For so long, Nancy Landa kept secrets.
Growing up in South Los Angeles, she never told friends that her parents had brought her illegally from Mexico when she was 9.
Years later, after she had been elected the first-ever Latina student body president at Cal State Northridge and then gone on to work for a California assemblyman, she didn’t tell her colleagues about the deportation order filed against her. For a long time, she didn’t even tell her boyfriend.
The immigration agents came one morning in 2009 while she was turning onto the freeway to go to work. They dropped her off that night in Tijuana, where she had to start over with zero connections.
Once again she felt like a stranger in a strange land — this time missing Vietnamese pho and playing golf with friends — and once again she was keeping secrets.
Landa told nobody why she was back, knowing that deportation carries a stigma in Mexico, where people assume the only people kicked out of the U.S. are criminals. (Landa, whose family was ordered to leave after their application for asylum was rejected, has no criminal record.)
She tried to forge relationships and plan a new future. But every time she glimpsed the border fence, just a few blocks from her apartment, she felt a pang, “like someone poking at a wound.”
“It felt like I was a nobody,” said Landa, 34. “It was hard to think about what my life would now be.”
Then Landa found out about a fledgling social movement of people like her who came of age in the U.S. and then were deported or made the difficult decision to return to Mexico.
With them, she would rediscover the plucky fighter insider — and begin to demand changes to both Mexican and U.S. laws.
With them, she no longer had to keep secrets.
They call themselves “Los Otros Dreamers” — the other Dreamers — a reference to young immigrants living in the U.S. who would benefit from the Dream Act, a congressional bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some immigrants who were brought to America illegally as children.
Unlike their counterparts north of the border, Los Otros Dreamers would not benefit from any broader amnesty legislation. Many left the U.S. before President Obama announced his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted half a million immigrants in the country illegally a temporary stay of deportation.
Others, including those who had been convicted of certain crimes, wouldn’t have qualified.
And yet many still have friends and family members in the U.S. and claim strong ties to American culture.
The collective formed a couple of years ago with the help of Jill Anderson, an American academic who was doing research in Mexico City. Anderson became intrigued by the call center near her house, whose employees dressed in American clothes and spoke English with Southern California accents.
“They really seemed like they were from Los Angeles,” she said.
Anderson began a study of call centers, many of which serve U.S. companies. Anderson, who said every person she interviewed had experienced feelings of depression and isolation upon returning to Mexico, encouraged them to start organizing among themselves.
The activists say the Mexican government has been slow to meet the needs of the more than 1.4 million people who have returned from the U.S., either by choice or because of deportation, since 2005, a figure that includes hundreds of thousands of young people who spent their formative years in America.
Some returning immigrants describe being teased for their imperfect Spanish and for not knowing the basics of Mexican culture and history. Others find themselves isolated in the rural communities their parents came from, struggling to make connections with family members whose lives have taken very different tracks. Many run into bureaucratic obstacles when it comes to finding work or continuing their education.
In Tijuana, Landa spent more than a month trying to obtain the Mexican identification card required to work. It took her several more months to land a job.
Eventually she was hired by a telecommunications company to help American callers who were having trouble with their products.
“It was weird,” she said. “Especially the people who were calling from California.”
Landa decided she wanted to apply for a master’s program, but no Mexican university would accept her Cal State Northridge transcript. It was a huge blow.
She had spent six years working toward that degree, holding down a job and spending four hours a day on public transportation commuting to Northridge from her parents’ home in South Los Angeles.
Now, it seemed as though all of that hard work to elevate herself and her family — her dad worked as a construction worker, her mom cleaned houses — didn’t matter. “It felt like all of my potential as a person wasn’t really acknowledged.”
Landa, a Type A personality at ease in a business casual blazer, said her pride took a plunge.
Last year, Landa saw a message Anderson had posted online, asking for returnees to Mexico to share their stories. Around the same time she was interviewed by a journalist writing a book about Dreamers on both sides of the border who put her in touch with others like her.
Soon she was communicating with dozens of them, including Daniel Arenas, 25, who returned to Monterrey for college because his immigration status in the U.S. limited his ability to obtain a driver’s license, legally work and attend North Carolina’s public universities. She met Maru Ponce, 30, who was raised in the Bronx but returned to her native Puebla because she thought she would never be able to get a good job in the U.S. without legal documentation.
At first, their conversations were purely cathartic, Landa said, as members of the group tearfully swapped stories of their struggles. Over time, inspired by the dramatic protests — and results — of the Dreamers in the U.S., the returnees started talking about policy changes that would make life easier for returning migrants.
In meetings with Mexican officials, they have petitioned the government to speed up the process for returnees seeking local IDs and have called on universities to change higher education standards so that U.S. transcripts are recognized.
“We have a lot to offer,” said Arenas, who runs a nonprofit group that helps people considering a return to Mexico apply for scholarships and brush up on their Spanish. “We are bicultural, binational and bilingual.”
Along with changes to Mexican laws, Los Otros Dreamers are also seeking changes in the U.S. that would improve conditions in immigration detention centers and allow those who have been deported to more easily return to America for visits. Like many people who were deported, Landa was banned from visiting the U.S. for 10 years.
Since she left, many of her relationships with people in the U.S. have withered.
“You find out who your friends are,” she said.
In September, Landa and other members of Los Otros Dreamers gathered in Mexico City for their first national meeting. They spent several days brainstorming on what to do next and got tips on how to build a social movement from Carlos Saavedra, a well-known Dreamer activist in the United States.
Saavedra said he thinks Los Otros Dreamers are important because they show “a larger view of the problems we’re trying to solve.” Fixing the immigration system will entail more than just winning amnesty legislation from Congress, he said.
He and Landa met last year at a conference in London, where she had gone to get her master’s in global migration after being rebuffed by Mexican universities. Landa raised money for tuition online. The topic of her dissertation was “the Dreamer diaspora.”
“She’s brilliant and she’s mad,” Saavedra said. “Who wouldn’t be mad in her circumstances?”
Landa, who moved to Mexico City this summer, said her experience with the collective gave her the strength to “come out” as a deportee. She now writes a blog called Mundo Citizen and has decided she wants to work full time on immigration issues.
Over lunch of chicken flautas and agua fresca, she said she still grapples with mixed feelings about the two places that formed her identity.
She loves the diversity and the freedom of speech in the United States, but hates its immigration policies. She loves the food and the way people appreciate life in Mexico, but hates the poverty and machismo. (Friends have told her she would have more success dating in Mexico if she argued less with men).
She recently got a job working as a consultant for the municipal government on a project that tracks immigrants living in the capital. She has high hopes for her life in this city, with its sprawl and open-minded attitude.
She says it reminds her of Los Angeles.