The other Dreamers

Many young people have returned to Mexico, continuing their quest for a better life

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Susan France

After graduating high school, Maggie Loredo was faced with a seemingly impossible choice. As an undocumented immigrant, she could stay in the United States with her family and friends, get a false social security card and work in the carpet industry, all while  hoping and waiting for the laws to change so she could go to college.

Or she could move back to her birth country of Mexico, where she knew no one, but at least would have citizenship, legal status, the ability to go to work and attend a university.

“At the time, I was the most anti-Mexico, but that was the only opportunity,” Loredo says via Skype from her home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. “I thought, ‘I am Mexican, I have rights, I can go to college and maybe I can find a way to come back to the U.S.’”

It wasn’t until her second year in high school that Loredo understood what it meant to be undocumented. She came to the U.S. when she was 3 years old. She went to elementary school in Texas, then middle and high school in Dalton, Georgia. But as she wanted a part-time job, her driver’s license and to apply for college, her legal status became increasingly apparent.

“Before that I had no clue about it, I just thought I was as normal as everybody,” she says. “Through my junior year and my senior year I was battling with myself.”

Maggie Loredo with her senior yearbook from Southeast Whitfield High School in Dalton, Georgia. Courtesy of Maggie Loredo/ Annick Donkers
Maggie Loredo with her senior yearbook from Southeast Whitfield High School in Dalton, Georgia.

A month after graduation, Loredo made up her mind. She’d go back to Mexico, live with her grandfather in his small village in the hills above San Luis Potosi, go to school, get a job and embrace a new life. So in the summer of 2008, she made the crossing at Loredo, Texas, leaving behind family, friends and the only home she had ever known.

“I hadn’t even crossed the border yet and I was already regretting it, but I just had to do it,” she says. “I came to figure out it wasn’t as easy as I thought. I thought just because I was Mexican it would be really easy. [But] I felt like a foreigner in this country (Mexico).”

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Her first day back in Mexico she went to do laundry only to find out she had to go down to the river and wash her clothes by beating them against the rocks. And she had to heat up water on the stove to take a shower.

And then, as she began researching colleges, she realized the Mexican government didn’t recognize any of her U.S. education, which set her on a five-year process to revalidate her high school diploma.

Not only that, she was lonely. She had a hard time adapting to the new social norms and life in Mexico. It was difficult to relate to her co-workers and eventually her classmates.

That is until she met Dr. Jill Anderson through Facebook.

Anderson, who was born in Utah and raised in Texas, moved to Mexico City 10 years ago as part of her doctoral program in Mexican-American literature at the University of Texas at Austin. Since then, she’s married a Mexican national, has two binational children, and has become an immigration activist while continuing to pursue her academic career.

As part of a postdoctoral project, Anderson began talking with young people working in a call center around the corner from her house. Many of them were Dreamers, immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, who went to school in the U.S. and who largely identify with American culture. An estimated half a million Dreamers have returned to Mexico in recent years, either voluntarily or through forced deportation.

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For her research, Anderson and photographer Nin Solis traveled throughout Mexico from Chiapas to Merida to Guerrero to Nogales and San Luis Potosi, interviewing young returnees and documenting their stories through photographs and their own words. The resulting book, Los Otros Dreamers (The Other Dreamers), was published in 2014.

“Los otros Dreamers are the Dreamers on the other side of the border in Mexico,” Anderson says. “They are los otros Dreamers in the sense that they are what the Dream Act and the stereotypical dreamer has been defined against.”

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was first introduced in Congress in August 2001, as a pathway to citizenship for the millions of Mexican nationals brought to the U.S. as children. To qualify, young people would have to have a U.S. high school degree, no criminal background and be able to demonstrate “good moral character.” Several similar bills have been introduced since then, none of which have passed.

But more than half of the 26 young people profiled in the book would not qualify for any version of the Dream Act. While some have stories like Loredo, voluntarily returning to Mexico, most of them either signed voluntary departure orders or were deported for minor offenses, all of them drug-related.

“There is also a small group that were deported after very minor offenses, such as drinking under age and unsubstantiated accusations of aggression,” Anderson says. What may be seen as a teenage mistake for U.S. citizens, she continues, casts undocumented immigrants into exile.

“The typical dreamer narrative has been defined as somebody who is a valedictorian of their high school who exceeds all expectations academically who has several scholarships to universities that would not admit them otherwise,” she says. “Many Dreamers in the United States are aware about how that creates a narrative that leaves a lot of their peers, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles out and creates a false sense of worthiness to have these rights of legal protection.”

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In the process of compiling the book, Anderson found that many of the young people were experiencing similar barriers as they struggled to re-integrate into Mexican life. Like Lodero, they found it extremely difficult to transfer their school credit to Mexican higher education. “In some ways they are undocumented in Mexico because even though they’re birth certificate and citizenship is now recognized, it turns out their U.S. education is not being recognized,” Anderson says.

