Each month this year, the United States has deported 15,000 migrants to Mexico. They join some 2.5 million others who have returned over the past decade — some forced to leave by deportation orders, others by economic and political conditions.
Back in the country of their birth, however, they face discrimination and exclusion anew. Nancy Landa, a young woman living in Tijuana after being deported in 2009, put it plainly when she made her story public: “Sometimes I feel that I have been more accepted in the U.S. even as undocumented, than how I have been accepted here as a Mexican national.”
The Mexican government makes bold promises to protect the rights and dignity of its citizens abroad, and its 50 consulates in the United States provide documents and legal guidance, as well as health, education, English language and even naturalization services. But that attentiveness does not extend to the Mexican side of the border. Deportees and returnees are no longer treated as “migrant heroes” — as Mexican politicians often refer to them — when they arrive at repatriation centers: All they get in terms of government support is a phone call, a repatriation certificate and a bus ticket.
Because the U.S. government claims to prioritize those arrested for serious crimes for deportation, returnees are stigmatized as criminals in Mexico.
In 2014, in response to mass deportations during the Obama administration, Mexico launched a program called Somos Mexicanos. It promised to facilitate the economic and social reintegration of returnees, but it has not amounted to much. Patricia Carolina, who returned to Mexico in 2012 in search of the opportunities she was unable to find in the U.S. as a young undocumented migrant, explains Mexico’s return policy in four words: “It does not exist.”
Part of the problem is the discrimination against returnees based on their American accents in Spanish or their appearance. Because the U.S. government claims to prioritize those arrested for serious crimes for deportation, returnees are also stigmatized as criminals in Mexico.
Institutional barriers are everywhere. For instance, since 2001 Mexico has given undocumented migrants in the United States consular identification cards and promoted them widely to facilitate access to American banks, libraries, schools, police departments and government offices. But there has been no parallel campaign in Mexico for migrants who reenter the country without valid identification. Even if returnees have a consular ID, these documents are not widely accepted as valid by Mexican bureaucrats. Compounding that problem, anyone returning to Mexico between March and June of this year did not even have the option of obtaining a voting card from the National Institute of Elections — the primary form of ID used in Mexico — because of restrictions imposed during the months before an election. Returnees are forced, in effect, to live “without papers” in their own country.
Consulates in the U.S. have developed creative partnerships with American hospitals, schools and local governments to support the integration of Mexican migrants into their communities. These include social and health services such as the Ventanillas de Salud programs inside the consulates, adult education programs in Spanish, and college scholarships for undocumented youth.
Meanwhile, these very same people have a difficult time accessing jobs and social services back in Mexico. Many returned children and youth lost years of schooling because of unreasonable requirements for notarized documents that would have to be obtained in the United States. Some of that red tape was recently cut in response to activists’ demands; however, once in school many children still face language and social barriers. Where similar problems exist in American schools, Mexico has offered textbooks in Spanish, teacher exchanges and literacy programs for parents. In Mexico, some community organizations have adapted those ideas, but they get no backing from the Mexican government.
Workplace exploitation abounds, too. After living in the U.S. for decades, returnees lack the certifications, documents or local work experience required to get hired for jobs that match their skills. Many end up working in call centers for American companies, an entire industry that has benefited from the availability of thousands of underemployed English speakers. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Mexico actively promotes labor rights and skill certification programs so migrants can move up, earn more and advocate for themselves.
Mexico’s neglect of reintegration isn’t new; the same was true after mass deportations during the Great Depression. Still, the current wave of deportations has been underway for years, and the needs of the thousands of people returning each week are clear. They need identification, housing, education, job placement and physical and mental health services. In the absence of public policy — or even public debate — civil society groups and organizations led by deported and returned migrants are stepping into the void to demand change.
Migration is not a one-way movement. It consists of multiple processes including origin, transit, settlement and return. The Mexican government has been keen to look only in the direction of those who have gone north — and who support millions of families with the remittances they send home. It is time Mexico shows the same concern for those crossing back into Mexico, including reducing the inequalities that pushed them to leave in the first place.
Alexandra Délano Alonso is chair of Global Studies at the New School, and author of “From Here and There: Diaspora Policies, Integration and Social Rights beyond Borders.”