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 Apple Podcasts. An edited transcript of the interview is included below.

Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, and welcome to The Matrix Podcast. I’m your host, Julia Sizek. And today, our guest is geographer, Caroline Tracey, whose dissertation focuses on returnees and deportees to Mexico. She argues that motherist, feminist, queer, and trans deportees and returnees carry out fundamental community-building and activism on the ground in Mexico City.

This activism has improved the emplacement over the long term for all return migrants. She also writes about the American Southwest, Mexico, and the US-Mexico border as a journalist for the High Country News and Zocalo Public Square. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

Caroline Tracey: Thank you for having me, Julia.

Sizek: Let’s get started by just understanding the big picture. 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 have they missed by excluding people who are not men?

Tracey: That’s a really important question. I guess I can start maybe to speak about how I came to z project and in that way get to a larger answer. I became aware of deportation, mass deportation, through covering the US Southwest and the US-Mexico border as a journalist and participating in migration activism in the US. And deportation was always talked about as something that was practically unthinkable, like 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.

So 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. And something that I found once I got back to Mexico was that it wasn’t just deportations. It was also return migration.

So starting after the 2008 recession, you actually start to see more return migration and deportation than you see net in-migration to the United States. And really it breaks down almost half and half. It’s about 55% deportation and 45% return migration that is bringing people back to Mexico. And the factors that are taking people back, aside from deportation, include following a deported family member or fears of deportation. And then 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 amount of return migrants that are women. But I think beyond the quantitative, 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 deportee and return migration community.

Sizek: So let’s dive in a little bit 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?

Tracey: That’s another good question. I think that there’s an assumption that once people get back to their country of citizenship, right? 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 is very well captures the experience of these return migrants where you have to get a copy of your birth certificate, you 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.

So 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. And so for those children, the bureaucratic process is even more complicated because you have to correctly, bureaucratically prove the 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 that they can have access to all the basic rights that a citizen would have, they are often– they often face obstacles that can be sometimes insurmountable because of the lack of the apostille and an inability to navigate the system, the US system from the Mexican side to obtain it.

So 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 that really require both US bureaucratic know how and English to navigate and that have prevented many families from being able to fully register their children’s nationality.

Sizek: So 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?

Tracey: Yeah, absolutely. I think that before even the bureaucratic problems, or I guess concurrent with bureaucratic problems, you have non-bureaucratic problems. So something like discrimination, whether by potential employers. So age and gender discrimination in the process of applying for jobs, discrimination because of perceived criminalization for being a deportee, or even a sort of bad sentiments on the part of one’s family because there’s a sense of having failed because of deportation.

There are all these bad feelings, to use 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 so a wider variety I think 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 then again, the problem of discrimination repeats itself in navigating the 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 way that the– in navigation of the bureaucracy. So one idea that people talk about in Mexico is [SPANISH]. So like window criteria that the agent– 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.

And so 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. So in many cases, that means organizing so that you do not have to have an apostille for certain things such as school registration, or now 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.

Sizek: So you mentioned education as being really a big component of both the challenges of coming back to Mexico as well as in your work for folks who are in the US who might be undocumented and who decide to return to Mexico in part because they don’t have access to educational opportunity, especially college here. Can you tell us a little 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?

Tracey: Absolutely. A fairly large subset of the community that I was interacting with in Mexico City and the community that– a large segment of the community that runs the organization Otros Dreams en Acción, which is one of my field sites, are people who would qualify or not qualify, but are in the correct age range for the DREAM Act, which failed to pass many times over the course of the early 2000s before DACA was finally created in 2012.

And I think 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 also immediate options in many states because certain states had or have in-state tuition for undocumented students. But other states, such as Georgia, outright forbid universities from charging in-state tuition to undocumented students from that state.

So 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 them, who ended up returning to Mexico. In many cases before DACA was passed, but also in other cases, people who have DACA but feel like it’s not a long-term option because it has to be renewed so often and because it is at risk of being cut by politicians, end up returning to Mexico.

And one of the theoretical interventions that they’ve made through their activism is demonstrating that while this is not a deportation, it’s also not a choice to return. So 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.

Sizek: So this brings up the question of why they don’t have these options to stay here in California? Where we are, this is often– 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. So how has immigration changed and under what conditions are people feeling more forced to move back rather than seeing an opportunity to stay in the US?

