The Binational Politics of Return Migrant Activism: Interview with Caroline Tracey

Caroline Tracey

This episode of the Matrix Podcast features an interview with Caroline Tracey, who holds a PhD from the UC Berkeley Department of Geography, and whose research uses ethnographic, archival, and literary methods to study the American Southwest, Mexico, and the US-Mexico border. Tracey’s dissertation, “Binational Politics from Intimate Scales: Motherist, Feminist, Queer and Trans Activism by Deportees and Return Migrants in Mexico City,” responds to existing scholarship that has focused on deportation as a male phenomenon, and argues that women and trans deportees and returnees carry out fundamental community-building and activism on the ground in Mexico that has improved emplacement over the long term for all return migrants.

As a journalist, Tracey’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, and other outlets, and in Spanish she is a frequent contributor to Mexico’s Nexos. She is currently the Climate Justice reporting fellow at the High Country News and an editor-at-large at Zócalo Public Square. 

The interview was conducted by Julia Sizek, Matrix Content Curator and a Postdoctoral Scholar at Social Science Matrix. Listen to the podcast below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is included below.

Your research focuses on women and gender-nonconforming deportees and returnees to Mexico, while most research has focused on men who are returnees and deportees. What has been missed by excluding people who are not men?

That’s a really important question. I can start by speaking about how I came to the project and in that way, get to a larger answer. I became aware of mass deportation through covering the US southwest and the US Mexico border as a journalist and participating in migration activism in the US. Deportation was always talked about as something that was practically unthinkable. It was something that was such a terrible outcome that no one really talked about what people’s lives were like after it happened, because so much of the energy was focused on preventing deportation. 

I had a curiosity about what people’s lives were like after they got back to Mexico. And, of course, this coincided with a large uptick in deportations by the Obama Administration and in the early 2000s, generally. Something that I found once I got back to Mexico was that it wasn’t just deportations, it was also return migration. Starting after the 2008 recession, you actually started to see more return migration and deportation than you saw net in-migration to the United States. It breaks down almost half and half: it’s about 55% deportation and 45% return-migration that is bringing people back to Mexico. The factors that are taking people back, aside from deportation, include following a deported family member or fears of deportation, and also things like the failure of the Dream Act to pass and not having a vision of a future in which you can study or work long-term in the United States. 

On some level, there is good reason for deportation scholarship to focus on men, because about 90% of deportees to Mexico are men. But about a third of return migrants are women. So you do see a slightly higher number of return migrants who are women. Qualitatively, what I found on the ground was that women — and also queer and trans deportees and return migrants who may or may not identify as women — are undertaking fundamental community-building and political activism that affects the entire deportation and return migration community.

Let’s dive into what these people are doing on the ground and how it affects the day-to-day lives of returnees and deportees. What are some of the challenges that deportees or returnees might face when they get back to Mexico?

There’s an assumption that once people get back to their country of citizenship — in the case of undocumented immigrants in the US, once they’re in a country where they’re documented – they have fewer problems. But in fact, what happens is that many times, people have either grown up in the United States since they were small children, or they’ve been in the United States for long enough that they no longer have their Mexican documents. 

So they have to go through a process of “citizening,” essentially. That’s a term that a researcher named Gabriela Pinillos uses, and that I think very well captures the experience of these return migrants, where you have to get a copy of your birth certificate, and you get have to get a copy of your CURP, which is a unique number that is associated with the population registry, and that is asked for in any instance you can think of that would be associated with something bureaucratic. 

This then becomes a secondary process when you have US-born children who, by law, are Mexican citizens, but they have to go through a process of registering their Mexican nationality. For those children, the bureaucratic process is even more complicated, because you have to correctly bureaucratically prove their Mexican nationality with documents that carry an apostille, which is a seal of authenticity that crosses borders, but that can only be obtained in the United States. 

So if a family has returned to Mexico without apostille documents, and they want to register their children’s Mexican nationality so they can have access to all the basic rights that a citizen would have, they often face obstacles that can be sometimes insurmountable because of the lack of the apostille and an inability to navigate the US system from the Mexican side to obtain it. 

One of the activities that my research included was helping families to obtain documents from the US side. So for instance, ordering birth certificates from the state of the children’s birth, arranging for them to be sent from the county to the Secretary of State that would give the apostille, then arranging for them to be mailed to a relative in the United States, who then could mail them to Mexico. Those kinds of steps really require both U.S. bureaucratic know-how and English to navigate and have prevented many families from being able to fully register their children’s nationality.

