When Daniel Arenas was a high school senior in a small town in South Carolina, he made the biggest decision of his young life: He would leave his family and friends and move to Mexico, not knowing if he could ever return.
Although Mr. Arenas had grown up in the United States, he was born in Mexico. His parents brought him and his brother to the US when he was 4 years old, but the family was living there without legal documentation.
Arenas’s lack of citizenship was a tightly held secret and, at first, it didn’t hold him back. He excelled in school, became fluent in English, took many Advanced Placement courses in high school, and planned to attend college.
“Starting in elementary school, teachers were constantly promoting college and the idea of bettering yourself with a degree,” says Arenas, who often went to work with his father, a landscaper, and knew he wanted a different career.
But by the time his guidance counselor asked him about post-high school plans, Arenas was facing a series of hurdles.
“I kept telling her I wasn’t going to go to college,” Arenas recalls, despite his dream of being the first in his family to earn a university degree. Many public colleges in the US wouldn’t consider him for financial aid without proof of US citizenship, and private schools were financially prohibitive. Even if he earned a degree, he wondered if he would be hired without having a Social Security number.
He finally told his counselor why college was off the table. Her response, he says, was “What about Mexico?”
A seed was planted.
It took months of phone calls, e-mails, and Internet searches, but over the course of the next eight years Arenas would move to Mexico to attend the prestigious Monterrey Institute of Technology. He’d receive his degree in international relations and study abroad at two US schools: Virginia Tech – where his family had the rare opportunity to visit him – and the University of Texas at Austin. He’d also go on to cofound the nonprofit group Dream in Mexico to support others in the US in a similar situation.
“I do feel brave,” Arenas says of his return to Mexico. “More than anything it was the information,” he says, that he was able to gather that made the difference. He credits his parents, guidance counselor, and relatives in Mexico for helping him through the complicated process.
An estimated 1.8 million immigrants under the age of 31 live in the US in similar circumstances, according to the Immigration Policy Center. They were brought to the States clandestinely as children, often now identify as Americans, and frequently speak only English.
Returning to Mexico might sound like a logical solution for those who find they can’t attend college in the US because of legal barriers. But moving to the country listed on one’s birth certificate doesn’t necessarily signify a homecoming.
Roughly a half million young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 returned to Mexico – either by choice or via deportation – between 2005 and 2014, estimates Jill Anderson, an independent researcher who co-wrote the book “Los Otros Dreamers” (“The Other Dreamers”), about people returning to Mexico who had been living in the US illegally.
Despite a 2014 program meant to help with reintegration, returnees are often stigmatized as criminals and criticized for how they talk or dress. The Mexican government provides few services to support them; many returnees say it has failed even to acknowledge this unique group exists.
There is little information available in Mexico on how to resume academic studies or how to have US degrees recognized by the government, employers, or schools. Many returnees also struggle to obtain birth certificates or IDs.
Emotional challenges must be faced as well, such as feelings of isolation, poor Spanish language skills, or the toll of leaving family and friends behind.
“We need Dream in Mexico to speak up because, unfortunately, the Secretariat of Public Education and many universities here [in Mexico] aren’t aware or open or equipped to make college accessible to these students,” says Ms. Anderson, who is a member of the Dream in Mexico board.
Arenas cofounded Dream in Mexico in 2011. “It was basically founded based on my experience,” says Arenas, whose heavy eyelids and close-cut hair give him a serious air. He runs the organization with two others, Adrian Murillo and fellow returnee Maru Ponce. Arenas works from his home office in León, while Mr. Murillo and Ms. Ponce work in Monterrey and Mexico City, respectively.
Growing up, his parents “wouldn’t talk about the history of Mexico or the richness of the culture, but they would talk about the fact that there was no work, or the salaries were very low, or corruption and bribes were common,” he says. “It took several months to figure out that both countries have their negative sides and their positives.”
With the help of a grant from the US-Mexico Foundation last year, Arenas and his team are now working full time on the project.
They recently set up a hotline to provide callers in the US and Mexico with information and advice, including how to obtain government documents necessary for work and school. Arenas says he receives about 10 phone calls a week, in addition to people reaching out via e-mail and social media.
Dream expects to launch a more dynamic website this summer, where visitors can seek answers to specific questions about employment, applying to universities, and connecting with other returnees.
The number of people that Dream in Mexico has been able to directly help so far is small. Arenas estimates they’ve assisted five people in the US – from start to finish – to apply to schools and plan their return to Mexico. He estimates that about 100 others have received some form of guidance from Dream in Mexico.
Jaqueline Martinez was one of the first students to work with Dream in Mexico: She and Arenas had the same guidance counselor in South Carolina.
“When I was going through the decision process [in the US] I was sure about my choice,” Ms. Martinez says. But when it came time to board the bus to Mexico, she began to have doubts. “I had been in the US for 10 years, the most important period of my life. Now I was leaving my comfort zone,” she recalls. “That was scary.”
“Daniel always offered me support,” says Martinez, who is now in her third year of college in the city of Monterrey. Three years later, “I have no regrets about coming back,” she says, despite the bumpy road.
“We have such diversity in the return population,” says Nancy Landa, who was brought to Los Angeles when she was 9 and had lived there for nearly two decades when she was stopped on her way to work, put in a detention center for eight hours, and deported to Tijuana in 2009. “It’s difficult for one organization to address everything.” The returnee community is geographically diverse, with people settling in big cities and rural towns across Mexico. The reasons for their return vary greatly, too.
Ms. Landa is part of a network of returnees pushing Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education to reform the requirements needed to validate US degrees. It had its first meeting with the ministry in April.
Funding for Dream in Mexico is not guaranteed beyond this year. But Arenas says that even if he has to take a second job to pay the bills, he plans to continue this work.
“The need is there, and as an organization it’s important to keep going,” he says. “I don’t think there will ever be a moment where I can say, ‘I’m done with this.’ ”
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