She also found that many of the young people she spoke with desired a way to obtain tourist visas to the U.S. to be able to move freely between the two countries, in essence their two lives.

“It really comes from a desire, they don’t want to be undocumented, they don’t want to live in the shadows,” she says. “And in many ways after seeing the sacrifices their parents are making, they are looking for legal options and are insisting on them in different ways.”

However, many returning Mexicans receive multi-year bans on entering the United States under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996. Among other things, IIRIRA made minor offenses such as drug possession and shoplifting deportable offenses. IIRIRA also bans anyone who has stayed in the U.S. without proper documentation or who has been deported from obtaining any type of visa for three to ten years, if not longer without obtaining a waiver — a difficult and expensive process.

“[Mobility] shouldn’t be a privilege but it is,” Anderson says. “Many are deciding to stay in Mexico. They have been able to make their way, some are married, some have children, they’ve established their lives [in Mexico], but they’ve left so many parts of themselves and their friends and family behind. So they want binational recognition and mobility. Maybe not binational citizenship but definitely mobility.”

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Still facing many bureaucratic challenges, while also unable to see family and friends in the U.S., many of the young people also experience varying levels of depression and post-traumatic stress as they return to Mexico. “It’s such a loss. It’s a loss of freedom, it’s a loss of future, it’s a loss of identity,” Anderson says. “There’s a trauma that comes with moving to Mexico.”

And they are often isolated, either unable to access or unaware of mental health services in the process.

However many are also finding solace in the growing community created by Los Otros Dreamers. For the book’s release, Anderson gathered the young people in Mexico City, many of them meeting for the first time.

“I had no clue that anybody else was in my situation,” Loredo says. “It was pretty awesome to talk about music, food, cartoons, everything that I had never been able to talk to someone in the past five years. That made the difference a lot because it gave me a positive attitude to find a way.”

“Many of them really embraced the idea of being an ‘otro dreamer’ because it gave them a name to an experience that was nameless before that,” Anderson adds.

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A year later, in the fall of 2015, Anderson decided to take the book on tour in the United States and asked Loredo to come with her. After being granted a 10-year tourist visa at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, Loredo was able to go back to Dalton, to see her friends and visit her high school for the first time in seven years.

And she was finally able to be at peace with her decision to return and live in Mexico. “But that’s how I feel because I was able to go back to the U.S. and if I had not been able to go back, I would probably still be confused,” she says.

Furthermore, she no longer wants U.S. citizenship. “Just talking about the government and the way that they treat this community, they don’t deserve for me to want to be a citizen of that country,” she concludes. “I look at things as an outsider now, not just an insider. …There’s a world out there besides the U.S.”

This new understanding led to a new dream being born on a beach in Southern California. While debriefing the book tour, Anderson and Loredo decided to start Otros Dreams in Acción when they got back to Mexico. Now, the grassroots organization has more than 100 members who identify with the message of the book. With a mission of mutual support, the group provides mental health resources including live video counseling, and a Return 101 guide and tutorials to walk young people through the bureaucratic challenges of returning to Mexico. They also engage in political advocacy as part of the widespread #Fix96 campaign that seeks to bring both awareness and reform to the 1996 IIRIRA law.

“These young people are really interested and demanding to be seen as de aquí y allá (from here and there), from Mexico and the United States, with the right to choose to live in either one,” Anderson says. “It means their needs and demands are really addressed to both the Mexican government and the American government and both Mexican society and U.S. society.”

This month, Anderson and Loredo are returning to the U.S. on a speaking tour to promote the work of Otros Dreams in Acción, and bring a different perspective to the U.S. immigration debate.

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Anderson and Loredo will be joined by two other Dreamers, Raziel Jaramillo and Claudia Amaro. Now a medical student in Ensenada, Jaramillo returned to Mexico after his mom was deported, leaving him alone in a country that in many ways still felt foreign. Also traveling on a tourist visa, it will be the first time Jaramillo will be in the U.S. since he left over a decade ago.

Amaro comes on the Colorado tour from her home in Witchita, Kansas. After choosing to follow her husband back to Mexico after he was deported 10 years ago, Amaro decided to follow him although undocumented herself. In 2013, she joined young activists as part of the Dream 9 and walked back across the border into the U.S. The nine young people wore their U.S. high school graduation caps and gowns and approached U.S. border patrol, claimed asylum, asking to be granted legal status in a country they called home. The group was immediately taken into immigration detention, although all nine have since been released as they wait for their respective court dates.

What it all boils down to is this: Whether Dreamers end up north or south of the border, they share the same dreams. They desire recognition of their past, all of its accomplishments, all of its contributions, all of its sacrifices. They want a future that will allow them the opportunities to become all that they can be. And they desire the right to choose, to pursue life in both of the countries they call home.