Tracey: Yeah, that’s another good question. I think that there are a number of changes to the immigration system that really go into that, to answering that question. One is the way that immigration changed over the course of the 1990s where first you have a lot of new push factors on the Mexican side because of NAFTA and the domestic privatization, privatizing policies that unfolded over the course of the early ’90s.

Much of the rural economy in Mexico collapses in a way that people who were working as small farmers or otherwise living in rural areas can no longer make a living. And so you see a massive immigration to not only the United States where about 11 million people emigrate 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. So whereas in the past there was a degree of providers– so 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 1990, you start to see– 1990s, you start to see increased whole family migration and permanent migration.

So you have the creation over the course of that decade of a permanent class of undocumented families. And I think 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 essentially a novel phenomenon. It’s not that it’s never existed before, but it’s never existed in these kind of numbers.

And so I think that’s why it is novel that you have this organizing by young returnees and deportees back in Mexico, because there just 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, you see that more than half of the non-metropolitan Latino population in the US is outside of the US Southwest. So, for instance, what that meant in my research was that while I would meet older deportees who were from more traditional immigrant communities, Latino immigrant communities, like Chicago, or like California, or other cities or regions that had historic Mexican and other Latinx immigrant populations, many of the young people were coming from states where the Latinx populations had really grown over the course of the 1990s. And really that was from the US Southeast.

So you– because of both changes in immigration policy in the 1980s, for instance, the 1986 IRCA Amnesty of many people who were already undocumented in the US suddenly having work authorization in the traditional Latino communities, there isn’t as much demand for undocumented labor. You also see other communities being saturated with immigrant labor. And so people start to find other regions where the labor is in more demand.

You also concurrently have a restructuring of the US poultry industry. And so you start to see a movement from the Southwest and California to the Southeast. And that’s really 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.

And so I think that it’s– that demographic shift is something that a lot of people are noticing and researching and that I had a lot of reading material about that shows how significant it was.

Sizek: So 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 the US– 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?

Tracey: That’s another good question. I would say that 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 also add here 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. So that’s really where all my data is from just because of the fact that it all had to be moved to virtual at a moment when that was where all my interlocutors were.

But, yeah. So I think that one pattern I can point to is that people went initially to places where they had family, sometimes extended family 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 been true in the last few years, Mexico City has a very high cost of living relative to what wages are in Mexico City.

So many of the deportees and returnees in Mexico City are living in the periphery of the city. And I think that it’s probably becoming more and more common that people are moving to other cities in Mexico, not Mexico City, where there is a better balance between salaries and cost of living. And 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.

So American companies have taken advantage of deportees and returnees by nationality in terms of both fluent English– fluent American accented English, and familiarity with American colloquialisms, culture in terms of interpersonal relationships, customer service, and other aspects of American business. And have set up call centers in cities in Mexico that hire primarily deportees and returnees.

And so 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’s been recently returned to the country to get a job.

Sizek: So you mentioned that one of the forms of employment that people go back to when they’re in Mexico are these call centers. And this obviously brings together a whole crew of people who are coming back from the US. So this could include people who are deported for committing crimes. It also includes people who are forced to return for other reasons. What does the call center community and the broader community of folks who are returning or going back to Mexico look like?

That’s another good question. It’s a really big part of many people’s entry into Mexico, and I think that it has a very disparate outcomes and a lot of pros and cons. So 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.

And I think that for him, it was a way to have a social circle in which he could speak English. But that 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 feel like he could improve his Spanish and make friends outside of that circle.

And I think that for him there was both like a double-edged sword of like 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. And that because, as one person put it to me, 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 really go unmet, that are shared by many of the employees.

And so the call centers also gave rise to a lot of the deportee and returnee organizing that now exists. Specifically, the organization Otros Dreams en Accion was founded– co-founded by American researcher named Jill Anderson, who noticed that there were these large English speaking communities surrounding call centers and began to work with them and find out what they needed.

And specifically, that they needed help re-validating their US high school diploma so that they could continue their education in Mexico. And the other co-founder, who was not working in a call center, but was struggling to re-validate her US high school diploma, that she was actually going through the same process as many of the call center workers, whose name is Maggie Loredo.

And together, they founded this organization that works to support deportees and returnees, and that addresses a much wider swath of needs, both bureaucratic and cultural and emotional and creative, beyond that. And so I did a lot of my research with them.