In addition to challenges to getting your kids registered in school, there are also presumably other bureaucratic problems that people face when they get back. What do those look like, and how do people try to navigate those?

Concurrent with the bureaucratic problems, you have non-bureaucratic problems, including discrimination, whether by potential employers (age and gender discrimination) in the process of applying for jobs, discrimination because of perceived criminalization for being a deportee, or bad sentiments on the part of one’s family, because there’s a sense of having failed because of deportation. There are all these ugly feelings, to use the Sianne Ngai’s term, wrapped up in deportation, and to a certain extent in return migration, although the experiences are a wider gamut of reasons for return, and a wider variety of sentiments that surround it.

But then once you are back in Mexico, there’s the bureaucratic challenge of obtaining all the different documents, and again the problem of discrimination repeats itself in navigating that bureaucracy, because these ideas of criminalization or of betrayal of the country or that deportees and returnees are stealing jobs, these all repeat themselves in the navigation of the bureaucracy. 

One idea that people talk about in Mexico is criteria de la ventanilla,  “window criteria,” because the desk agent who’s in charge of your case can have a degree of latitude that can really change your outcome, in many cases for the worse, if they so choose. 

What I saw in my research was that a lot of the political organizing by the deportee and returnee community is in order to make these processes easier. In many cases, that means organizing so that you do not have to have an apostille for certain things, such as school registration, or more recently, the fight is for the registration of children’s Mexican nationality. Previously and successfully, there was organizing around trying to remove the requirement that transcripts and other documents have a translation by an expert, because in many cases, there were returnees that had been educated in US schools and could provide a complete and correct translation themselves, and they didn’t need to pay for that service. So that’s something that has actually been successful in the past seven years or so.

You mention education as being a major component of the challenges of coming back to Mexico, including for those who are undocumented in the US and who decide to return to Mexico because they don’t have access to higher education in the US. Can you tell us more about what that process looks like and how someone who might be a Dreamer here in the US decides to go back to Mexico?

A fairly large subset of the community that I was interacting with in Mexico City, and a large segment of the community that runs the organization Otros Dreams en Acción, which is one of my field sites, are people who are in the correct age range for the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act failed to pass many times over the course of the early 2000s before DACA was finally created in 2012.

For many young people who are returnees, the fact that there was this consistent failure of a pathway to residency or citizenship made it very clear that there was not a stable future available, and there were not immediate options in many states, because only certain states had or have in-state tuition for undocumented students. Other states, such as Georgia, outright forbid universities from charging in-state tuition to undocumented students from that state. There are many young people from states in which the state DREAM Acts did not exist, or from states where they did, but who didn’t see a future for themselves, who ended up returning to Mexico before DACA was passed in some cases. In other cases, they were people who have DACA, but feel like it’s not a long-term option because it has to be renewed so often or because it is at risk of being cut by politicians, and so end up returning to Mexico. 

One of the theoretical interventions that returnees have made through their activism is demonstrating that, while this is not a deportation, it’s also not a choice to return. The young activists tend to frame their return as necessarily forced return, because it’s a situation in which they don’t have an option to remain in the United States and have a future in which they can study and work.

This brings up the question of why they don’t have these options to stay here in California, where we are. There’s often an idea that people can stay because there are immigrant-friendly policies, but this is obviously not always true in California and also not true across the US. How has immigration changed, and under what conditions are people feeling forced to move back rather than seeing an opportunity to stay in the US?

There are a number of changes to the immigration system that really go into answering that question. 

One is the way that immigration changed over the course of the 1990s. First, you had a lot of new push factors on the Mexican side, because of NAFTA and domestic privatization policies that unfolded over the course of the early 1990s. Much of the rural economy in Mexico collapsed in a way that people who were working as small farmers or otherwise living in rural areas could no longer make a living. And so you saw massive emigration to not only the United States, where about 11 million people emigrated over the course of the 1990s, but you also see migration to the country’s northern border and to the cities. So first of all, you have that big push factor. 

And then at the same time, you have new, increased border security in the United States that makes it very, very challenging to have any form of circular migration. Whereas in the past, there were one or both parents going to the United States and eventually returning, but leaving the rest of the family behind. Over the course of the 1990s, you started to see increased whole family migration and permanent migration. You had the creation, over the course of that decade, of a permanent class of undocumented families.

