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'You hit this glass ceiling': Undocumented US students returned to Mexico struggle to continue their college studies

A group of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, DACA recipients and allies march through Border Field State Park, Feb. 7, 2018.
Jean Guerrero / KPBS
A group of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, DACA recipients and allies march through Border Field State Park, Feb. 7, 2018.

Nancy Landa, who was born in Mexico and came to Los Angeles as a child, excelled in school and was the first-ever Latina student body president at California State, Northridge.

After college, she went on to work for a California State Assembly member. But one morning while driving to work in 2009, she was pulled over by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for being in the country illegally — she had been brought to the country from Mexico by her parents. That night, she was deported to Mexico, with nothing.

In Tijuana, she had to begin building her life back from scratch, so she took the only job she could find at a customer service call center.

“For me, that was a blow,” Landa said. “Because I had a university degree, five years of working experience in the US, [I was] managing projects, and the best job I could get was answering phones.”

Landa still wanted to follow the dream she had in the US — obtaining a master’s degree in public policy. But to continue her studies, she had to get something called an apostille, a complicated verification process that Mexico uses to validate previous studies. She soon learned that not all of her college credits transferred.

She’s not alone. Young Mexican citizens like Landa, who return to Mexico — either voluntarily or through deportation — often find it difficult to continue their studies. Some give up, while others have to redo years of coursework just to get back to where they left off in the United States.

“At that time, the assessment was, ‘Well, we cannot count your entire US education. We can only count between 40%-60% of your education,’” she said. “For me, that was ridiculous, to start almost from scratch on that. I refused to do that, and that’s why I looked for opportunities elsewhere.”

The Mexican government instituted reforms in 2015 to try to make transferring credits easier, but Landa found that the federal government is no longer pushing changes to the system, leaving a lot of returning Mexicans, like Munoz, without the resources they need.

Landa eventually got her degree in global migration from University College London. She now works in Mexico City as an advocate to improve the ability of students to stay and study in Mexico.

Landa said that she believes that Mexico is missing out on a lot of talented students. Some give up and never go back to school, while others, like her own brother, never get to pursue an advanced degree.

“You hit this glass ceiling, really, where because you can’t enroll back in school, you can’t advance your career,” she said.

Dania Munoz, unlike Landa, had protections under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, which afforded temporary relief from deportation (deferred action) and work authorization to certain young undocumented immigrants.

Munoz was raised in Houston, attending school all the way through community college. But after her father got sick in 2018, the family returned to San Luis Potosi in Mexico.

She tried enrolling in a university there, but just like Landa ran into difficulties — she was told she’d have to retake several years of coursework.

“I could easily show my degree from Houston Community College,” Munoz said. “I have a lot of acceptance letters from different colleges, so yeah, I was a little mad.”

Eventually, Munoz reached out to Dream in Mexico, a group of returning Mexicans that helps other returnees navigate the country’s higher education system.

“I started looking online and I found them on Facebook. I clicked on their YouTube videos and stuff,and I was able to talk to one of the leaders of the group. He sent me everything, a guide to get all the paperwork done in Mexico,” Munoz said.

Munoz eventually enrolled in school and is almost done with her coursework to become a nurse. She thinks even though her journey was difficult, it was worth going through it.

For others in the same predicament, “I hope they get to experience something a little less complicated in the future,” she said. “There’s definitely a chance here. The process is tough but it’s ultimately worth it.”

Daniel Arenas is one of the co-founders of Dream in Mexico. He grew up in South Carolina in the early 2000s, before DACA. Because he was undocumented, Arenas wouldn’t qualify for in-state tuition or financial aid, and attending an in-state school would cost him $20,000 per year.

“In high school, I wanted to go to college and it didn’t matter what country it was in,” Arenas said. “I really wanted to go to college, and it didn’t matter if I had to be apart from my family.”

So, instead, he enrolled at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, in Monterrey, Mexico, where he said that he paid half of what he would have in the United States. He stressed that returning to Mexico for education is still a good option for DACA recipients in the United States.

A lot of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children “think there aren’t great universities in Mexico or that it’s not possible, or that your education in the US isn’t going to be valid,” he explained. “That’s where we had to change things and help people by helping them think outside the box.”