Sizek: So one of the things that really highlights is how people get back to Mexico. And it’s not that they’re simply reintegrating or going back to a place that they already know, but that 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?

Tracey: A lot of the scholarship about deportation has been conducted with very recent arrivals. So 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. So I think trying to understand– much of the scholarship is trying to understand how deportation fits in to US immigration policy. What is the process of removal like? But I think that there’s much less scholarship about what happens back on the ground.

And so, like I said, that really motivated my initial scholarship– my initial research. But I think that– and I think that there are a number of really interesting conceptual ideas that have come out of the organizing. So 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 like a correct way. And I think that, for many people, that’s not at all their experience. They’re showing up in a place that they barely know, that they don’t want to be in, and that is challenging for them to really settle in. Even if they have had some degree of volition in the return, it’s still a challenging process.

And so 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.

And a term that I drew on a lot 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.

And I think that it 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, because 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.

And so in this– in the case of pocha activism, for many people, 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 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.

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

Tracey: Definitely. At Otros Dreams en Accion, the organization that– one of the organizations I volunteered with, poetry slams are a really important part of the community building. And I think that the Spanglish element that I just mentioned in my previous answer has a lot to do with that. 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 experience of their family, the emotional challenges of re-citizening in Mexico, and other aspects of their experience that tie into the politics of migration. And they use the poetry to creatively re-imagine those experiences.

Sizek: So perhaps turning into a different direction is the question of mothers and motherist activist, an activism that you also look at in your dissertation. Who are the mothers, and what are the forms of activism that they’re organizing around?

Tracey: Yeah. I talk about motherist activism in my dissertation as coming from a line of motherist activism in Latin America. So 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 ambiance of violence in the country currently.

And so there is an existing set of scholarship about motherist activism in Latin America. And I also saw this among deportee mothers. And I think that they occupy a really important position in my dissertation, in part because they really strongly challenge the vision of the solo male deportee. And that many of these mothers are single mothers, or they’re divorced mothers.

And so they are having to do the bureaucratic processes, not only for themselves but for their children. And they have really borne a lot of the effort of the political organizing of the deportee community in partnership with migration NGOs, both bi-national ones that have both Mexican and US employees, and also local NGOs that are staffed by Mexicans.

Sizek: In terms of thinking about these motherist activists, so much of being a motherist activist obviously has to do with the rights of your children and what that means. So 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 into a class of people rather than women as a class of people?

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

So 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, central Americans and other countries, was that Mexico’s public education secretary changed its 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– 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 the next, like, middle or high school.

And so that the biggest issue there is the CURP– the unique population registry number that schools really feel like they can’t have a student who doesn’t have that CURP. And so getting the citizenship without an apostille has become a big focus for continued organizing because it’s the citizenship process that gives individuals the CURP. And so if they can get that without an apostille, it will be much easier for returnee’s children to enroll in school and stay in school.

And 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 that 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.

Sizek: That also raises this broader question about the effects of the pandemic on both return migration and deportation. So what have the effects of the pandemic been since you conducted most of your research during the pandemic?

Tracey: That’s a very manifold question, so I’ll try and offer a few different snippets of insight. I think that one on the– 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 really places where a virus could spread very fast. And so there should have been a push to release people with alternatives to detention.

So before Trump, for instance, many times people who were not considered risks, which is the majority of people held in detention because it’s mandatory detention for all asylum seekers and people facing deportation currently. Since 1997, that’s been the case. There should have been a push to release people with ankle bracelets or other alternatives to detention, and there wasn’t. And so we saw truly unnecessary deaths from COVID, from people awaiting deportation processes in detention centers.

So I think 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. But I would say that, at the same time, the deportee and returnee organizing– rather, the deportee and returnee community had in place an organized infrastructure for mutual aid that was really remarkable.

And that really I think had a lot to teach other communities, where they were able to quickly get in touch with large amounts of people– and I helped in this process– sort of assess their needs, prioritize who was the most at risk from loss of income, from complicating health factors that made them need to be more isolated, or more at risk of getting sick, or more at risk of complications were they to get sick, were able to mobilize shared resources and networks of information.

And also because of the fact of being separated from loved ones by a border were already used to virtual technologies. And so I think that, 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 actually adjust to the virtual modality pretty readily.

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

Tracey: Thank you. It was really a pleasure to be here.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

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