The sliding doors opened, and suddenly Roger Perez was back in Mexico.
Spanish boomed over the airport loudspeaker, and men swaggered past in dusty boots and cowboy hats.
Thanks to U.S. immigration authorities, Perez, 21, had been trapped on a plane for hours with his wrists and ankles shackled. Now, he was a free man. But as a deportee to a country he hadn’t seen since he left as a young child, the freedom felt scary, not sweet.
Trembling, Perez shook the hand of a Mexican government official, who explained how he could apply for unemployment benefits. Then he took a business card offered by Diego Maria. “We’re here to help you,” it read. “Together we’re stronger.”
“Hey, man,” Maria told him in English. “I was deported too.”
Every week, Maria, 36, and other migrants deported from the United States in recent months greet planeloads of people sent back to Mexico City. They call themselves Deportees United in the Fight.
They help new arrivals phone relatives, figure out how to catch a bus and register for the few government benefits available to former migrants. But mostly, they come to show the new deportees that they are not alone.
“Getting deported is the most traumatic experience of your life,” said Maria, who lived in the U.S. for 17 years before he was deported last summer.
Perez nodded nervously.
“My parents and siblings all live in North Carolina,” Perez said softly, his English inflected with a gentle Southern lilt. “It’s pretty rough.”
Deportees United is among a handful of grass-roots groups that have formed in recent years to help a growing number of deportees to Mexico. Since 2009, more Mexicans have been departing from the U.S. than arriving there, according to Pew Research Center, a reverse migration trend driven by job loss after the Great Recession and an increase in deportations under President Obama.
In the first four months of this year, more than 50,000 Mexicans have been repatriated, according to the Mexican government, a deportation rate similar to that of the last year of Obama’s presidency.
For years, Mexican officials largely ignored return migration. But since President Trump started lobbing attacks at Mexican immigrants and stepped up deportations, Mexican elected leaders have responded with efforts to help immigrants living illegally in the U.S., as well as those sent home. They have staged news conferences at the airport to greet planeloads of deportees and have aired ads promoting the integration of returning migrants.
Despite the rhetoric, few services are available for migrants coming home. While deportees can receive six months of help — they are eligible for $100 monthly unemployment checks — that’s about it, said Monica Jacobo, who studies return migration at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.
“I don’t see any serious planning from the government,” Jacobo said, adding that returning migrants often have a difficult time finding work, enrolling in school and reintegrating into communities that often view them as foreigners. Because U.S. leaders have insisted that they mainly deport migrants with criminal convictions — despite data that show large numbers of deportees have little or no criminal history — deportees also carry a stigma: that they are all delinquents.
Deportees United organized to fill what it sees as a clear void. Mexican migrants working in the U.S. send home billions of dollars each year, and the group believes deportees should be treated with respect, not as outcasts. It hopes to open a shelter where deportees can spend a few days adjusting before restarting their lives. With the help of small donations, it recently opened a screen-printing business that will employ only deportees. Among the items printed at the small workshop are shirts that say, “Deportees are not criminals.”
The group was organized in December by Maria and other recent deportees who had been invited to a government event announcing efforts to integrate returnees into the workforce. One of them, Ana Laura Lopez, had been an immigrants rights activist in Chicago and suggested they organize. She says the group might not have existed if it weren’t for the increased activism and heightened political awareness of Latinos in the U.S. in recent years.
Maria said he gained a sense of political empowerment in the U.S.: “We learned there that we can defend our rights.”
He grew up in the verdant fields of Hidalgo, a state in central Mexico, in a dirt-poor indigenous family that couldn’t afford shoes for the children. At 13, he went to work as a street vendor in Mexico City to send money home.
In 2000, when he was 18, he crossed illegally into the United States. Maria lived in North Carolina, and then moved to Dalton, Ga., where he drove a forklift for several of the city’s famous carpet factories. It was good work. With the help of a fake Social Security card, he made $15 an hour. Overtime, too.
He married and had a kid, and later won custody of his son after he split with his wife. One day last year, he was driving back to work after stopping at home to have lunch with his son when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint. Officers were asking for licenses. Maria didn’t have one.
He was taken to the police station, where a 2003 felony conviction for domestic violence with a previous girlfriend flagged him for removal under Obama’s revised deportation priorities. Maria never saw his son again. The boy, Shamus, now 5, lives with an aunt.
Maria spent four months in detention. On the day of his deportation he walked out of the same sliding doors Perez would later emerge from and felt like he was going back 20 years in time. The streets were chaotic and polluted, and people desperate for money were selling whatever they could on every corner.
Maria had no idea where to go. His cellphone, which had the numbers of his relatives, hadn’t been returned to him after his arrest. His family didn’t know he was in Mexico.
A friend he had made on the plane saw his panic and invited him to stay a few days at his family’s house, where Maria logged onto Facebook to tell his family he was back. Then he and the friend went out for tacos — the food they had missed the most while away. Maria got violently sick. It seemed even his stomach was no longer Mexican.
His family came to visit him. When his mother walked in, after a 17-year-old absence, she thought he was a stranger, and shook his hand.
“I couldn’t even enjoy being with my family,” Maria said of those difficult first weeks. He still feels sad about being so far from his son, and angry about the deportation. But his most frequent feeling is something else. “Impotence,” he said. He isn’t allowed to work while he’s on unemployment. He is sick of feeling like he doesn’t have any control of his own life.
Deportees United has helped return a sense of control and order. The other members of the group have become his best friends. They don’t think it’s crazy that he loves country music. They get it when he talks about missing the turkey, mashed potatoes and pie at Thanksgiving. “We’re on the same channel,” he said.
He shows up at the airport to help other deportees try to put a positive spin on a difficult new chapter.
“It’s hard to start from zero,” he said. “But we’re always going to be there for them.”
The U.S. government hires charter planes to ferry more than 100 deportees back to Mexico City three times a week. At the airport, the deportees emerge, dazed, via a special exit used by pilots and flight attendants. They are identifiable by the clear plastic lunch bag they’re handed as they leave, and by the mesh bags resembling potato sacks they are given to carry personal effects.
Family members who know their loved ones are coming back crowd around the sliding doors anxiously. On a recent afternoon, Claudia Arias was waiting there. Arias, 42, a U.S. citizen, had flown down that morning from Pennsylvania to greet her husband, Mauricio Marino, 27, who had been deported.
“Oh my God, he’s so hairy,” she said in English as she saw him approaching. Marino had grown a long beard during his month in detention. After hugging Arias for several minutes, Marino accepted a card from Maria, who told him to call with any questions. Marino thanked him, and went back to holding his wife.
Then Perez walked through the doors, wearing the same Nike shoes and baseball hat that he had on the day he was caught. “It’s pretty rough,” he said. “They got me driving without a license, and these days, they don’t forgive.”
He had no phone, so Maria lent Perez his so he could call a cousin in his home state of Tabasco.
“Hola, carnal,” Perez said, using a slang Mexican term of affection.
Perez had a little money, and wanted to fly to Tabasco. Maria walked him across the airport to the Aeromexico counter, and Perez handed cash to the attendant.
The pair embraced. “Call me anytime,” Maria said, as Perez hurried off to his gate.