Undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as kids may feel like they are in never-ending limbo. President Trump wants to phase out the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, or DACA, but a federal judge has ordered that the program stay in place. Congress still has no plans to offer them citizenship. As the debate drags on, some dreamers are taking fate into their own hands and moving back to Mexico.
Noe Martinez crossed the border illegally into the US to join his older brothers and sister in Los Angeles shortly before his 16th birthday. He went to Huntington Park High School and eventually ended up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In 2012, Noe was approved for DACA. He started community college and began a landscaping business.
“DACA totally changed my life,” he said. “DACA made me go faster toward things that I wanted.”
But while DACA protects dreamers like Noe from being deported, if they return to their home country voluntarily they’re banned from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years. Noe’s parents were back in Mexico. He missed them.
“Over the time I realized I needed something else. That it wasn’t DACA. Or it wasn’t money. Or it wasn’t superficial things. I needed my family in other words.”
Still, Noe hoped that DACA would eventually lead to citizenship, which would allow him to visit Mexico. He bought a house in Oklahoma and grew his company. But 11 years passed. And then 12, and 13. Now there is more uncertainty than ever about whether dreamers will someday have a path to citizenship.
“I was like, well, I have been waiting and waiting and waiting and nothing happens. Now we have a different president that is all against immigrants and I don’t think something is going to happen.”
Seven months ago, he sold his business and his house, and drove across the border into Mexico. He’s 29, with a buzz cut, thick-rimmed glasses and a nose ring. These days, he’s feeling pretty disoriented.
“I didn’t know what I was going to get myself into. I was stepping out of my comfort zone. Not speaking Spanish the right way. Not knowing many people. It was hard.”
There aren’t good statistics on how many Dreamers have voluntarily left the U.S. but Noe seems to be part of a mini-trend.
Israel Concha runs an organization that helps Mexican citizens moving back to Mexico after years away. He says it’s rare for young people with DACA to rerun voluntarily. But in the last year he has seen more dreamers make that leap.
“People are starting to see there is a light by the end of the tunnel and they are not afraid leave everything behind in America, in the golden cage, like we say, and come back to Mexico and look for better opportunities here,” he said.
For Noe, just seeing his parents was a relief. He was also particularly excited to see his niece, Jacqueline, who was three when he left, and is now 16.
“I remember that the last time we saw each he hugged me a lot but I didn’t understand why. I thought he was going away for a few days.”
Now that he’s back, she’s happy she can talk to him whenever she wants. He gets her, she said.
While Noe is also happy to be reunited with family, it hasn’t been easy losing the life he built in the U.S.
“It hurts. It’s just those memories. The first day that I got there. When I finally started college you know it was a great feeling. It’s not easy to move from one country and get the experiences, the mentality of other country and come back and face reality. It’s not easy.”
Since moving back, Noe has lived with his family in a small town in the state of Morelos. He’s not working. Just last week, he moved to Mexico City, a three-hour drive away. He wants to become a businessman again. Meanwhile, he volunteers with Israel Concha’s organization to help deportees.
“I always thought about being an activist. It was my dream and all of a sudden that dream is reality now. In a different way, in a different country. I want to make an impact for my country here in Mexico.”
He regularly joins a group that meets deported people at the Mexico City airport and helps them start a new life. Just like he has.