MEXICO CITY — On this Thursday morning, it seemed like everyone was out on the roads for a leisurely cruise.
The tension in the car was palpable, and after 45 minutes in traffic Nancy Palencia politely asked the Uber driver, “Falta mucho?” Much further?
He assured her they were close to the British Consulate, but the minutes kept ticking away on Palencia’s phone.
“I’m going to hyperventilate,” she said aloud in English.
Palencia won a Chevening Scholarship to attend King’s College London, where she planned to start on a master’s degree in international political economy in a few months. But she still needed a United Kingdom visa, and she would have to get to her interview on time for any hope of that.
Palencia is a University of Texas at Tyler graduate, but attending graduate school in the U.S. is out of the question.
She is one of thousands of Mexican citizens who spent their formative years undocumented in the United States and returned as young adults to a birth country they barely remembered.
Some were deported. Others, undocumented and dual citizens alike, followed deported parents or parents who yearned to be closer to family in Mexico. Others still, like Palencia, return to Mexico after being left in a virtual stalemate by adulthood and their undocumented status in the U.S.
A few days before her interview at the British Consulate, Palencia sat cross-legged on a couch on the second floor of her Roma Sur apartment. She was a business editor for an English language newspaper and shared the living space with five friends.
She moved back in 2014. Nancy was 5 the last time she was in Mexico.
Her parents moved to the United States in the early 1980s but went back after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, where they missed President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Her family ultimately returned to the U.S., moving first to California, then to East Texas.
Palencia recalls at the time her parents talking about an uncle in Las Vegas they couldn’t visit. There was a Border Patrol checkpoint on the way. And she didn’t have a Social Security number. That set her apart from peers, too. It was a secret she kept from nearly all her friends in Texas.
“My parents are pretty strict to begin with,” Palencia, now 27, said. “You thought, ‘If I get sent to detention, you get deported. These was always this fear of, ‘You can’t screw up.'”
Palencia majored in political science with a pre-law minor at UT-Tyler, her sights set on becoming an attorney. She was in cross country, student government, Model U.N. and spent a semester interning in Washington, D.C. In her senior year, her peers gave her a leadership award.
She had to savor it. After graduating in 2010, Palencia went on to one of the industries open to undocumented post-grads. She spent a year cleaning houses with her mom. Her parents, both undocumented, still live in the shadows of the U.S. failed immigration that routinely separates families, even of U.S. born children.
“It seemed like everything was a dream,” she said. “I got to pretend I would be someone significant, and they’re like, ‘No, you can’t.'”
She went through depression, weight gain. And a realization about her life as undocumented adult hit her.
“If I don’t leave,” Nancy remembered thinking, “I’m going to die.”
There’s not just one experience by people who have been deported to or returned to Mexico.
The Caller-Times spent two weeks this summer trying to learn more about the lives of those people affected by immigration law — the challenges they face to get educated, start new lives and stay connected to immediate family divided by the U.S.-Mexico border.
Will Perez, an associate education professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, surveyed 284 returnees and deportees in Mexico City last year. On average, they moved to the United States at age 5 and returned when they were 19. Half of those interviewed went to high school in California.
They included people who made the choice to return because of family illness or other deportations, were discovered through minor traffic violations and people who did jail time in the United States.
“Others, they just got tired of hiding and that ongoing anxiety that never subsides,” he said, “and made a leap of faith that things will be better in Mexico, not realizing how difficult it would be. Even people who are pretty bilingual, bicultural … the adjustment and hardship is more severe than they had imagined.”
Sympathy to help returnees and deportees adjust to life in Mexico is low, he said, compared to support given to undocumented students in the United States.
Participants in his survey were between the ages of 18-25, and about 5 percent had children still living in the United States.
“Some of the more painful interviews we did were with family separations,” Perez said, adding he finds it to be a punishment that outweighs a crime like a DUI. “They’re separated from parents, brothers or sisters, but a good portion are also separated from their small children.”
Jill Anderson, another researcher originally from Utah and Texas, knows what it means to be binational. She travels between the United States and Mexico, and her children are dual citizens.
Last year, Anderson edited the anthology Los Otros Dreamers with first-person stories by people who returned or were deported to Mexico. They were hungry to share their stories, Anderson said, ones that were difficult to tell their own families.
