Most mornings, Oscar Contreras Carrillo takes two trains and a rickety bus, called a pesero, across Mexico City to manage a food truck. He gets one day off each week. Otherwise, he’s working 11- and 13-hour shifts, serving sandwiches, tacos and glasses of horchata, a sweet rice drink. His monthly income hovers at $430.
Nothing about this situation resembles his life three years ago.
Contreras, now 30, was living in Southern California in 2009, making between $30,000 and $40,000 a year as a construction safety director. He paid for his sister’s college classes and rent for the apartment they shared with their mother, he says.
Then he was arrested on charges of driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana (the latter charge was dropped, according to Contreras), and authorities discovered he was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Contreras—who had lived in the U.S. since he was about 7, had been educated in American schools, and had long since forgotten his native Spanish—was deported roughly a week later. He says he agreed to leave voluntarily rather than fight his case because ICE officers told him it would be a “waste of time.”
Contreras isn’t alone. Deportations have skyrocketed under the Obama administration, rising from roughly 190,000 annually a decade ago to 400,000 today. Between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million people left the U.S. for Mexico; many departed voluntarily, but “a significant minority were deported,” according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Although state immigration laws like those in Arizona and Alabama have grabbed headlines, the federal Secure Communities program has also been incredibly powerful, according to Sean Riordan, an attorney at the San Diego ACLU. The program requires the fingerprints of every person booked by police be reviewed for immigration violations against a Department of Homeland Security database.
That obligation can be abused, says Riordan. “If you have an officer that, for personal reasons, believes that undocumented immigrants are a problem in the community,” he says, then the immigration check is an extra “inducement” to arrest someone suspected of being undocumented.
As for Contreras, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon the life he had built in California. Authorities caught him trying to cross the border with a real U.S. passport he bought in Tijuana, according to the complaint filed against him. He pled guilty to false statements to a federal officer and served roughly 13 months in prison. Once freed, a bus dropped Contreras off in Coahuila, a Mexican state that borders Texas. In 10 years, he thought, he could apply for a visa to return—even if just as a tourist.
For the time being, he needed to establish a life for himself in Mexico.
It’s hard to know how many people are like Contreras, culturally American and rejected from the only country they’ve ever known. In Mexico, I’ve met several people who fit this profile who now can’t return to the United States. One, a waiter working near Puerto Vallarta, had tattooed his former Dallas area code on his chest.
On June 15, President Obama announced new rules to allow young, undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and obtain two-year work permits. The new policy will apply to individuals age 30 and younger who came to the U.S. before turning 16, have lived here for at least five years and have clean criminal records. They must also meet certain education requirements or be honorably discharged veterans.
Obama’s action echoes the Dream Act, national legislation that provides a path to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants meeting similar prerequisites, which was blocked by Republicans in the Senate in 2010.
The measure is meant to be a “temporary stopgap” with no opportunity for citizenship, Obama said. But its beneficiaries will be able to launch their careers and live without fear of deportation. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: On paper,” the president said.
Contreras’ experience shows what happens when these stateless people are forced to return to a strange country. Adapting is a daunting and treacherous process.
When Contreras was dropped off near the border after his release from prison, he was afraid. “I was hearing the cartels were recruiting people like me,” he says, “and because nobody else was going to give me job, I [thought that I] had no other choice but to work for a cartel.”
Instead, his struggles were more mundane. He immediately moved to Irapuato, Guanajuato, where his father lived, and began looking for a job. Back in the United States, he had worked his way up the ladder at his construction gig. He didn’t want to accept just any bottom-tier position, but he had no proof of his education.
At one point he inquired about a front desk position at a Holiday Inn, figuring that he’d shine working with foreign tourists. The hiring manager said his Spanish wasn’t strong enough and offered him a server job instead. Insulted, Contreras declined. “I probably could have stayed and proven to them that I could do it, that I could do something, but I was upset,” he says.
In late 2010, Contreras decided to move to Mexico City, thinking he could earn a better salary there. He moved in with a relative who had also lived in the United States, but who had returned to Mexico as a teenager.
When Contreras arrived in Mexico City, he yearned to establish a business—maybe a batting cage or a restaurant with activities, like Shakey’s Pizza Parlor or Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“You’re so desperate to achieve that you don’t even know where to start,” his relative told him. She advised him to pick a goal and stick to it. He wasn’t going to get a million opportunities, like back in California. “Stop living in Disneyland because we’re not in the United States,” she said.
He needed to save money. At first, he worked at a restaurant and event hall that paid minimum wage, less than $5 a day. Then he loaded corn at the Central de Abasto, Mexico City’s colossal wholesale market. The money was better, but there was no upward mobility, no room for ambition. He moved on.
Two years after his arrival, Contreras says he still feels like a “guest” in Mexico. There are myriad cultural gaps left to fill. People see his tattoos as potential gang symbols. He doesn’t know the national anthem. Crime is a daily fact of life. His Spanish has improved considerably, but he still confuses words, like simio (ape) and sismo (earthquake), which a co-worker recently chuckled over.
Despite his deportation, Contreras discusses the United States longingly, not bitterly. He misses his family and his old way of life—”everything,” he says.
Ironically, Contreras even pines for U.S. law enforcement. In Mexico, “you can drive drunk and you can just give a cop, you know, 50 pesos and he’ll leave you alone,” he says. U.S. police are “respectable,” he adds. “I mean … for the most part, they do their job.”
Eventually, Contreras found his current position, managing a food truck. It’s a popular spot, selling cochinita pibil, a slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatan Peninsula. Contreras has pushed the owner to innovate. For example, he convinced her to print a special notebook for waiters, so the orders are taken uniformly. He also encouraged her to think about franchises, and they’re currently working on installing a stand at the Central de Abasto. Contreras hopes the expansion can continue. “It’s not happening as fast as we’d like for it to happen, but it’s definitely moving forward,” he says.
Nevertheless, he has a backup plan. On his days off, he’s taking Mexican academic equivalency tests to show future employers. He’s passed all the elementary school level tests, and as of late May was considering a six-month break from work to focus on the middle school-level exams.
“I’m thinking that just everything that I know, everything that I’ve acquired from the States, it kind of favors me,” he says. “I just got to make it work.”
Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer. Her stories have appeared in Global Post, The Washington Post, Fox News Latino, The Atlantic Cities and other publications. She was previously a staff writer at the Washington City Paper.