That’s really significant, because it means that you have a lot of young people growing up in the United States without papers. And that’s a novel phenomenon. It’s not that it’s never existed before, but it’s never existed in these kinds of numbers. And so it is novel that you have this organizing by young returnees and deportees back in Mexico, because there has never been that class of people in the United States, nor that class of people in Mexico historically.

And then concurrently with that, there’s also a demographic shift of immigrant settlement within the United States. So for the first time in 2000,more than half of the non-metropolitan Latino population in the US was outside of the US southwest. What that meant in my research was that, while I would meet older deportees who were from more traditional immigrant communities — Latinx immigrant communities like Chicago, California, or other regions that had historic Mexican and other Latinx immigrant populations — many of the young people were coming from states where the Latinx populations had grown over the course of the 1990s. And really, that was from the US southeast. 

Because of changes in immigration policy in the 1980s – for instance, the 1986 IRCA (Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) amnesty of many people who are already undocumented in the US, suddenly having work authorization in traditional Latino communities – there wasn’t as much demand for undocumented labor in traditional Latinx communities. Soon, you also saw other communities being saturated with immigrant labor. 

And so people started to find other regions where the labor was in more demand. You also concurrently had a restructuring of the US poultry industry. You started to see a movement from the southwest and California to the southeast, and that’s where a lot of the young people that I interviewed came from. And that’s something that also has been written about by Perla Guerrero, who is a scholar of the Latinx US South. There’s also a journalist named Alice Driver, who’s right now writing a book about poultry workers in Arkansas. That demographic shift is something that a lot of people are noticing and researching, and I had a lot of reading material that shows how significant it was.

You mentioned that the demographic shift is not only to different parts of the US being the US South, but it’s also the age of the folks who are being forced to return to Mexico, many of whom are just out of high school. How do they manage and navigate this move to Mexico, which is a place where they may have never really lived?

In my research, I observed a number of people who initially went to places where they had family ties, and then many of them later moved to Mexico City. I should add that I originally intended to do multi-sited fieldwork, but I did my fieldwork during the COVID pandemic, so I ended up completing all of it in Mexico City. That’s really where all my data is from. It was because of the fact that it all had to be moved to virtual at a moment when that was where all my interlocutors were. 

One pattern I can point to is that people went initially to places where they had family, sometimes extended family that they didn’t know very well if they had grown up in the United States. And then they moved to pursue educational and work opportunities, but also places to have community. But at the same time, and this is especially true in the last few years, Mexico City has a very high cost of living relative to what wages are in Mexico City. Many of the deportees and returnees in Mexico City are living in the periphery of the city. It’s probably becoming more and more common that people are moving to other cities in Mexico where there is a better balance between salaries and cost of living. 

Another thing to add is that one of the first ways that many deportees and returnees make inroads into the Mexican economy is by working at call centers. American companies have taken advantage of deportees’ and returnees’ bi-nationality, in terms of both fluent American-accented English and familiarity with American colloquialisms and culture in terms of interpersonal relationships, customer service, and other aspects of American business. Companies have set up call centers in cities in Mexico that hire primarily deportees and returnees. Those places, because they cater to that hiring, often make the hiring process smoother than in other places that would have more requirements that would make it harder for someone who has recently returned to the country to get a job.

You mentioned that one of the forms of employment that people go back to when they’re in Mexico are these call centers. This obviously brings together people who are coming back from the US, including people who are deported for committing crimes, or those who are forced to return for other reasons. What does the call center community, and the broader community of people who are returning or going back to Mexico, look like?

It’s a really big part of many people’s entry into Mexico, and I think that it has very disparate outcomes and a lot of pros and cons. I can talk about one deportee whom I accompanied through a lot of different bureaucratic processes, and who worked at a call center, and who I talked with at length about that experience. For him, it was a way to have a social circle in which he could speak English. But that had pros and cons for him because on the one hand, he made friends who he felt comfortable socializing with. And on the other hand, it limited his opportunities to improve his Spanish and make friends outside of that circle. For him, there was both a double-edged sword of the comfort of working with English-speaking people and a feeling of continued isolation after being deported. 