“They were adolescents in the U.S., and that’s never going to change,” she said. “They will never be just Mexican because, in the depth of their being, they’re American. It’s not just about who has papers and who doesn’t.”
Anderson is among activists who believe both countries have a responsibility to binational Mexican citizens. They need mobility in education, the ability to visit family in the U.S., and recognition of their language and culture, she said. They’re criminalized as immigrants in the U.S., she added, and face stigma from families and employers in Mexico.
“The U.S. is losing the investment in all these amazing youth, including those who spent time in the jail system,” she said, adding that they don’t remain criminals for life.
A key point, she said, is a court case that established undocumented students’ right to public education in the United States. Even among American immigration activists, people have told Anderson they haven’t given thought to what happens to people once they’re removed from the country.
“There’s an effort to stop deportations, but no discussion about what happens after,” she said. “I just hope the dots keep connecting and people keep thinking of the story outside the U.S. The story is unfolding in a great big world.”
The Starbucks could have been anywhere. From the green patio umbrellas to the whir of a blender crushing ice for frappuccinos, it bore a comforting sameness to its sister coffee shops.
What stood out were two patrons seated outside and their unmistakable American English.
Omar Manriquez Hernandez’s words were tinged with a Midwestern twang. The 22-year-old said his nickname among friends was Denver, for the city where he grew up.
For soft-spoken Noe Madrigal Garza, whose family moved to Texas when he was 3, it was his rhythmic Fort Worth drawl.
“This is the chill part of the city,” Hernandez said of La Condesa, the fashionable neighborhood he and his friends frequent. “We were used to seeing guns, seeing people get shot.”
Roughly half of the 438,000 people deported with Hernandez in 2013 had faced criminal charges, he among them. When Garza was sent back in 2009, it was about one-third, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Hernandez skimped on the details, but said he violated his juvenile parole when he was 18. Shortly after, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. He was a foreman and climber for a tree company and community college student when he lost his immigration case a few years later.
Garza said he was in a car with three friends when they were pulled over, and police found a gun and stolen items in the vehicle. He opted not to fight his deportation when he learned he could spend a year in jail while making his way through immigration court. The now 26-year-old stayed with family in Matamoros for four months, until a cartel member stopped him one day and asked to see his ID.
“I’ve been on my own ever since I’ve been in Mexico,” Garza said, listing off close to a dozen cities where he’s lived developed his skills as a tattoo artist. He only had two when he got to Mexico. Now he’s covered with them, including a portrait of fellow Texan Selena on his left calf.
He and Hernandez have met a lot of deportees with criminal records, people like them who used to be in U.S. gangs, who have a couple things in common: they have nothing and no one. That’s when gang affiliations fall to the wayside, where Garza sees a chance for them to start fresh.
“I tell them, ‘Dude, this is your second opportunity, and you’re going to do that?'” he said. “They’re 17, 18 years old. You’re really going to do that for the rest of your life? Out here, they don’t play around. They chop off heads around here.”
Garza said he came to Mexico City to settle down and build a steady life, a record he can use to show how much he’s changed when he can apply for a U.S. visa in four years. His adoptive son, Xavier, was born in the United States two months after Garza was deported. His mom was recently in a car crash, and his 15-year-old brother is working to help with bills.
Hernandez has more than eight years before he will have a shot at legally re-entering the United States and he admits every day is a struggle against the grip of depression. Hernandez is the family cautionary tale, and his mom calls from the U.S. when his younger brother needs straightening out. He parents via video call. His 4-year-old daughter Rashel asks when he’ll be able to take her to the zoo again.
“I’d give my mom one last hug and kiss and tell her I’m sorry for everything,” he said. “But I don’t even have that chance. Or hug my brother or sister or see my daughter grow up. They took everything away. I could care less if I lived in a crack house. I would have my family. I would be happy.”
But at that Starbucks in La Condesa, where dog walkers and joggers across the street in Parque México carried on in peace, the men can pretend they’re somewhere closer to home.
Along one of the almost impossibly steep roads of Naucalpan, northwest of Mexico City, the family of Americans, Ayline Avendano and Vanessa Olea Nava, anxiously waited inside a church for the cousins’ arrival. The girls were late for their quinceañera, where some of the family in attendance had traveled from Sarasota, Florida.
