What will happen now that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) has been terminated? One possibility is that Congress will pass legislation that codifies President Obama’s executive order that created the program. Alternatively, Congress could pass broader legislation modeled after the DREAM Act, creating a path to citizenship for people who came to the United States as children. This is what many people of us are hoping for.
However, there is also a very real possibility that the end of DACA will mean that people who were protected under the program will be deported. While this would be unjust, tragic and — to use Obama’s words — “cruel,” it would not be unprecedented. In fact, under Obama’s leadership, many Dreamers were deported.
For the past seven years, I have been conducting research with people who grew up in the United States but have been deported to Mexico. Some call themselves Los Otros Dreamers — The Other Dreamers. Others just call themselves Americans. In the words of a deported Dreamer and veteran of the United States military, Melvin Salas “I am an American at heart and in many other aspects. It’s the paperwork stating that I am an American that I regretfully lack.”
Many Dreamers who have been deported are members of American families — their siblings, parents, children and sometimes their spouses are U.S. citizens. They speak English more comfortably than Spanish. Some speak no Spanish at all. As children, they pledged allegiance to the American flag every morning in school. They celebrated uniquely American holidays like Fourth of July, Halloween and Thanksgiving. They remember attending homecoming dances and participating in spelling bee competitions. Some even served in the U.S. military. As children, they felt no different than their American-citizen classmates, neighbors and family members. Yet as adults, they have been banished from the country they consider home.
What happens when you deport people who spent their formative years in the United States? This question has taken on increased urgency as Congress considers the fate of the nearly 800,000 young people DACA has shielded from deportation. Scholars who have documented the consequences of deporting people who grew up in the United States compare the pratice to “violent dismemberment,” calling it “destructive and inhumane” and “tragic.”
Deportees who grew up in the United States experience their arrival to Mexico as such a profound loss that they often compare it to death. Thoughts of suicide are markedly higher among deportees with strong ties to the U.S. than among the rest of the deported population. Deported Dreamers also face social stigma in Mexico. They are perceived as different — as foreigners — due to their American upbringings. Being simultaneously rejected by the United States and Mexico triggers identity crises for many. “They tell me I’m not American over there, but here they say I’m not Mexican. So what am I?” asks a forty-year-old man in Tijuana. He had lived in Los Angeles since the age of three.
It is not surprising that people suffer when they are forcibly ejected from the country they consider home — the place where they have attended school, made friends, acquired property, established careers and put down roots. Mental health issues are more prevalent among deported Dreamers — depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are the most common.
Against all odds, some deported Dreamers have been able to rebuild their lives in Mexico, enrolling in school (despite significant hurdles due to their acculturation in the United States) or launching small businesses that capitalize on their American upbringings — teaching English, selling American-style burgers or working in the tourist sector.
However, mental health issues are pervasive even among the most successful members of this population because they miss “home”—their families, their friends, their jobs, their property and the intangible places, feelings, sounds and smells that give our lives meaning.
Deportation almost always creates hardships in people’s lives, but it is exponentially worse for people who grew up as Americans. The United States should recognize the unique status of young people who have grown up as Americans. Deporting them runs counter to our country’s values.
Beth Caldwell is a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Her book on this subject “Deported Americans in Mexico” is forthcoming.