What happens to people after they are deported from the United States? And if they no longer have family in their countries of origin, how do they make their way in an unfamiliar place?
In 2014, Christina Zaldivar found herself pondering these questions with some fellow activists after she had accompanied one of them to an immigration check-in in Centennial, Colorado. That friend had been living without legal status in the U.S. for more than 30 years and had no family left in Mexico.
“We sat in [a coffee shop] afterward for about an hour or two talking about this,” recalls Zaldivar, who is a member of #Not1More, an informal, immigrant-led campaign sponsored by American Friends Service Committee that advocates for and supports those caught up in deportation proceedings.
“And we’re asking, ‘What are people supposed to do, how do they find help? If you’ve not been there for 30-plus years, and they just drop you at the border, where could you go to find resources?’”
That 2014 conversation led to the creation in October 2019 of a resource guide called Crossing South, which provides those returning to four countries—Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—with information they’ll find useful along the way.
“We both had been afraid of the ‘unknown expectations’ of being tossed back South with no knowledge of what resources would be available to the already mentally, emotionally, and financially broke victims of our broken immigration system,” Zaldivar says.
Their conversation turned out to be prescient.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had allowed the fellow activist she’d accompanied to the check-in to remain in the U.S. until his daughter graduated from college. Then a few weeks after the coffee shop conversation, “sure as shit, they took him,” she says. He was then sent back to Mexico.
And then in November 2019, Zaldivar’s husband, Jorge Rafael Zaldivar Mendieta, was detained and in January, he, too, was deported to Mexico. Although he was eligible for permanent legal status because of their marriage, (she is a U.S. citizen), he had been checking in with ICE after a simple paperwork error had stymied his green card application.
After living in the U.S. for more than two decades, Zaldivar Mendieta had joined the multitudes of people the government deports each year—either after they’ve been held in detention in cities across the country or apprehended at the border.
Some 262,591 people were removed from the U.S. to countries around the world during fiscal year 2019, an increase of 4% from the previous year, according to figures from ICE.
More than 90 percent of those deportees were from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. And while the number of Mexicans deported declined nearly 10% between 2018 and 2019, the number of those returned to the three Central American countries rose during that same time—by as much as 44% to Honduras, for example—a reflection of the surge of asylum-seekers from those countries in recent years.
Most people deported to Mexico often are flown to U.S. border cities and are either walked or bused across the border. Those from Central America are flown directly to their home countries.
Zaldivar said that, after the coffee shop discussion, she became obsessed with creating guidelines to help people who are deported—especially those who had been outside their countries of origin for so long that they no longer had any current contacts there. “I kept coming back to the idea, over and over. I couldn’t let it go,” she says. American Friends worked with her and the other activists from the group to create and produce the guide.
“Crossing South” draws on American Friends’ decade-plus experience navigating the detention and deportation system, community-based programs in the four countries, and extensive research. It distributes the guide through targeted outreach—email blasts, social media posts, through immigration attorneys and advocates, and at public events. Also, the organization is working on a number of fronts to get the information to people in ICE detention.
Crossing South is available online in both Spanish and English, and in a wallet-sized hard copy version people can easily carry with them. It explains what people can do if they have time to plan before they are removed, or what they can do if they are suddenly detained and then deported.
The guide offers advice about obtaining credentials in the consulates of the four countries, including getting passports and making arrangements for children who will remain the U.S. It also includes a list of nonprofit organizations working on the ground—in the case of Mexico, along the border—that can assist with basic needs.
The guide comes in handy when people land on the other side of the border with no idea where to even find something to eat or a safe place to sleep that first night, says Kathy Bougher, an activist with Coloradans for Immigrant Rights, another American Friends-supported group.
Immigration officials, she says “walk them up or bring them by bus to the border and take them to a Mexican office where they give them some orientation for, I don’t know, an hour or two, maybe a sandwich, a bottle of orange juice, and then good luck. … Sometimes it’s just adult men and women and sometimes it’s also children,” Bougher says.
They all face the same challenge: “Where do they stay, where do they go when they walk out the door of that building?”
Bougher, who has spent time in migrant shelters in Mexico and Central America, says the Mexican government sometimes helps deportees pay for bus tickets, or family members send them money for tickets back to their home cities. For Mexicans who speak only indigenous languages, the northern border, she says, “might as well be another country.”
Drug cartels are prevalent along the Mexican side of the border, and deportees often stand out and are vulnerable, Bougher says. Detention center guards confiscate shoelaces and belts of detainees, which makes them clearly identifiable at the border. And because they are coming from the U.S., there might be an assumption that they have family with money, she adds. “They are absolute targets,” she says. They’re subject to robbery, to kidnappings, to extortion…”
The list of available shelters along the border comes in handy for those who arrive with no idea where else to go, but recent deportees may also find themselves competing for shelter space with U.S.-bound asylum-seekers stuck at the border under its Remain in Mexico policy.
Gabriela Flora, program director with American Friends Services Committee, says the hope is that the guide won’t be necessary in the future, “that we cut funds to ICE and CBP [Customs and Border Protection], end corporations profiting off of pain, end detention and deportations and create a path to citizenship.”
“But that vision immigrants and allies are working for is far from here, and there is a need to know how to be as safe and well-informed as possible when the difficult and awful act of deportation happens,” Flora says.
For now, Zaldivar and her family are trying to determine what they’ll do if her husband is not allowed to return to the U.S. Because he still has family in Mexico City, she says, it wasn’t necessary for him to use the guide. His immigration case is pending review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.
“As far as future planning goes, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place with taking the kids [to Mexico] or leaving them,” she says. “The government could never give us back what was taken from us.”
Lornet Turnbull is the former civil liberties editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post. An award-winning enterprise reporter who's worked in media for more than 20 years, Lornet has covered everything from the auto industry and labor unions in Michigan, to real estate and statehouse politics in Ohio, to homelessness in Seattle, to refugee children in the West Bank, and sex workers in Mexico City. She speaks English.