Finally the girls arrived, each styled in bright red, hoop skirt gowns with matching red and white roses in their updos. The smiling, giggly teens approached the altar.
The ceremony marked more than the girls’ 15th birthdays. It was five days until Ayline’s visit to Mexico would end with her branch of the family heading home to Florida. After about six years in Mexico, Vanessa and her younger siblings would board the same airplane with their cousins and aunt — though without their mother. The children are dual citizens for Mexico and the U.S.
“I’m excited,” Vanessa said later at the reception. “My brother wants to go, but my sister wants to stay.”
Her mother, Linda Nava, had taken a few days off from work at a call center to help get ready for the quinceañera. The long hours, which usually left her getting home around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. after the commute, fueled her decision to have her three children move back to the U.S.
“(It’s) where I know they’re going to be growing up with family,” Nava, 33, said. “Yes, I’m worried because they’re used to being here with me, especially the little one, but I know they’re going to be better off.”
While Nava’s father, siblings and children have legal status in the United States, she grew up there undocumented. She moved back to Mexico to be closer to her mother, and her father is helping her apply for a U.S. visa.
The family’s layers of immigration statuses grows more complex with Nava’s mom, Martha Bermudez. Her story was interrupted at some point when Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” began piping in over the speakers, and the girls performed a dance that ended with them being lifted into the air by their escorts. Had the quinceañera been held in the U.S., it was a moment Bermudez would have missed.
“It’s very difficult because the families are splitting apart,” she said in Spanish. “The love changes, the communication changes, the respect gets lost. Each person in a couple get used to being alone.”
Bermudez worked for 15 years in the U.S., first at a laundry facility, then a landscaping company and later a KFC. She was separated from her husband and children about eight years ago, when she came to Mexico to visit her own ailing mother.
At the time, Bermudez said, she was on the cusp of being granted U.S. residency. When she was caught trying to enter the country through Matamoros, she was banned from returning for 10 years. That’s the typical punishment when immigrants are caught in the U.S. illegally.
Over at a table at the front of the room, Ayline and Vanessa are still buzzing with excitement as dinner is served.
“It only happens once, so we were happy we did everything together,” Ayline said, adding she’s happy Vanessa will be returning with her to Florida. “We lived with each other before, but she moved. It’s like having another sister.”
She giggled as Vanessa searched for words.
“Pos, I don’t know,” Vanessa exhaled. “I miss all the people that are over there. Grandpa and uncles.”
Ayline chimed in again.
“It’s very few,” she said, “but we’re close together.”
Amid the chaos and dull roar of the Mexico City airport lobby, Nava’s eyes were focused on her children as they zigzag through belted lines to check in their luggage. In about two hours, 15-year-old Vanessa, 13-year-old Isaac and 8-year-old Angie would be on a plane without her to Sarasota.
A few feet away, family members began the long ritual of embracing and crying, then laughing, until the immediacy of their impending separation set in again and the tears returned.
The children’s grandmother, Bermudez, held her year-old grandson, Christian. “Mi vida, (My life)” she said, and laid a kiss on his cheek. Angie wrapped herself around her mom, crying into Nava’s neck.
“I want to go back with my family,” Bermudez said in English, her voice cracking. She has two grandchildren she’s never met. “Two years, I hope. But I have 10 years here (by) myself. It’s very hard.”
The group headed to the airport immigration office, but soon Nava, Angie and two others sprinted out with Bermudez yelling after them, “iCórrale!”
People in the office had insisted Nava’s children needed their Mexican — not United States — passports to leave the country. Why, Nava had pressed, when they’re dual citizens?
With no time to argue further, Nava raced to find a shop in the airport to make copies of the children’s birth certificates, their passports, and a notarized letter giving her sister permission to escort them.
It was time to rush everyone to the security gate after the flurry of papers was sorted. Nava and Bermudez took a few seconds to hug and kiss everyone again, the last chance before they returned to Mexico next summer, and Angie started to sob.
The women wiped away tears, and Nava hugged herself as she stood by the blue Interjet rope and watched her children disappear behind the security gate.