Azul Uribe and Nancy Landa have spent the past decade in Mexico, barred by the U.S. government from stepping foot into the United States. And still, reaching across the border, the American immigration system’s tentacles affect nearly every aspect of their lives. This includes restricted travel to other countries for Landa, and the recent denial of Uribe’s visa, which would have allowed her to travel to the U.S. for the holidays to be with her family for the first time in 10 years.
Within four days of each other, Landa and Uribe were deported under the Obama administration in September 2009. The pair met post-deportation while doing advocacy work in Mexico and became friends immediately.
When Uribe was targeted for deportation, she was technically a “Dreamer,” though she was unaware she was undocumented when she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge in 2006. The cop who apprehended her transferred her to the custody of immigration authorities, triggering a process that would lead to Uribe’s deportation and 10-year bar from the United States.
Depending on the length of time an undocumented immigrant spends in the U.S. without authorization, federal authorities impose either a three- or 10-year bar on their ability to return to the United States. Uribe and Landa both received 10-year-bars, but their stories differ.
Uribe spent weeks preparing for her December 16 visa interview and at first, she says, it seemed to be going well. The Mexican consulate employee assigned to Uribe was friendly, but once the woman saw Uribe’s deportation record, Uribe says, her entire demeanor changed.
“She didn’t look at a single thing I [brought], just asked me if I had a husband or a child and asked me questions about my childhood and then denied [my visa] and gave me a piece of paper saying that unless [these things] changed, I would be denied again,” Uribe says. “It was deeply humiliating.”
“The Entire U.S. is a Trigger”
The day of her ban was lifted, Uribe says, she woke up for the first time in a decade, without the feeling of something looming over her. She cautiously began to think ahead to the holidays, a time when her entire family gathers—a time she aches for.
Only a few months ago, immediately after her 10-year-bar was lifted, Uribe allowed herself to experience some hope that she would be able to visit her family for the holidays. Until that point, she thought of her life as limited. Being forbidden from traveling to the United States meant she was also essentially barred from the people who were her “entire world,” and she was tired of not being able to be with them.
“At first I told myself I wasn’t going to do anything for the holidays; that I would just walk around the city and have a day to myself. But my brother sent me a message that says, ‘Apply for [your visa] today, make your appointment,’” Uribe explains. But what really got to Uribe was her niece, who says she wanted to see her this year.
“That’s when I decided to sit down and try to figure out how this would all work—the money, the visa, the travel, all of it. But what I can’t figure out, what I’m really terrified about not having an answer for, is what to do when the entire U.S. is a trigger for you.”
Uribe has been open about her post-traumatic stress disorder related to her deportation. When she was deported under the Obama administration, she was hopeful, she says, that one day she would come back to a country that was better to immigrants. Instead, in the Trump administration, Uribe is justifiably “terrified” of how a Mexican woman and deportee like her would be treated during one of the most anti-immigrant periods in modern American history.
The Politics of the Border
On her blog Mundo Citizen, which now serves as an archive of Landa’s post-deportation writings, the scholar and migration expert detailed how Immigration Customs Enforcement deported her because a notary hired by her family filed a fraudulent immigration claim on her behalf. In 2008, after Landa was unable to renew her work authorization, she consulted another immigration attorney and learned her immigration case was closed years prior, there was likely a warrant for her arrest, and that ICE could detain her at any moment. The attorney told Landa that she wasn’t a “high priority” immigrant, meaning she lacked a criminal record and would likely not be targeted for deportation. She was deported the next year.
For Landa, the concept of home is tenuous. Her family was also deported to Mexico and now lives in Tijuana, leaving her with no real roots in the U.S. Over the past several years, Landa has moved at least seven times—within Mexico and to study abroad in London. Her hope for the New Year is that she can root herself somewhere, as it’s been years since she felt a sense of home and belonging.
When Landa lived in Tijuana, confronting the border wall each day on her way to work was challenging. When friends would come to visit her, she had to pick them up and leave them at the border, but was unable to cross herself.
The hardest part of the upcoming holidays will be leaving Mexico City and returning to Tijuana to visit her family. The dynamics of the border are not good for her mental health, Landa says, especially because she works in the field of migration and she’s constantly dealing with the politics that surround the border.
Unlike Uribe, Landa has no desire to visit the United States. The way that her deportation has limited her mobility, however, is a major issue.
For example, she was recently invited to speak as a migration expert at a conference in the Caribbean. Conference organizers asked Landa whether she had a U.S. visa so that she could make a connecting flight in the United States. As it stands, Landa cannot lawfully be in the United States—not even for a connecting flight.
Because she was removed from the U.S. by immigration authorities rather than making a “voluntary departure,” she must adhere to a special process before applying for an immigrant visa. Her understanding of the process is that she would essentially have to request a pardon. This is an expensive, lengthy process that would require a great deal of legal support, including compiling evidence of “good moral character.”
“Even after a 10-year bar, I am not able to just get in line for a visa, or however people think this happens,” Landa explains. “There’s this expectation from others that there’s no problem now, like I can just go back to my old life.”
But even if she could, she doesn’t want to.
“My situation is different than Azul’s. I don’t have family waiting for me back in the States. Right now, I feel like I’m more free to put this chapter of my life behind me. I’m in a different emotional space in my post-bar phase,” Landa says. “I have come to understand that I am more than my trauma and hardships. I can actually allow myself to enjoy life, despite my past. I can acknowledge the pain and injustice I have experienced, but not let it limit me and what I want to create for myself in the future.”
Healing From the U.S.
The two friends, who essentially began this dreadful process of becoming deportees together, are at a crossroads. Technically, nothing has changed since their 10-year bars have been lifted. They are still being held at bay—with family and a sense of freedom remaining out of reach. Uribe talks about the constant “foundational sadness” around the holidays. The flutter of hope and possibility about returning “home” for Christmas, she says, is a “dangerous thing.”
This time of year will continue to be fraught with emotion, especially for Uribe, who cannot go to see her family within the confines of the United States.
Moving into the New Year, both women say they want to heal from the wounds created by the U.S. immigration system, which requires asking hard questions of themselves and about U.S. immigration policy, which allows for so many people’s lives to be destroyed. This healing will not be linear.
“I want to be recognized and treated like a human, with dignity, care, and respect. I want that for others too,” Uribe says. “I want to be able to have the complexity of my feelings— the sadness, the anger, the longing, the happiness—without qualifiers. I want the U.S. to stop acting like an abusive parent, saying, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you’ when it is being violent. I want the U.S. to recognize itself for what it is, and for Americans to be honest with themselves when engaging conversations about immigration. I want them to look at their immigration system in its entirety, not just during times when their team was not leading the White House.”
Overall, Uribe says, “I want to have a healthy relationship with the U.S. [But] is that even possible?”
Landa plans to continue working on herself and addressing the trauma that she admits she internalized for many years. Much of her energy is being funneled into helping other displaced people, including a self-help guide she consulted on for people post-deportation.
“I certainly look forward to continuing my self-healing so that I can work on meaningful and fulfilling work,” Landa says. “I see myself collaborating with civil society and individuals committed to making this world a better place for everyone, including the displaced.”
The scholar also wants to be more open to having close friendships and a life partner, and actually feeling deserving of the kind of things society made her believe she wasn’t worthy of having because of her immigrant status.
“Love, especially self-love, is a revolutionary act. I want to engage it as a regular practice,” she says.
Tina Vasquez is an award-winning journalist focusing on racial injustice and the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice. Formerly, she was a senior reporter covering immigration at Rewire.News. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, NPR, and the New York Review of Books. She is based in North Carolina.