WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 28: People march and rally in front of the White House to demonstrate against President Barack Obama's immigration and deportation actions April 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The United States deports more Mexican people than immigrants from any other country. More than 100,000 people were deported to Mexico last year—and it’s not just because of the country’s proximity to the U.S., according to César Miguel R. Vega Magallón

Vega Magallón is the creator and host of the Illegal Entry podcast and they are the Mexico advocacy fellow at the Rhizome Center for Migrants (RCM), the first and only legal aid clinic south of the border that is focused on providing post-deportation legal services to the deported community. The organization’s Mexico Project, based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, focuses on strengthening and expanding legal and reintegration resources for at-risk people who have been deported to Mexico. Vega Magallón, who returned to Mexico in 2018, cites the U.S. war on drugs, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and other U.S. policies as primary reasons Mexican citizens migrate to the U.S. as asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Thousands of them are deported each month, including those with deep roots in the U.S. Still, there are very few services and resources to help return migrants navigate life in Mexico. 

In recent months, RCM has worked to raise consciousness around the experiences, needs, and organizing efforts of returned and deported migrants. The organization has been collecting testimonies from people who have been deported with the goal of building support for proposals the organization outlined in an open letter to President Joe Biden signed by every deportee-led organization in Mexico and (and by dozens of allies in the U.S.). According to Vega Magallón, these proposals would create the possibility for deported migrants around the world to reunite with their families and communities by eliminating punitive barriers to entry to the U.S. 

Over several weeks, Vega Magallón corresponded with Prism about the challenges and stigma facing return migrants, the Rhizome Center for Migrant’s focus on Jalisco and the Occidental, Bajío region of Mexico, and why U.S.-based immigrants’ rights organizations need to consider people who have been deported in their policy proposals. Our conversation has been condensed and edited. 

Tina Vasquez: First and foremost, what do you want people to understand about the challenges that people experience immediately after being deported and displaced?

César Miguel R. Vega Magallón: Minutes after deportation, the deported become prime targets for kidnappings, disappearances, and assaults. Due to dangerous conditions at the border, violence remains an immediate threat for those repatriated. Homelessness is also an issue that does not receive much attention. Visit any of the homeless shelters in Mexico and you will find someone who has been deported from the United States. 

Access to identity documents is a constant issue for migrants, especially those who left before they were adults and lack the necessary supporting documentation—like a birth certificate—to obtain official government identification. This makes everything from housing and employment to receiving financial support from family in the U.S. impossible without third-party assistance. There are also barriers created by a patchwork of state and municipal programs and the poor implementation of federal policy. For example, obtaining education equivalence for migrants with U.S. degrees remains a persistent, vexing issue. Those who arrive with specialized skills find that they are in a job market that is significantly underpaid, where those skills may not be in demand, or where they lack the cédulas or other licenses. Because of these issues, many return migrants are locked out of the formal employment sector and as a result, lack health care options besides out-of-pocket care through private clinics and hospitals. 

Vasquez: What would be helpful for people to understand about the stigma that deported people experience once they are living in Mexico? 

Vega Magallón: The same fear and stigma of living undocumented in the United States exists for deportees now in their countries of origin. There are markers readily perceived by other Mexicans as belonging to someone who spent a significant amount of time in the United States, like broken Spanish, tattoos, and even subtle cues, like gestures. It’s a common belief that those who were deported or returned are “criminals” and there is a stigma and scorn attached to the idea that having lived in a wealthy country you would only return if you had failed in some capacity. It often feels as if deported communities are still living as undocumented migrants despite enjoying, theoretically, the full citizenship of their country of birth. 

Vasquez: In a recent Rhizome Center webinar, the California policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, Armando Gudiño, said that the drug war and its origins was always a war on immigrants. What role does crimmigration and the criminalization of substance use/dependency play in the lives of deported people who find their way to the Rhizome Center?

Vega Magallón: Research in the psychology of substance use has established that traumatic life events and adverse childhood experiences can lead individuals to develop Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) as a coping and self-medication mechanism. At the same time, research in the psychology of migration has shown us that migration and the struggle to integrate can be traumatic life events. Many immigrants in the United States struggle with this dynamic in shame and in secret until an arrest or deportation occurs.

The United States’ war on drugs has created a cycle of internal displacement, forced migration abroad, and deportation. Even as U.S. foreign policy supplies governments with monies, arms, and the know-how to turn receiving countries into war zones, U.S. drug policies and criminal laws at home continue to punish preventable and treatable mental illness with jail and exile. The war on communities of color extends beyond the border and is intertwined at every level with the drug wars throughout the hemisphere. Deportation figures in the United States and homicide rates in the region are driven by the same failed multi-decade policies that have centuries-old roots.

Some of the return migrants the Rhizome Center works with arrive in Mexico with criminal charges or convictions related to substances that make it impossible for them to return to the United States. Others may have untreated underlying mental health issues developed from the trauma of criminalization, detention, and exile from a country where they have spent decades. Advocates and policymakers have overhauled some drug policy and criminal law around substances like cannabis; however, return migrants have been utterly forgotten.

Vasquez: The Rhizome Center is currently in the process of collecting the testimonies and experiences of people who have been deported. Why are you doing this now, and are any trends emerging from these testimonies? 

Vega Magallón: Programs that were established during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s sexenio in response to President Trump’s threats of mass deportations have vanished with the new president. And because successive Mexican governments have seemed unable to grasp sustainable and appropriate ways to support return migrants, every budget passed by Congress, every change of governor, legislature, or mayor makes us hold our breath, wondering what challenge or opportunity it will bring and what will survive, disappear, or emerge. Programs are often designed by the government without the input of the deported themselves, so accessing what help does exist—including emergency shelter and food aid—is confusing and frustrating. A succinct way to describe the common experience is by hearing what many deportees call themselves: Los Olvidados, the forgotten.