Other interlocutors of mine talked to me about call centers being a challenging work environment with very high turnover because they’re very hierarchical, the supervisors are often not understanding of people’s needs, or can be very strict. That’s because, as one person put it to me, if you just throw a whole bunch of people with the same trauma in a big room, there are issues of substance abuse, and emotional needs that go unmet that are shared by many of the employees. 

The call centers also gave rise to a lot of the deportee and returnee organizing that now exists. Specifically, the organization Otros Dreams en Acción was co-founded by an American researcher named Jill Anderson, who noticed that there were these large English-speaking communities surrounding call centers and began to work with them to find out what they needed. She found that they needed help revalidating their US high school diploma so that they could continue their education in Mexico. The other co-founder was not working in a call center, but was struggling to revalidate her US high school diploma. She was actually going through the same process as many of the call center workers. Her name is Maggie Loredo. Together, they founded this organization that works to support deportees and returnees, and that addresses a much wider swath of needs, both bureaucratic, cultural, emotional, and creative. I did a lot of my research with them.

That highlights how people go back to Mexico and aren’t just reintegrating or going back to a place they already know, but they’re coming back with a lot of trauma from the experience of being deported, or from being forced to return. They might feel cut off from their communities. How does this change the way that we think about scholarship about deportation or returning to countries of origin?

A lot of the scholarship about deportation has been conducted with very recent arrivals, people that are in their first few days after deportation. Or if it’s not conducted right at that time, it’s asking questions about that experience. Much of the scholarship is trying to understand how deportation fits into US immigration policy, and what is the process of removal is like. But I think that there’s much less scholarship about what happens back on the ground. That really motivated my initial research, but I think that there are a number of really interesting conceptual ideas that have come out of the organizing. 

One of the main things, besides conceptualizing “all return is forced return” that my interlocutors really insisted upon, was the idea that terms like reintegration, or repatriation, are really normative. They signal an idea that you should blindly integrate into the society in which you’re a citizen, or that you are, in the case of repatriation, returning to your homeland in a “correct” way. 

For many people, that’s not at all their experience. They’re showing up in a place that they barely know, and that they don’t want to be in, and that is challenging for them to settle in, even if they have had some degree of volition in the return. It’s still a challenging process. A term that I use is emplacement, which is signaling that it’s a long-term process of getting settled in a place that involves both personal settling as well as political activism to help out the entire community, community-building, cultural production, and all kinds of different tacks on emplacement. 

A term that I drew on a lot in my in my dissertation is the idea of “diasporic intimacy,” which is used by a number of scholars, but I especially drew on Svetlana Boym’s idea of it, which is that there is affection generated through recognizing one another’s alienation and/or trauma, and that community-building can come out of that. That particularly speaks well to the deportee and returnee community, and especially to the activism of the young people in the community, who have really drawn on the idea of being pocha, which is a derogatory term in Mexico that they are reclaiming that refers to people who don’t speak perfect Spanish or who are otherwise very Americanized. Boym talks about the idea that diasporic intimacy has an accent in both one’s native language and the language of one’s adopted country. In the case of pocha activism, for many people there, they’ve been educated in the United States, even though it’s not their country of citizenship, and so they feel like English might be their more dominant language, despite the fact of having Mexican citizenship. And so Spanglish and the sort of right to speak in a non-normative Spanish, and the opportunity to participate in creative production that draws on the unique ability to switch between both or to combine both, has been a really important part of the community organizing.

In this community organizing, they are bringing together a lot of people who are interested in not only getting together, but in helping out the community and producing different cultural artifacts, maybe producing art. Can you speak toward some of the events that they have, or some of the community-building they are doing on the ground?

Definitely. At Otros Dreams en Acción, one of the organizations I volunteered with, poetry slams are a really important part of the community-building. And the Spanglish element that I mentioned has a lot to do with that. Poetry slams are an invitation to experiment with language. But also they are highly political, and so many people talk about their migration experiences, their deportation and return experiences, the experiences of their family, the emotional challenges of re-citizening in Mexico, and other aspects of their experience that tie into the politics of migration. They use the poetry to creatively reimagine those experiences.

Your dissertation also looks at the role of mothers and motherist activism. Who are the mothers and what are the forms of activism they’re organizing around?

