Some deportees make it back, but the shadow stays with them
Emma Sanchez keeps hundreds of photographs in shoeboxes throughout her house — reminders of happier times and what could have been.
She was deported in 2006 and forced to leave behind her two-month-old baby boy and two other sons, ages 3 and 5. By the time Sanchez was legally allowed to return to the U.S. in 2018, the youngest, Brandon, was 12 and wouldn’t call her “mom.”
“(Brandon) would get embarrassed when I visited him at school,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “Since he was so young when I left, he didn’t know how to express his emotions. He would just say that I make him self-conscious.”
Sanchez has spent years trying to recreate moments she never had with her sons — walking them to school, trick-or-treating, Easter egg hunts, decorating the Christmas tree.
Her sons indulged their mother at first. But after the first few times, they’d say something like, “Mom, we’re too old for that,” Sanchez said.
It was three years before Brandon called her “mom” in public. Sanchez’s face still lights up when she tells the story. It happened at one of his school concerts. She sat in the back to avoid embarrassing him — but he went right up to her after the show.
“He saw me and goes, ‘Hey mom’ and gave me a big hug,” she said. “I was like, ‘wow, I waited so long for this.’”
Sanchez had entered the country illegally in 2000. She was deported while trying to legalize her status after marrying Michael Paulsen, a U.S. citizen. An immigration lawyer told them she’d have to leave the country and complete her paperwork in Ciudad Juarez.
But once she got there, officials told her she wouldn’t be able to set foot in the U.S. for at least 10 years.
Sanchez acknowledges she broke the law by entering the country illegally. But she and Paulsen say it’s unfair that the entire family had to pay such a heavy price.
“It’s like 12 years of your life are gone,” Paulsen said. “You can’t get it back and you just have to go on.”
Sanchez is among many formerly deported people who’ve been allowed back into the country. But the exact number who fall into this category is far from clear. KPBS asked multiple federal agencies — including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — none said they track this group of people.
Beyond the lack of data on this population is a lack of understanding of who they are and what they go through.
Misconceptions of deportees
Going back decades, deportation has been linked to dangerous criminal behavior in the public mind, and that sentiment was supercharged during the Trump years. Yet, data show violent criminals make up a small fraction of people deported from the U.S.
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University tracks deportations by several categories, including “most serious criminal conviction.”
Of the roughly 5 million people deported from the U.S. between fiscal years 2003 and 2020, 47% had “no conviction,” according to TRAC.
People whose most serious conviction was assault accounted for 3% of all deportees. The combined total of deported people convicted of either homicide, sexual assault or domestic violence made up 1.3% of the millions of people deported during that time.
In 2017, Robert Irwin, a professor at UC Davis, helped start the Humanizing Deportation project. This was after the Obama administration deported a record number of people and as the Trump administration enacted harsh crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.
“People imagine that they were just criminals, or they were people who could easily readjust to life in Mexico or wherever they were going because that’s where they were from,” Irwin said.
Jack Aviles is a victim of this misconception. He was brought into the U.S. in the mid 1970s, when he was six months old. He joined the Marines and served for a few years until he was convicted of possessing two unregistered firearms.
Aviles, now 47, was a permanent resident at the time, but the conviction counted as a deportable offense. He spent 20 years in Mexico before a team of lawyers got his conviction overturned in 2019.
Like Sanchez, Aviles was ecstatic to finally, “come back home.” But he hasn’t had time to take a victory lap.
“I had to work, I had to get my social security number, I had to establish credit, I had to find a place to rent, I had to pay bills,” he said. “Yea, we get to return home, but life and responsibilities are not going to be put on hold for you to catch up.”
Unlike Tijuana, where several nonprofits try to help deportees adjust to life in Mexico, there aren’t any organizations doing that work in the United States, Aviles said.
In addition to financial struggles, returned deportees face the psychological trauma that comes with deportation. They try, often in vain, to repair familiar relationships impacted by years of forced separation.
Aviles lives in constant fear of getting in trouble with the law and losing his legal status in the U.S. He avoids large crowds, places that serve alcohol and hasn’t jaywalked in three years.
“I try to prevent myself from being in any type of situation where I can get in trouble again,” he said. “I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells.”
Aviles still doesn’t understand why the punishment for a non-violent offense was so severe.
“I served my sentence for the crime, and then they give you a much harsher one,” he said. “That didn’t make sense. It still doesn’t. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but that didn’t make sense.”
But even though he feels he was unjustly treated by U.S. immigration authorities, Aviles is grateful he was able to return.
“I feel at home,” he said. “All that time I was in Mexico, I felt out of place, I still do when I go there.”
Yolanda Varona was allowed to return to the U.S. in 2022 because of a new rule the Biden administration introduced for veterans and their families.
She is married to Hector Barajas, a deported veteran who started a nonprofit to help other deportees adjust to life in Mexico. Varona started a similar group for deported mothers — they called themselves “Daughter of Obama,” because they were all deported during the Obama administration.
Varona was deported in 2011 during an inspection at the Tecate border crossing. Officials discovered she was working, despite being in the country on a tourist visa. They took her to a detention center that day — without a chance to pack a bag or say goodbye to her two teenage children.
Varona said she feels like she’ll never escape the shadow of that day.
“After 10 years of being deported, 14 for my husband, no landlord wanted to rent to us because we didn’t have any credit,” she said.
Varona slept in her son’s house while Barajas slept in his car. Eventually they got housing through his military benefits.
Varona knows the struggles will continue, but now she has her family back — and it got bigger during her deportation. Both of her children are parents now.
“I feel free,” she said. “I can breathe again because I can see my kids, I can see my grandkids, I am with my husband.”