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For these immigrants, there’s no other ‘home’ to go back to

29 Nov

The real goal behind President-elect Donald Trump’s proposed draconian measures against the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States is not forceful expulsion, but mass self-deportation: to make life so wretched and untenable that immigrants have no choice but to uproot, returning to their countries of origin, unwelcoming as they might be.
And they will be unwelcoming. In the past eight years, many immigrants who have been deported during the Obama administration’s record-setting removal of 2.5 million people have struggled with re-assimilation once they’re sent out of the United States. Some have tried to begin life anew in cities they no longer recognize and that offer no opportunities or respite. Others haven’t been as lucky.Five years ago in Tijuana, I met a woman named Mayra. A single mother of two young girls, she had been deported from Utah after police caught her driving with the headlights out. She explained that she was just running a quick errand, trying to fetch a lemonade for her youngest daughter, who suffered from a chronic renal ailment. Mayra found no sympathy. She was deported to Mexico without her U.S.-born daughters. She tried to reconnect with her family in the state of Guerrero, along Mexico’s Pacific coast, but almost a decade had gone by, and Mayra found no friendly faces. Rather than respect her plight, her relatives — who had frowned upon her decision to emigrate in the first place — rejected her almost immediately.

Mayra then headed to Tijuana, where she tried to make her way back into the United States and regain custody of her daughters. She tried to appeal to the Mexican government, but its endless bureaucratic maze was of no help. Mayra became desperate. By the time I met her, she had been deported twice more and was living in a shelter. Her daughters, she said, where up for adoption back in Utah.

Stories like Mayra’s would become the norm if Trump follows through on his promise to deport millions of immigrants and make life impossible for millions more. No group would face a harder time than the “dreamers,” young men and women brought to the United States as kids, without their knowledge or consent. For the millions of undocumented immigrants who emigrated of their own volition as adults, their countries remain a vivid memory; bonds are still vibrant, if distant. Many of these immigrants recall the sights and sounds of their homelands; the family that remained, parents, wives, children who can serve as emotional anchors to a life that, for all practical purposes, has been left behind.

People brought here as young children have no such luxury. For them, the place of their birth is not even a memory, all trace of it lost to the hazy wirings of early childhood. Most dreamers have never gone back to the countries they left as small children, because returning to the United States afterward without proper papers would have been impossible. Most of what they know comes from their parents’ recollections, a sort of oral tradition of the great Hispanic wave of the 20th century. “I think of Mexico like I think of fairy tales,” a young woman recently told me in Los Angeles. “They’ve told me it’s there, but I have never seen it.” Many dreamers I’ve spoken to do indeed dream of getting to know the land of their forefathers. Yet those who do find themselves faced with their own dual identity: the ancestral bond with the fairy tale might remain, but life is somewhere else. They might visit but would never dream of voluntarily relocating. They are, for all practical purposes, American kids.

A couple of days ago, I asked the parents of dreamers to call into the daily radio show I host in Southern California. I wanted to know how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), President Obama’s program allowing some undocumented immigrants who had arrived here as children to remain and get work authorization, had changed their children’s lives and what would happen if the program came to a halt, putting the young men and women suddenly at risk of deportation. Luis Canales was the first to call in (we did not screen the calls or pre-produce them in any way). Canales has eight daughters, five of them under DACA’s protection. Canales brought them to the United States as young girls, the eldest just over 10 years old. “DACA changed their lives completely,” he told me. “They felt safer, more optimistic.” It had allowed them to take a “giant leap ahead”: Before getting temporary protected status, his daughters had found work cleaning a restaurant; with the program’s protection, they took jobs at a media conglomerate and a health-care company. They’re still in school and plan to stay there, growing. “They are not afraid,” Canales told me. “They will keep going.”

Gustavo Pérez jumped on the line next. Pérez immigrated from Argentina in 2004 with his wife and two sons, both under 9 years old and covered by DACA. “It has improved their lives. They stepped out of the shadows,” Pérez told me. His youngest son is a lifeguard in Los Angeles. “He has saved the life of three people,” Pérez said, “and he’s only 17.” Pérez’s other son pilots remote-controlled airplanes as a hobby and has successfully taken part in competitions around the world representing the United States. His status under DACA allowed him to compete under the American flag, Pérez explained to me. That son wants to work as a drone operator in the U.S. military.

I asked Canales and Pérez what the end of DACA would mean for their kids. Canales told me it would be a severe setback. Pérez went further: “To lose DACA would mean losing everything,” he told me. “Mine are good kids. We don’t have DUIs, not one single traffic ticket in over 12 years. I came to this country to lead a decent life, I came here to work and that’s what my sons want to do as well.” None of them could imagine what life what would be like for their kids in Mexico or Argentina. They found it unfathomable.

Of the long list of upcoming decisions aimed at the expulsion or self-deportation of millions of immigrants, few would be as egregious as stripping hundreds of thousands of quintessentially American kids of the freedom to develop their full potential and thoughtlessly discard their contribution to the future of the United States, a country they consider their own. The sane voices left in the Republican Party should take notice. As should the English-language press. The failure to denounce an American exodus would be morally unforgivable.