh my gosh, Ashley thought, are we going to live here?
The girls enrolled in the local school, and Ashley soon found herself bullied again. This time, though, it was for being American. Kids laughed at her weird name and her terrible Spanish. Though she’d been a top student back in South Carolina, she was suddenly trying to learn in a language that she couldn’t read or write and could barely speak.
When her classmates told Ashley that she didn’t belong, she refused to cry in front of them. When she arrived home, though, the tears flowed. It wasn’t an easy thing to hear. But that didn’t mean she didn’t agree with them.
Ashley is one of 600,000 American-born children who are believed to be enrolled in K-12 schools across Mexico. Their lives are a reflection of the complicated realities of border politics: of the so-called “mixed-status” families that formed on the U.S. side when a militarized border made it too difficult for workers to go back and forth; of deportation policies that don’t take the presence of children into consideration; of the wave of returns that followed the Great Recession, which, for the past ten years, has meant more Mexicans migrating out of the United States than into it. Often, parents choose to leave their American-citizen children, especially older ones, behind with family or friends, deciding that the pain of separation is a lesser burden than the pain of dislocation and displacement. Others bring their kids with them, hoping they’ll be able to find their place in a different world.
Theirs is a new and unique generation, one that academics are only beginning to name. “The students we share,” a phrase meant to encompass transnational students living on both sides of the border, reflects the hope that the two countries will develop better support for students who researchers broadly agree are being failed educationally. Researchers I spoke to also used “American Mexicans,” “the other Dreamers,” and “Los Invisibles, the invisible ones.” Children from “forced cross-border families,” offered Maria Dolores Paris Pombo, who teaches sociology at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “This problem of being unable to adapt to Mexico or belong to the U.S. — it’s a generation that was left in between.”
Together, these American children now make up 3 percent of all students in Mexico, though the concentrations vary. In some municipalities where migration is particularly common, one in ten students is American. Across the country, public schools are scrambling to find the resources to accommodate them. “It’s a huge problem for Mexico,” Patricia Gándara, a research professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, told me. “All these people who just kind of landed there.”
Like Ashley, American students in Mexico frequently end up in rural schools, the ones with the fewest resources to help them. No public schools offer Spanish as a Second Language classes, and less than 5 percent of their teachers speak any English. Many families, especially if they were deported unexpectedly, have trouble assembling and authenticating all the various documents that are needed to enroll, which means that kids end up missing months or even years of instruction. Some never return to a classroom. Students are often ineligible for health insurance and other benefits that their Mexican counterparts get. (“We usually think of [these families] as undocumented in the United States, but we never think of them as undocumented in Mexico,” one researcher told me.) It all adds up to a rough transition for most kids: American transplants will be much more likely than local students to miss significant time in school, to be in a low grade for their age, to dislike school, to feel alienated from their teachers, and to drop out.
On the outskirts of Tijuana, I met Javier, 13, and Andrew, 11. One day in 2014, after their mother, Eve, drove them to school in Palmdale, California, she was arrested at a traffic stop for unpaid tickets. The next time they saw her was in a detention center. Eve had been in the U.S. for 16 years, and her children had never lived anywhere else. She wished Javier and Andrew, like their older siblings, could have stayed in the United States, if only for the better schools, but they were still so young; they needed her. A judge told Eve that her best chance to be with them again was to plead guilty to an immigration violation. The next day, she was dropped off in Tijuana with only the clothes on her back. A few months later, the boys’ aunt drove them over the border to join her.
“I kind of felt like they deported me,” Javier said.
Maria Galleta, who has a small office by a border crossing in Tijuana and volunteers her time to help the recently deported adjust to their new lives, remembers explaining to a 12-year-old boy after he told her that he’d been deported from the United States: “You’re a citizen! You can’t be deported!” This seemed to make little sense to the boy, who replied with the simple truth of his experience. “But,” he said, “I can’t go back.” Daniel Kanstroom, a human rights lawyer, has a term for children like him: “de facto deportees.”
Though their new city is within sight of the country of their birth, Javier and Andrew have not set foot in the United States since the day they left, nearly four years earlier. (Not even for Jack in the Box, whose food they mourn like a lost member of their family and which happens to be one of the first businesses you see when entering the U.S. side via the nearby San Ysidro crossing.) They both hope to return someday, but that future seems distant and vague. For now, they are afraid to enter their own country. They wonder if they would get in trouble for trying.
Ashley failed her first year of school in Mexico. It was a painful blow to a girl who had always pushed herself to succeed. But she says her teacher had no patience for giving extra help to a third-grader who couldn’t read Spanish. He seemed to think she was stupid or lazy.
