Nogales, Son. – Jesús Alejandro de la Torre comes out from behind his house, where he has a small welding shop. He lifts his baseball cap just enough to wipe the sweat off his forehead, and looks down the street, checking that everything is alright.
Behind him, three little girls giggle while playing with a white pit-bull. As neighbors walk down the street, the dog rams itself against the fence, barking and growling at anyone who comes near their home.
The blue house stands tall at the lower end of a short set of stairs, with the front window open, so that Cherissa Barrus can keep an eye on her three daughters while her husband works in the back. Ten minutes south of the U.S.-Mexico border, this family of six works hard toward building a new life in Nogales, Sonora, after the U.S. deported Jesús Alejandro three years ago.
For decades, there has been continuous debate over who deserves to live in the United States and who does not. Some immigrants have managed to obtain their citizenship, while many others have been kicked out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), just like Jesus Alejandro.
However, among all the chaos of opinions, there’s often an odd number left out – the American-born children of repatriated immigrants, just like Jesus Alejandro’s three girls and boy.
The Migration Policy Institute estimated in a January 2016 report that there were about 5.1 million U.S. children under the age of 18 with at least one undocumented immigrant parent during the 2009-2013 period.
Based on the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report for fiscal year 2017, American authorities removed over 225,000 immigrants, with Mexico as the leading country of origin for those removed.
While ICE works towards deporting those who are deemed unqualified for U.S. citizenship, Mexico has opened its doors to all the children of those returning Mexican citizens.
Jesús Alejandro lived in the United States for 38 years as a legal Arizona resident before he was deported for his criminal background. Although the rest of Jesus Alejandro’s family holds American passports, they decided to stay together and follow him to his birth country when he was deported.
Building a new life in Mexico has meant building a personal border fence around their property – away from the unknown, away from all the dangers that this new country poses for their children.
“When I first came here I was a little nervous, because everybody made it sound scary over here,” says Barrus, who has always lived in the U.S.
Jesus Alejandro explained that they heard a lot of stories about the drug cartel violence before they arrived in Mexico, which might sound like a war zone for those who are not from the area, just like his family.
The parents also worry about the consequences that the girls’ language barrier might cause if they were to attend a Mexican school. Alejandro is the only one in the family who speaks Spanish fluently.
“Seeing them here, they only have each other as friends,” says Barrus. “When I bought this house, I bought it because of the yard – they have more space to be a kid.”
The three girls – ages 8, 9, and 11 – only speak English which makes it difficult for them to communicate with the other kids in the neighborhood. The youngest child is 10 months old.
“I can’t really speak [Spanish] that much, so I need to work on that more,” says Kimora, 11, about living in Mexico with a language barrier. “I notice there’s a lot of people who try talking to me and I don’t know what they’re saying.”
Since arriving in Mexico, they have kept to themselves. The three girls are homeschooled through an online American program. They can cross back to the U.S. to take exams that validate their homeschool education.
“I [just miss] all the activities that they would have there” says Kimora of her former school in Tucson, Arizona. “They had after school programs that I would join, I would help out some of the teachers, and we could also help donate.”
While Jesus Alejandro and his family face several obstacles in their new life in Mexico, others who have been deported from the U.S. have the advantage of being a bit more in touch with their Mexican roots.
In Justo Sierra elementary school in Nogales, Sonora, Principal Jose Luis Enríquez Borbón says that he often enrolls and educates U.S. children who have come to Mexico after their parents repatriated, either by force or voluntarily.
Enríquez Borbón states that all the children in his school speak Spanish, including those children from the U.S., and it is easy for them to adapt to the culture, considering the parents are still strongly connected to their Mexican roots. But the problem with educating many of these students is the instability in terms of where home is.
“The families arrive in Nogales, but they’re just passing through,” says Enríquez Borbón. “They’re either heading to the center of [Mexico] or are planning to cross the border again.”
As the school principal says, the parents maybe have been deported to the Nogales, Sonora border, but they rarely have a set plan to stay there.
Although Enríquez Borbón explains that most of the children have a dual citizenship with both sides of the border, they do not have the same access to the United States as Jesús Alejandro’s family does.
“We ask the parents why they don’t send their children to school [in Nogales, Arizona],” he says. “That way they have better employment opportunities when they grow up.”
However, he explains that many parents cannot cross back to the U.S. and others have financial barriers that hold them back.
As many families use the Nogales, Sonora area as a pit stop before going further south into Mexico or back into the U.S., Jesús Alejandro says that his family will keep working hard to build a more stable life in this border town.
“We’re just trying to be happy,” says Jesús Alejandro. “Even if it looks pretty bad, we don’t give up.”
He describes how his wife brings in most of the income during the winter with her job on the American side of the border, helping people file their taxes. During the summertime, Jesús Alejandro works as an arborist, just as he did in the U.S., and accepts other side jobs to bring extra income to his home.
While their girls may not yet be ready to wander on their own in the streets of Mexico, they work towards goals of their own.
Besides trying to pick up the Spanish language and practice it at home, Kimora describes her dreams for her future – helping others.
“When I get older I want to help elderly people, so I want to work as a nurse,” she says.
Kimora plans to obtain her education and work in the U.S. in the future, but she already considers Mexico her home.
“I really enjoy Mexico, and I’d really like to live here [when I get older],” says Kimora.
Genesis Lara is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org