While reporting on deported Mexicans in that country's capital, I saw the human cost of our failure to develop a thoughtful immigration policy.
MEXICO CITY — For the thousands of Mexicans who’ve been deported from the United States and who’ve chosen to rebuild their lives in this massive capital city, America represents “el otro lado,” Spanish for “the other side.”
On our side of the U.S./Mexico border, from Florida to Washington state, these repatriated Mexicans left behind jobs, loved ones and community ties.
On our side, they experienced the chaos and coldness of America’s immigration and deportation system, one that has shown little interest in broken families and the loss of economic viability, or the relative unsafety and cultural hostility toward migrants of all kinds that deported people face after returning to their native country.
Earlier this month, two of my Times colleagues and I traveled here, to the other side of America’s border crisis, to learn about life after deportation. The stories we heard, the hardships we came to understand and the grass roots efforts we learned about will all be presented soon in a special package in The Times.
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But before I write about that, I wanted to write about the strange context in which we did our reporting.
There we were covering the real-life experience of being kicked out of the United States, during the same week that our president declared a state of emergency to prevent an imaginary army of Mexican and Central American migrants from barging in.
The way President Donald Trump describes it, we are at war with craven invaders who don’t want to play by America’s immigration rules.
From the vantage point of Mexico City, though, it seemed as if America had plunged deeper into a war with itself, in part because it can’t come up with sensible rules for a nation that has been built and sustained by immigrants and migrant workers — both free and captive.
People who live and work in the United States without legal documents do represent a special category of migrant, and they certainly know the risks.
But as I sat and listened to returnees in Mexico City — who had migrated to the United States with their families when they were minors, or who started their own families while on American soil in the years before being deported — the trauma of deportation and the complexity of the rebuilding process seemed more real.
We are good at sending people “back where they came from” for the crime of being here without papers and sometimes for committing other offenses that result in being considered unfit for legal residency. What we are not so good at is considering the possible injustice of forcing people back into countries that may not be equipped to reintegrate them, that may not even want to welcome them home, and that for all intents and purposes may not feel like “home” anymore.
Mexico City — a teetering metropolis that sits at an elevation of 7,300 feet and that’s more than 20 million people strong — is a hard place to navigate even for those who were born here and never left. It’s especially challenging for those who left years ago in search of a better life in America and now find themselves back here and needing to start over, in a city dealing with issues like poverty and corruption.
We met repatriated Mexicans who spoke like homies from around the way, who shook my hand with the soul-brother salute, who talked about the United States as if they had been born wrapped in red, white and blue, who are proudly making it work in the land of their ancestors while also displaying the spirit of their adoptive motherland up north.
In deportation cases, the decision can seem pretty cut-and-dry: Should they stay or should they go?
On the ground in the beautiful cacophony that is Mexico City, the overcrowded and smoggy incubator of dreams big and small, everything was a blur and there were nothing but gray areas.
It’s so easy in our society to portray immigrants who carry proper documentation as “good” and those who don’t have those documents as “bad,” but when our government behaves as if it doesn’t care about the aftereffects of the decision to expel someone from our soil — which seems to be the case right now — it is our character that’s in question.
Trump’s wall is not the only story. And immigration isn’t our only crisis.
We have a responsibility to be careful about who we let into this country, to be sure. But we also have to find a way to more humanely manage the detention, departure and reintegration of those we send away — to see them as human beings even when they have violated the integrity of our borders.
We can act as if the fate of undocumented migrants isn’t our problem, that they shouldn’t have come here under those circumstances in the first place.
But if we deal with the original sin of entering the United States illegally in such a clinical way, we will be committing the equal sin of heartlessness when humanity is due.
Justice is never truly blind.
Because of that, as we think about deportation, we should view this tough journey with our eyes wide open.
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