By William Perez
MEXICO CITY—What becomes of an undocumented Mexican student who grew up most of her life in the U.S. when she gets deported back to Mexico? What becomes of an undocumented student when he decides that he is tired of waiting for immigration reform and feeling marginalized and decides to return to Mexico, a country virtually foreign to him?
A half-million young adults who grew up in the U.S. were deported or forced to return to Mexico in the past decade, and another million U.S.-born children of deported parents, who speak little or no Spanish, are currently enrolled in Mexican public schools. All these students are culturally American, but they have been forced by punitive and cruel U.S. immigration laws to leave their country and the communities that raised them.
After 10 years of research on higher education access and civic engagement of undocumented students in the U.S., I decided to investigate what happens to those that were deported or returned to their country of birth, and for the past four months I have been living in Mexico City on a Fulbright Fellowship. In the next two entries of a three-part series, I will provide an expanded description of my main findings and will offer some suggestions for binational education and immigration policies. But first, let me set the context.
Despite the lack of comprehensive immigration reform, the U.S. has made great strides in the past ten years to provide higher educational access to undocumented students. More than 20 states have passed in-state tuition policies, six of those states have passed tuition-assistance laws, and countless nonprofit organizations and foundations have opened their scholarship programs to undocumented students. Two years ago, President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy provided temporary legal residence and work-permits to more than 400,000 high school and college students, college graduates, and graduate students pursuing Masters, Doctorates, and other professional degrees.
California leads the nation as the only state that allows “DACAmented” college graduates to apply for state-issued professional licenses required in various professions such as lawyer, doctor, teacher, nurse, etc. With all these milestones, it’s easy to forget that 400,000 is only a small fraction of the 10-million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. and the more than 1.5-million that have been deported or forced to return to Mexico during the Obama administration.
During my time in Mexico City, I have come to learn about similar efforts in Mexico that began less than two years ago under the leadership of returning and deported young adults, civil society organizations, philanthropic organizations, academics, and Mexican state government agencies. Slowly, the Mexican federal government is beginning to realize that it needs to respond to the chorus of voices that continues to grow louder and stronger.
Centrally located geographically, with proximity to federal government agencies, and with a large civil society sector, Mexico City has become the hub of efforts to increase educational access and labor force opportunities for return migrant youth. The groundbreaking advocacy and policy reform efforts is led by the “Los Otros Dreamers Collective,” a group of deported and returned young adults with previous U.S. civic engagement experience. They range in age from 18-35 and reside in various states across Mexico.
They have connected through social media to create a counterpart to the Dreamer student activist movement in the U.S. to advocate for educational access in Mexico and immigration reform policies to allow returnees and deportees to visit or return to the communities where they grew up in the U.S. Another key group is Dream in Mexico, a non-profit organization founded by return migrant young adults to provide assistance to returnees and deportees to navigate Mexico’s vast educational bureaucracy, and to help those with college degrees from the U.S. to identify labor force opportunities. They recently received a grant to expand their efforts from the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, the only national 501(c)(3) organization in the United States dedicated to carrying out philanthropic efforts to expand opportunity for the people of Mexico for the benefit of both nations.
Another partner is the Citizens Initiative for the Promotion of a Culture of Dialogue, a dynamic NGO that works to encourage youth and adult civic engagement, help academic and civil society inform public policy, and promote voting in Mexican elections from abroad.
Jill Anderson is a catalyst who helped to bring these folks together to develop a shared vision and strategy. Anderson, a U.S. academic who began doing research on return migrant youth as a postdoc at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) two years ago. Her enthusiasm brought me to Mexico City, and I was compelled by her research and passion. Many education and migration scholars from Mexico’s prestigious universities have also begun to join ongoing advocacy and policy reform efforts, including academics from the UNAM, College of Mexico (COLMEX), and the Interdisciplinary Program of Educational Policy and Practice (PIPE) at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics (CIDE). I feel very fortunate to support their efforts through my research and insights from my policy experience in the U.S.
The first major collective campaign is centered around a Spanish-English bilingual book written by Anderson and Nin Solis titled, “Los Otros Dreamers.” It’s a collection of 26 personal essays and photographs of deportees/returnees that effectively portray the struggles of young adults who grew up in the U.S. undocumented and returned to Mexico, only to face an equally daunting set of challenges to continue their education and pursue their professional aspirations.
Some of the young adults featured in the book as well as members of Dream in Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, and Citizens Initiative are currently on binational book tour in the U.S. and Mexico. The book has become an important tool to facilitate discussions on both sides of the border about the issues of immigration and education not only in regards to undocumented young adults or “Dreamers” in the U.S. but also, “Los Otros Dreamers,” (The Other Dreamers) who now live Mexico but who still remain invisible on both sides of the border, despite deep binational ties. Anderson’s book is beginning to reshape Mexican and American public perception in a profound way. Various sectors of Mexican society are now starting to understand the importance of providing support to harness the talents of returnees so they can maximize their contribution to Mexican society and binational relationships between the U.S. and Mexico.
On the eve of President Obama’s announcement of executive action to expand administrative relief for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., I’ve been reflecting not only on the potential positive impact on millions of parents and adults who currently live under great uncertainty, but also about the hundreds of thousands of deported and returned young adults who are struggling in Mexico but will not be able to benefit from the President’s executive policy. The measure will do nothing to alleviate the negative and lasting impact of broken U.S. immigration policies. They will continue to be separated from their loved ones on the Mexican side of the border, to be discriminated against by Mexicans who consider them “too American,” and to be denied educational access and labor market opportunities by indifferent government bureaucracies.
To begin to rectify this tragedy, President Obama should go a step further in his proposed executive action on immigration to include the option for deported/return young adults in Mexico who meet all other criteria, to be eligible for the new policy and to be able to return to the U.S. and travel between the U.S. and Mexico. They are ideal citizen-ambassadors that can help both governments work together to ensure educational access and general welfare for Mexicans and Americans. In my next entry, I will provide findings from our research that describe the educational and labor market potential of Los Otros Dreamers.
Photo Captions (From top)
1: William Perez, Claremont Graduate University. (CGU photo)
2: “Los Otros Dreamers” Collective member, Nancy Landa, speaks about her deportation experience. (William Perez photo).
3: Members of the “Los Otros Dreamers” Collective and representative from the NGO, Citizens Initiative. (William Perez)
4: Members of Dream in Mexico and U.S.-Mexico Foundation. (Fred Sanchez photo)
William Perez (BA, Pomona College; Ph.D., Stanford University) is an Associate Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar/Visiting Researcher at Colegio de Mexico (COLMEX) in Mexico City. His research focuses on the social and psychological processes associated with academic success and higher education access among immigrant Latino students. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading academic experts on undocumented students. In 2009, he received the Mildred Garcia Prize from the Association for the Study of Higher Education for his book, We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing the American Dream. His most recent book, Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, was selected for the 2013 Critics Choice Award by the American Educational Studies Association. Follow @williamperezphd on Twitter, Become a fan on Facebook
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