Migrants making their way through Mexico toward the United States navigate a minefield of dangers and bureaucracy. This week, Courthouse News takes a look at what they face and the people who help them along the way.
MEXICO CITY (CN) – After spending most of her life in Dalton, Georgia, Maggie Loredo went into self-imposed exile two months after she graduated from high school in 2008.
Born in Mexico and raised in Texas and north Georgia, Loredo found out as a teen that she was undocumented. Although she was never “DACAmented” – authorized under the DREAM Act to live and work in the U.S. – she always felt like a Dreamer.
“The whole DREAM Act started in 2001, so when I was in high school, I was thought I was a Dreamer. ‘Ok, I do fit, because I was brought as a child, and I’ve been here and been an active member of my community in Dalton,’” she said recently in her Mexico City office, where she is co-director of Otros Dreams en Accion, a nonprofit that helps returnees from the U.S.
But she wasn’t a Dreamer.
So like many other young Mexicans facing deportation or a life in the shadows – in her case likely working in a Dalton carpet factory – Loredo moved to Mexico. She went not as a deportee or voluntary returnee caught by the Border Patrol, but under what she calls “forced return.” She was never detained or arrested or processed through immigration court. She went to Mexico on her own.
It was a one-way ticket.
“It was hard, emotionally hard. Should I stay? Should I leave? I’m not going to be able to say, ‘OK, never mind. I’ll just go back to the U.S.’ There was no way to go back,” she said.
Loredo spent the first few years floundering. She lived six months with her grandparents in a small town in the state of San Luis Potosi. The Mexican government wouldn’t accept her ID – issued by the Mexican government in Atlanta – or her high school diploma.
In a few months, she got her ID validated so she could work, but education was another hurdle. For her U.S. diploma to be recognized in Mexico, she would have to get documentation from every school she had attended.
“The main purpose of returning to Mexico was to continue my education and they tell me, “Well, these papers are not enough. You need to go back to the U.S. and get other papers,’” she said.
Her situation overwhelmed her. She got depressed and gave up on validating her education. She was forced into jobs she didn’t want. She worked for an English-language school where her boss took advantage. For 500 pesos a week – about $26 – she worked up to 16 hours a day doing payroll, filing, cleaning and other tasks.
“I was speaking English. It made me feel connected in some way to home, but after three years I realized that I was being exploited,” she said.
In 2014, Loredo met Jill Anderson, a post-doctoral researcher living in Mexico who had been compiling the stories of others in Loredo’s shoes. That same year, Anderson published a book of returnee stories – “Los Otros Dreamers” – which brought returnees together.
“A community began to grow around the book,” said Anderson, who then convinced Loredo to apply for a U.S. visa to attend a book presentation in California. She got it, and now she visits her brother and others in the U.S.
Together they founded Otros Dreams en Accion (ODA), which became a legal nonprofit in 2017.
At the organization’s Pocho House, a bright, 400-square-foot corner office anchored by a large conference table, they connect. They can speak English or “Spanglish.” They have yoga classes, free Wi-Fi and snacks.
“We have writing workshops, plays, and people can just come here, use the internet, have some coffee. We have group therapy sessions once a month where they are only returnees talking about their needs,” Loredo said.
They don’t call each other members at Pocho House. They prefer the term “voceros,” or spokespeople. Not all of the voceros came to the U.S. as kids.
Guillermo Contreras is 42. He first came to the U.S. in 2006, worked in restaurants and construction, and was deported in 2018. He had spent time working with U.S. nonprofits fighting for migrant rights to help other deportees, so he found ODA.
“As soon as I got here, I realized that the voluntary returnees have the same problems as us. The government is not helping these people. Then I found ODA, which is working to change these policies that are harming our community,” he said.
These people left everything in the U.S. to return to their home country, and sometimes they are undocumented there, Contreras said, adding, “How is that possible?”
So ODA works with the Mexican government and has approached U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on policies that affect returnees.
The U.S. government used to fly deportees to Mexico City but stopped the practice in 2018. Now the feds drop people off at the U.S.-Mexico border, making it much harder for them to reconnect with family. ODA hopes to work with the U.S. government to start the flights again, and educates returnees on how to get documents.
ODA convinced the Mexican government to eliminate some of the barriers to work that Loredo had to conquer. Official seals from the U.S. are no longer required to get a federal ID and transferring a high school diploma now requires only a transcript, Loredo said.
The group connects with U.S. universities and nonprofits to ensure those organizations don’t forget that the deportees’ problems don’t end with deportation.
“It’s hard for people in the U.S. to understand that it’s not a U.S. fight. It’s a Mexican fight. It’s a regional fight, and we have to work together to beat the system,” Loredo said.
Eventually the group hopes to expand its work across the border with universities, nonprofits and the government. They need a bigger office so they can help more people, Loredo said.
Her reasons are simple.
“Because we need each other. No one can do it alone.”