Deported Mexicans have been abandoned by two governments. There is a parallel need to advocate for changes in Mexico, but for many who have strong ties to the United States, the right to return is the best solution. There is resiliency in our communities and hope springs eternal every time there is an advocacy push for immigration reform in the United States. But it is the duty of advocates on both sides of the border to remember to include Los Olvidados in their efforts.

A trend we see now is the increase in the number of individuals from third countries living in Mexico after their deportation from the United States. Those fleeing government persecution from their countries of origin now find themselves undocumented for a second time in a country that can be hostile to migrants. We have no way of knowing how many refugees in Mexico were deported from the United States, as Mexican officials don’t seem to have explored the topic. 

Vasquez: Tell me more about why RCM’s current efforts and campaigns are focused on the state of Jalisco and the Occidental, Bajío, region of Mexico. Why are these significant regions for the work that you do?

Vega Magallón: The Rhizome Center is based in Guadalajara, Jalisco, therefore our work is informed, shaped, and driven by this city’s history and migration narrative. Every story we encounter here reveals a greater complexity to the region’s migration and hints at Mexico’s evolving role as a nation defined by emigration, return migration, and, now immigration from third countries. Jalisco is one of the major recipients of U.S. remittances largely because it is a state that has also been a historical remittor of migrants to the United States. You can’t go a day in Guadalajara without meeting someone who spent even a little time in the United States living or working clandestinely.

Jalisco, along with the states of Zacatecas, Michoacán, and Guanajuato, has been particularly affected by the great migration of Mexicans in the lead up to and implementation of NAFTA, and is essential in the historical narrative on migration and deportation of Mexicans from the United States. The subsequent migrations were brought about by the ongoing drug war that has already claimed four times as many Mexican lives as the Mexican-American War and by ongoing economic circumstances in Mexico. Millions of families in the Occidental, Bajío, region of Mexico are in a sense incomplete, with family members strewn about the continent after four decades of forced migration made semi-permanent by the entrenchment of the border post-9/11.  

Despite the key role this region has played in the ongoing history of Mexican migration, resources have not followed proportionally for return migrants or for the families they left behind. So, the work RCM does is grounded in the history of this region and as a direct answer to the historic neglect of the pueblos and cities which gave birth to a significant portion of the more than 34 million-strong Mexican diaspora in the United States.

Vasquez: Outside of the Bring Them Home campaign in 2013 organized by undocumented youth, have there been any other efforts in the U.S. focused on returning deported people and reuniting them with their families? 

Vega Magallón: After the Bring Them Home campaign, there was another attempt organized by many of the same people called Reforma 150 that attempted to return over 150 deported and returned migrants to the United States through a series of actions. I worked on this campaign in the case of María Isabel Zavala Bernal, who turned herself in at the border with her 9-year-old U.S. citizen son and asked for asylum. She was denied credible fear and was ordered [to be] removed to Michoacán where she faced extortion and threats to her safety. She has two undocumented adult children in the United States whom she is still separated from. But there have been other efforts to help the deported return. There have been efforts focused on individual Southeast Asian refugees, adoptees from South Korea, deported veterans, and immigrant activists targeted by ICE, including the ongoing struggle and case to bring Claudio Rojas home from Argentina. The National Immigrant Justice Center also currently has a campaign to spur executive action to bring home some deported migrants.

The struggle of the immigrants’ rights movement and the deportee rights movement is linked because the lives of deportees span borders, oceans, and continents. Even when not physically present, the ties to the places they were taken from are alive and the echoes of their time in the United States have impacts on the communities they left. At minimum, healing our communities means restoring choice and agency in the life of the deported. We’re here to extend a hand to our allies in the United States, to offer our perspective and our support. Our communities’ futures depend on our cross border cooperation and solidarity.

Vasquez: You said earlier that deported migrants often call themselves Los Olvidados. Why is it harmful when we—the public, the media, etc.—behave as if a person’s story ends when they are deported and outside of the confines of the United States?

Vega Magallón: Deportees have long been treated as permanent casualties, as if they are meant to vanish over the border. But their lives continue. Prison abolitionists talk about how prisons have never solved social issues, but have only worked to obscure them temporarily. Deportation and immigration detention work largely in the same way. Failing to remember Los Olvidados is failing to take the U.S. government to account for its immigration policies. In forgetting the deported, we do the work of ICE, unpaid and unthanked. There is no abolishing ICE without restorative justice for the deported.

Those who experience deportation as a life sentence and not a death sentence must find ways to survive without support. One unseen and unspoken consequence regarding the lack of attention around the afterlife of deportation is that national governments that typically respond to pressure have faced no pushback, no public media embarrassment, and have never been taken to account for the way their deported nationals lack access to even basic identity documents, healthcare, jobs, or housing post-deportation—even as these same governments have built enormous infrastructure to facilitate return tourism, remittances, and mechanisms to protect income from their overseas nationals.

Another consequence of ignoring people after their deportation is that, even as the numbers of the deported continue to increase and deportation itself becomes a driver and root cause of migration, non-governmental resources remain scarce. Foundations, think tanks, and large organizations have been caught flat-footed by the crisis, and organizations and advocates in Mexico are resource-strapped, often having to perform miracles as a second, unpaid full-time job. If we truly care about the lives of migrants, if we believe in the freedom of movement of individuals, we have to build a path home for individuals—wherever home is. Otherwise, we will fail time and time again.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.