Slowly, the sisters began, as Lesly put it, “to admit already that we were going to live here.” They started to appreciate things about their new lives. They spent a lot more time outside than they had when they lived in the States. They were glad to know their grandparents. At first, Ashley hated the food, losing weight, as she refused to eat anything but yogurt. She gradually grew to prefer the new food, which was so fresh — her father, like many men in the region, worked a couple of pieces of land, growing beans, corn, peaches, avocados, and pears both for the family and the market. Still, she saw how difficult the life was, how low the pay, how hard the work. “The sun burns really hot,” she said. “You’re supposed to work a lot. What if the plants don’t grow?”
Lesly spoke up. “My sister’s trying to say, if one lives here, one learns the value of things.”
It took two years for most of the teasing to drop off. By then, both Ashley’s Spanish and her cultural fluency had improved. Eventually, she was at the top of her class again. She realized that one reason the other students had disliked her so much was because they had assumed that she would be racist and elitist toward them. “I am an American,” she protested, “but I’m not the type they think.” At some point, without noticing, she began dreaming in Spanish instead of English.
But even as English dropped out of their daily lives, the sisters kept speaking it between themselves — it was both a comfort and a fragile connection to a future that they feared losing. (Today, when Ashley makes a grammatical mistake or forgets an English word, Lesly instantly and firmly corrects her.) When Lesly started at the small local middle school, where classes took the form of government-produced instructional videos, she became a stand-in teacher of other students. What was called an educational workshop — growing flowers and peaches to make money for the school — seemed to simply be work. Many parents and their children weren’t concerned. Work in the outlying fields is the main future awaiting boys in the mountain towns, and it’s common for girls to drop out as young as 14 or 15 to marry and have children.
The sisters and their parents had different ideas about education. They wanted to go to university someday. They wanted to keep open the option of returning to the United States to study and to work. They dreamed of owning houses like the ones they remembered in the U.S. Lesly began commuting to a larger school; Ashley, when she reached seventh grade, followed. In their town, they tried to explain the move in ways that wouldn’t make people think they were snobby, saying it merely had to do with their personal learning styles. At the new school, both tried, at first, to hide their American backgrounds. But they were found out in English class. It’s easy to spot American students, Ashley’s English teacher, Oscar Vargas, told me. Even if they don’t openly speak English, “you note their way of thinking. They think further. They want careers.”
As the years passed, Ashley and Lesly found it more complicated to define who they are or where they belong. “Sometimes, when people ask me where I’m from,” said Lesly, “I don’t know how to respond.” One of the things that makes Lesly feel most American is the history she learned in school — knowing a place’s past, she believes, is part of what makes you belong there. Occasionally, she likes to get her U.S. passport out of its safekeeping spot. The words to the preamble to the Constitution, which she memorized long ago for a class project back in South Carolina, are written inside. “Sometimes I just want to read it,” she said, “and remind myself that I’m from over there, too.”
When Ashley arrived in Mexico, she identified as fully American. “Right now,” she told me, “it’s half and half.” In part, that’s because she appreciates aspects of both places, but it’s also a reflection of not feeling fully welcome in either. When Ashley was chosen to carry the Mexican flag at Número 26’s morning ceremony, other students told her that she had no right. When she asked an old friend in South Carolina how her parents had voted in the 2016 presidential election, the friend didn’t want to tell her. Another friend said she no longer wanted Ashley to come back to the United States.
In early 2017, Bryant Jensen, a professor and educational researcher at Brigham Young University, visited Escuela Secundaria Técnica Número 26. He was looking for participants in a study about the educational well-being of American-born children in Mexico. At first, he recalls, the director of the school told him, “No tenemos esos estudiantes aquí ” — we don’t have that kind of student here. But then another staff member in the office spoke up: She could think of a couple of kids. Those students, it turned out, could think of a few more. Jensen quickly had 17 names on his list.
Some of the students walked into the office and introduced themselves to Jensen in perfect English. Others had forgotten the language or moved before they’d had a chance to really learn it. Many had been unaware that the others, even those in the same grade, shared their background. They’d come from Oklahoma, Tennessee, California, New York. I met one of the school’s American-born students, a girl whose parents had lived outside Atlanta but left before she was 2, at her mother’s small restaurant, up the street from Número 26. Now 14, she has no real memories of her life in the United States. But she had used Google Street View to explore her parents’ old neighborhood, to look at images of the hospital where she was born.
Another student, a boy named Leo Gutiérrez Rojas, was a grade above Ashley. He had grown up in Virginia, where his parents worked a variety of jobs: at a furniture factory, a sausage factory, an Elizabeth Arden packaging plant, a Sysco distribution center. When he was 3, Leo’s father was in a car accident and ended up imprisoned for three years, though the family never understood whether he was in trouble for the accident or his immigration status. Leo’s father was finally deported when Leo was 6, and Leo and his mother, Leticia, followed him to Mexico.