I talk about motherist activism in my dissertation as coming from a line of motherist activism in Latin America. Some famous examples include the mothers at the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who were demanding justice for their disappeared children. Or more recently in Mexico, there are many small collectives of mothers who are searching for their murdered and disappeared children who are victims of the War on Drugs and the general ambience of violence in the country currently. So there is an existing set of scholarship about motherist activism in Latin America, and I also saw this among deportee mothers. They occupy a really important position in my dissertation in part because they really strongly challenge the vision of the solo male deportee, in that many of these mothers are single mothers, or they’re divorced mothers, so they are having to do the bureaucratic processes not only for themselves, but for their children. They have really borne a lot of the effort of the political organizing of the deportee community in partnership with migration NGOs, both by national ones that have both Mexican and US employees, and also local NGOs that are staffed by Mexicans. 

So much of being a motherist activist obviously has to do with the rights of your children and what that means. What are the specific issues that they are mobilizing around, and what are the ways that they came to organize together and to make mothers, rather than women into a class of people?

A lot of the organizing by mothers and mothers finding each other came out of seeing that many of the people who work in civil society in Mexico are men, finding each other within the larger groups that were mainly men and then came together over shared concerns. And a big one was the need of the apostille, and the aspostilled birth certificate to enter into schools. 

One of the first big achievements of migrant organizing, not only deportee but also in the service of people from other countries coming to live in Mexico, from Central America and other countries, was that Mexico’s public education secretary changed his policy regarding school registration so that schools are now required to accept foreign birth certificates in order to enroll students. 

However, in practice, in many cases, they don’t. And this leaves mothers of foreign-born children in a very challenging spot, where they are demanding again and again that a school enroll their child and being denied that, or the school is saying, we have enrolled your child, but they are later being denied to continue into the next level of school, either the next grade or middle or high school. The biggest issue there is the unique population registry number, that schools really feel like they can’t have a student who doesn’t have a CURP. Getting citizenship without an apostille has become a big focus for continued organizing, because it’s the citizenship process that gives individuals their CURP. If they can get that without an apostille, it will be much easier for returnees’ children to enroll in school and stay in school. 

Interestingly, the COVID pandemic created a new layer of challenges here, not only because it stymied organizing, but also because, for some people who had enrolled their children initially with a temporary CURP generated by the school, who had then been able to get their children’s nationality over the course of a year or two, when schools moved to virtual modality, the education secretary’s virtual platform didn’t immediately and didn’t (with a lag time of months) update its CURP registry. So students who had been correctly enrolled in schools, suddenly on online school, were not able to access the resources.

That raises a broader question about the effects of the pandemic on both return migration and deportation. What have the effects of the pandemic been, since you conducted most of your research during the pandemic?

That’s a very manifold question, so I’ll try and offer a few different snippets of insight. Looking from the US side, one thing that was true at the beginning of the pandemic was that not only detention centers, but also prisons were places where a virus could spread very fast. There should have been a push to release people with alternatives to detention. Before Trump, for instance, many times people who were not considered risks — which is the majority of people held in detention, because it has been mandatory detention for all asylum seekers and people facing deportation since 1997 — there should have been a push to release people with ankle bracelets or other alternatives to detention. But there wasn’t. And so we saw truly unnecessary deaths from COVID, from people awaiting deportation processes in detention centers. That’s one major effect of the pandemic that needs to be flagged strongly.

A second is that, when people were deported during COVID, there was no real reception protocol on the Mexican side, so there was no place for people to quarantine. There were also many small villages that closed completely to outsiders during the pandemic. And so people who had been deported couldn’t go home, because they were an outsider returning to a village that had closed. That was a big problem not only in Mexico, but in Central America as well. And then, of course, the issues of stigma and criminalization were heightened because of the fear that people had been on a deportation flight that was filled with COVID. 

At the same time, the deportee and returnee community had in place an organized infrastructure for mutual aid that was really remarkable, and that had a lot to teach other communities. They were able to quickly get in touch with large numbers of people (and I helped in this process), to assess their needs, prioritize who was the most at risk from loss of income, or from complicating health factors that made them need to be more isolated, or more at risk. They were able to mobilize shared resources and networks of information. And also, because they were separated from loved ones by a border, they were used to virtual technologies. Interestingly, despite there being a big digital divide globally, people that one might not have expected to have been particularly digitally literate within the deportee and returnee community were able to adjust to the virtual modality pretty readily.

Thank you so much for sharing these stories of returnees and deportees. The ways they were able to connect during the pandemic through all the virtual modalities is really instructive for us to think about the ways that returnees and deportees bring a lot to our understanding of what it means to be connected.

Thank you.


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