By Mercedes Corrales
In January 2018, after living in the U.S. for 25 years, my grandmother Maria was deported to her home country of Mexico.
Her deportation was an unexpected one. In 2005, my grandma was detained and was going to be sent back to Mexico. However, her youngest son needed medical attention and required yearly surgeries until he was older. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) allowed my grandma to stay in the United States, as long as she presented herself in court every year to renew her work-permit. Years later, when my uncle turned 18, my grandmother said he became defiant and stopped going to his doctor appointments. When it came time for the immigration court hearing, he did not show up, and it led to her immediate deportation.
When she was deported, she had to stay in a jail cell for a couple of hours. ICE officials put her on a bus and drove her down to Tijuana. Tijuana is one of the most popular drop off spots for recent deportees and is called the land of the deported. The city has 15 different shelters, and about 24,000 people were deported there between January and September.
ICE dropped my grandmother off in Tijuana with no resources. And that was it. She was in a country in which she has not been in for 25 years. She tried calling her family, but no one answered. After she was dropped off, she tried finding a place to live. Thankfully, she found refuge in a church where she had a connection and from there found a room to rent from a friend.
“It’s been really hard,” my grandmother told me. “If you go out on the street anyone can steal from you. Everyone assumes you have money and assaults you. There is a lot of violence that is very extreme. Especially when you aren’t familiar in the setting where you can distinguish if someone is trying to help you or harm you. That’s why you suffer because of the violence in TJ. You can’t go out for the dangers. I’m more afraid here than when I would cross to the United States.”
Tijuana has had their bloodiest year on record with 1,600 murders so far. Deportees often try to return to the U.S., but due to increase supervision at the border, it’s become more expensive to hire a smuggler—the cost now ranges between $8,000 and $12,000—and also more dangerous.
The author, pictured above left, meets with her grandmother Maria for the first time since Maria’s deportation.
In addition to the violence, the economic situation in Tijuana is very poor. Deportees have a particularly hard time finding work, because they don’t always have the necessary Mexican identification documentation after being away from the country so long. It took two months for my grandmother to find her current job, working in a factory for $75 a week, or roughly two dollars per hour. Compared to what she made in the United States, that is very low, especially since she is still working 40 hours a week. She relies on money that me or my mom sends to her because of her low wage.
I have lived with my grandma for most of my life, and she was a tremendous support for my family. I asked my grandma how she felt about her relationship with her family after her deportation, and she answered that she feels both distant and close. She does not feel supported by all her family and feels very lonely. She is currently living in Tijuana and does not plan to go back to her hometown because of tension in her family. Although her son and brother live in Tijuana, they do not visit each other regularly.
The story of my grandmother’s deportation is not unique. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data, in 2017, ICE arrested 110,568 people—a 42 percent increase from the year before. How quickly the deportation process works depends on individual cases. Usually, the immigration judge gives an arrested undocumented immigrant a specific amount of time to leave the country voluntarily, and if they fail to comply, then ICE issues a deportation order. Sometimes deportation can be delayed; for example, if the person is receiving medical treatment or caring for an ailing child or an elderly parent. However, U.S. immigration policy is getting less and less accepting, and there’s a huge push to remove undocumented immigrations and prevents new ones from settling in the U.S. There is a stereotype against immigrants that all immigrants are criminals, drug lords or gang members, despite research that has proven immigration status doesn’t predict criminal behavior. This is important to note because immigrants are often used as scapegoats for crimes by the American government. This, in turn, leads to increased deportations. Any crime caused by an immigrant can put the person in risk, even if you have a work permit or are a resident. In applying for citizenship, the applicant is still at risk for deportation at any stage of the process. The amount of money the U.S. invests in separating families is tremendous. According to current research, on potential governmental plan to systematically deport undocumented immigrants will cost $200 billion over the next five years. An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the U.S., and the current hard-line immigration policy hurts both them and their families.
Like my grandmother, most of the immigrants that come to the United States seek a better life and want to work for their families. Making the choice to cross into the U.S. is not easy, because the dangers of coming to the United States are high. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has documented how brutal the crossing can be—DHS has found people left in the desert, abandoned by smugglers, who charge as much as $12,000 to get someone across the border. Sexual assault is also a prevalent issue—DHS reports that 60-80 percent of women are raped during the crossing. Thankfully, even though my grandma crossed multiple times, nothing ever happened to her. She recalls that making the crossing became more difficult as the years went by and stopped crossed one last time. She had to go under a truck, and it was sweltering, and she was afraid. I asked her if she was scared of crossing and she said that it was like an adventure to her. The last time she crossed though, she was terrified. People who cross the border are aware of the potential danger that is present, but life back at home is so terrible that they are willing to sacrifice everything.
My grandmother’s story proves this. Growing up in Mexico, her family lived in poverty. She was an only child for ten years and then her mom remarried and had two more children, Humberto and Carmen. At the age of about 10, she had the responsibilities of an adult. She essentially had to be a mother to her siblings while their mom worked, because their father passed away and their mom had to work to support her family.
At 12, Maria stopped going to school because she had to go work at a pharmacy to support her mom financially. She wanted to be a teacher when she grew up, but she knew it could not have happened because they had no money and she had to take care of her family. “My dreams ended when I decided to help my mom with my brothers and sisters,” she said.
When my grandma was 15 years old, she married my grandpa. She married at a young age, because her mom would not support her in wanting to have fun and be a normal child. During this time, she was kicked out of her home because her mom did not trust her. Soon after she was kicked out, Maria gave birth to a daughter, my mother.
Despite the estrangement between Maria and her mom, Maria still wanted to support her mother and siblings, who continued to live in poverty. When my grandma was 20, she ended her marriage and headed to Tijuana to search for jobs. She was determined to find work and send money back home. From there, she crossed to the United States, in search of better work. She left her daughter with her mom. Maria knew working in the U.S. was her only option.
In the U.S., she worked in the fields and different factories. She would send most of her money back to Mexico. She left her children in Mexico because she was afraid of what could happen to them in the U.S.
“I didn’t bring them because I was a coward,” Maria said. “When I came to California, I saw my friends would leave their kids. We would work starting at five in the morning and end at six p.m. You have to pay for a babysitter to take them to school and take care of them. I was scared to leave them with just any one. They weren’t my family. That’s when I thought if I brought them what would happen to them. I didn’t know what my kids would think. I was scared something would happen to them and that’s why I left them with my mom. … Now I’m suffering the consequences because they don’t give me love or support like they should give a mother.”
Even though my grandmother is struggling right now, she’s finding a lot of support in her church. She travels 45 minutes about three times a week to get to the church a where she originally found refuge. She continues to work to survive and continues to send her love through Facebook. She is a strong woman and will always keep fighting.