Leo was so young he had little understanding of what had changed. He cried for weeks and kept asking to be taken to the park they used to visit in Virginia, to a friend’s house there, to McDonald’s. At school, he was teased for speaking no Spanish and then for gaining weight (like Ashley, he rejected most of the new food, but that meant he ate a lot of tortillas). Determined to fit in, he vowed he would stop speaking English, not even when his dad tried to practice with him. Now he no longer remembers it, though he has a better accent than the other kids in his English class.
At home, Leo is gregarious, flamboyantly funny, but at school he stays quiet. His favorite subjects are math and science, and he dreams of a career in robotics. But the school placed him in the agricultural program.
Leo told me he now thinks of himself as a Mexican who is one part American. (“Because you have a passport,” said Leticia. “Because I eat pizza!” Leo replied.) His mom thinks he will return to the United States when he’s older, to look for work. For now, though, that’s hard for Leo to imagine. “I don’t know anyone. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know pounds, ounces, miles. I don’t know how to buy a hamburger!” He turned to his mother. “Does Wendy’s still exist? Did I eat there? Did I like it?” When Leo watched the movie Rio, about a bird that spends too much time in confinement and is unable to fly when it returns to its natural habitat, it reminded him of himself. “Creo que así soy yo,” he said — I think that I am like that.
“The dream of most of them is to go back,” Eunice Vargas, a researcher who surveyed students at 86 schools in Baja California, told me. (Like Jensen, she found that many schools weren’t even aware of the students’ presence in order to help them. Schools would often report that they had a student or two and then send an update: “Sorry, we don’t have two — we have 20.”) The children, as Americans, have the legal right to return, but Vargas fears they will arrive unprepared, having been failed by an educational system not designed to meet their needs, and then be caught in cycles of poverty. That will affect not only them, but the country to which their futures are tied. “How can it be possible that the government of the United States is not concerned about so many American children?” Maria Dolores Paris Pombo asked. “It’s like a boomerang! It will go back to the United States. It’s a generation that won’t have any school or work opportunities. I don’t know what will happen to them.”
Jensen put the issue succinctly: Though the border may temporarily split lives in two, “there’s no such thing as a half-citizen.”
One day when I visited Leo’s house, he was studying for a test in English class. I offered to quiz him. The test was on verb conjugations, and one of the words was “estar.”
At first, Leo couldn’t remember how to translate it. But then the answers came back to him, and he repeated the conjugations in a deliberate voice with an American accent. “I was,” he said. “I am. I will be.”
After the morning ceremony at Número 26, Ashley went to math class. She sat with her best friend at school, Azunama, who also commutes from a smaller town so that she doesn’t have to take classes by TV. The two girls worked quietly on their classwork, plotting points on a graph until the design that linked them — an apple — became visible; the rest of the classroom was full of talking and laughter. Things got more raucous in the next period, when the social studies teacher didn’t show, no substitute arrived for 20 minutes, and some boys decided to climb out a window. The girls took notes from their history textbook, which offered a short section about the civil rights movement in the U.S. In gym, as the students giggled through an exercise routine, the teacher described a previous class when he had four newly arrived American students, and the one who was bilingual translated for the rest.
In a few weeks, summer vacation would begin, and Lesly would graduate from high school. She was thinking she would try to continue studying in Mexico for a while longer, at least. Both she and Ashley like the idea of becoming teachers themselves, but getting back to the U.S. and trying to get into and pay for college there felt daunting. I asked Ashley whether she would take a chance to study back in her home country, if it came. She burst into laughter at the absurdity of the question. “Yes!” she said. “Yes! A thousand times, yes!”
The final period of the day was English class. Ashley sat in the front row. Oscar Vargas, the teacher, called on her when other students struggled — “Your colleague Ashley will help us,” he said — but even with the distractions, she still found the period long and tedious. “It’s like a review of elementary,” she said. Midway through the class, the students pulled out their grammar workbooks, but Ashley’s desk stayed empty. She had finished the workbook more than six months earlier, out of boredom: The Mexico City earthquake that made news the previous fall had shaken the small towns beneath the volcano relentlessly, knocking down houses and churches and schools. Número 26 stayed standing despite damage, but it took months of rebuilding before the students returned to class. To pass the time, Ashley had read and reread her textbooks.
The school day ended. The crooked streets filled once again with throngs of yelling, ambling, laughing students. Ashley stayed by Número 26, waiting for the minibus to arrive. She had a long road home.