MEXICO CITY—After 20 years building what he and his family describe as a classic small-town American life, Roberto Beristain is back in the working-class neighborhood of the Mexican capital where he grew up, a stranger in a land that is no longer his own.
The open fields he knew as a youth have been replaced by densely packed houses and apartments, shopping centers and a Six Flags amusement park. Many of his boyhood friends and relatives have moved away.
“Everything is so different after so long,” Mr. Beristain, 43 years old, said recently in a parlor of the four-story cinder-block building he helped construct, first with his own hands and later with money he sent home during his years in the north. “This is my parents’ house. My family is in the United States.”
Mr. Beristain was deported earlier this month, one of a number of recent, high-profile removals that have underscored the Trump administration’s tougher enforcement policies.
His long stay in the U.S.—much of it with the knowledge of federal authorities—and sudden change of fortune embody the complicated history of U.S. immigration policy over several administrations.
His return to Mexico highlights what could be in store for millions of other illegal immigrants in the U.S. under the new Republican president.
The ordeal has left Mr. Beristain’s family in emotional and financial turmoil while upending his own sense of identity.
“I am more used to things there than here in Mexico,” Mr. Beristain said of the corner of northern Indiana he calls home and where his wife and three children remain. “I am more American than Mexican.”
Mr. Beristain entered the U.S. illegally in 1997 when the border was more porous. He had no trouble finding work in restaurants and soon met his future wife, Helen, a legal Greek immigrant. In 2000, an immigration judge ordered Mr. Beristain to voluntarily leave the country within 60 days. But his wife was pregnant with their first daughter, and Mr. Beristain stayed. The voluntary departure became a final order of removal, obstructing Mr. Beristain’s attempts to get on the right side of the law even through marriage to Helen, who became a U.S. citizen.
Robero Beristain, center wearing white, was flanked by, from left, his parents, Jose and Yolanda, and his wife, Helen, who flew to Mexico City with their children on April 14. The couple’s three children and one of Mr. Beristain’s nephews looked on. Mr. Beristain hadn’t been with his parents since he left Mexico 20 years ago, although the money he sent home from the U.S. helped sustain the family.
Robero Beristain, center wearing white, was flanked by, from left, his parents, Jose and Yolanda, and his wife, Helen, who flew to Mexico City with their children on April 14. The couple’s three children and one of Mr. Beristain’s nephews looked on. Mr. Beristain hadn’t been with his parents since he left Mexico 20 years ago, although the money he sent home from the U.S. helped sustain the family. PHOTO: CINTHYA CHAVEZ
Mr. Beristain was granted a reprieve from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2012, allowing him to receive a work permit, a Social Security number and an Indiana driver’s license. U.S. officials allowed him to stay as long he kept out of trouble and checked in annually.
The Beristains fruitlessly paid a string of lawyers at least $40,000 through the years attempting to gain legal residency, the couple said.
“We never imagined they would deport me,” Mr. Beristain said, noting that his wife voted for President Trump because of his business-friendly policies and pledge to deport criminals. “What crime was so huge that they’ve treated me like this?” he said.
The Trump administration says it is focused on deporting serious criminals, though immigration officials are removing others eligible for deportation.
Mr. Beristain was detained Feb. 6 during a check-in with immigration officials, held for nearly two months and deported April 4. He is banned from legally re-entering the U.S. for 10 years. His pro-bono attorneys contend Mr. Beristain’s deportation was unusual because it was carried out before a judge could rule on his immigration case or his habeas petition in federal court.
ICE officials wouldn’t address whether Mr. Beristain’s case is unusual. “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” an ICE spokeswoman said.
The third of seven children born to a restaurant worker and his homemaker wife, Mr. Beristain was raised in a quickly growing neighborhood in the mountain foothills that ring Mexico City. To help with family expenses, he started working at the age of 8, selling frozen pops and chewing gum on the street and entertaining in clown makeup on city buses for tips.
After two years in the Mexican army and several more working in restaurants, he decided at 23 to go to the U.S., more out of wanderlust than with any concrete plans to stay.
The Beristains had three children together, now ages 8 to 16. They bought a house in a leafy neighborhood of ranch and two-story houses in Mishawaka, a small city near the University of Notre Dame. In January, they bought a popular local restaurant, Eddie’s Steak Shed, from Mrs. Beristain’s relatives.
In their father’s absence, the children are struggling in school and peers have taunted them that their father is a criminal, Mrs. Beristain said. The restaurant’s business has suffered without him running the kitchen, she said.
“It’s been a nightmare,” Mrs. Beristain said on Good Friday, after she arrived with her children in Mexico City to hug Mr. Beristain for the first time in months and to meet his parents and other relatives. The Beristains said they have no intention of bringing their children to live in Mexico.
While hoping his lawyers’ efforts can allow him to return to the U.S. soon, Mr. Beristain is starting to contemplate what he can do in Mexico.
“I know how to work,” Mr. Beristain said. “But it’s going to be very difficult for my family.”