On May 2, as President Obama arrived in Mexico City, hundreds gathered outside the heavily fortified United States Embassy to protest his visit, U.S. immigration policies, and U.S. economic and political influence in the region. During the protest, organized by the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (Mexican Electrical Workers Union) in collaboration with the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano (Mesoamerican Migrant Movement), the very mention of Obama’s name led many to whistle a universally understood five-syllable expletive. A sign in the crowd declared, “No, no, no we don’t want to be a colony of the United States! Yes, yes, yes we want to be a free and sovereign nation!” One speaker seemed to capture the general sentiment of those gathered when he closed his remarks by shouting, “Like we said in the sixties, ‘Yankee go home!’”
On the agenda for Obama’s two-day visit to Mexico were trade, energy, security, and immigration. However, at their joint press conference Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto made it clear that Mexico would not take a strong stance on U.S. immigration policy, explaining that in his opinion it is a U.S. domestic issue. The protesters in front of the embassy, including dozens of young U.S. citizens who recently returned to Mexico after one or both of their parents were deported, didn’t seem to agree.
Edith Espinal, thirty-five, and her three children, Isidro, sixteen, Brandon, fourteen, and Stefanie, twelve, were among the protesters. Edith first went to the United States in 1995 at age seventeen. The next year Isidro was born in Chicago. With the exception of a few years when they returned to Mexico (where Brandon was born), the family lived in Columbus, Ohio for the next decade. But in 2009 they were denied asylum and deported.
Their transition to Mexico was difficult, especially since the children knew no one aside from family and none of them knew how to read or write in Spanish. Many tears were shed, according to Edith. She and her husband now run a food stand that sells tacos, tortas, hamburgers, hot dogs, and sweets, but “we want to return [to the United States] for the kids,” she said. “Here the economic situation is difficult, and safety also.” For Edith Espinal, her children, and many others, Obama’s visit to Mexico was a prime opportunity to discuss immigration policy. “We want the president and senators to take our situation into account for immigration reform so that we can return legally.”
Given that Mexicans are by far the largest immigrant group in the United States, discussing immigration during Obama’s visit would seem to make logical if not political sense. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly 34 million Hispanics of Mexican origin (about 11 percent of the total population) lived in the United States in 2012, roughly one-third of whom were immigrants born in Mexico. More than one out of every two people of Mexican origin has at least one immigrant parent.
Obama did briefly address immigration reform on the second day of his visit, during his speech at the National Museum of Anthropology. He observed that the current system “separates families when we should be uniting them.” Yet it is Obama whose policies have separated families, removing around 400,000 people during each year he has been in office. If that rate holds the total number of removals will approach 2 million by the end of this year, and 3 million by the end of his second term. An increasing number of those removed have lived in the United States for years or decades, and many are parents of U.S. citizen children. According to the Applied Research Center, nearly 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were removed from the United States in the last two years alone, which, of course, does not include those deported through “voluntarily” departure. According to the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración (Institute for Women in Migration), today 5 million children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent.
Eighty to ninety of those assembled in front of the U.S. Embassy on May 2 were children, teenagers, and parents from Maravatío, a single town in the central Mexican state of Michoacán. Led by Elvira Arellano, founder of the organization La Familia Latina Unida (United Latino Family), they traveled to the capital that same morning on two chartered busses. Arellano can relate to many of the families with whom she works given that she herself was deported in 2007 after spending a year in refuge at a sanctuary church in Chicago, and subsequently was separated from her U.S. citizen son.
For Arellano, it is essential that deportees and their families are a part of the ongoing discussions about comprehensive immigration reform. However, sometimes that proves difficult for the most basic of reasons. “We don’t know where the families of the deported are,” she said. “We have to go around and knock on doors.” Despite such challenges, Arellano believes she and others have a responsibility to find and inform people that the possibility of returning to the United States exists.
The group from Maravatío included at least thirty-nine young U.S. citizens who wrote letters to Obama in which they shared their families’ personal stories of deportation and called for comprehensive immigration reform that puts an end to family separation. (Although it is Congress that has the power to enact comprehensive immigration reform, Obama could alter immigration enforcement policy and slow down the rate of deportations.) Fatima Cordova, eleven, and her sister Jocelin, eight, lived in Chicago with their parents until their mother was deported in 2006 and they returned to Mexico with her, leaving their father and uncles in the United States. In her letter to Obama, Jocelin wrote that she hopes that her mother will be included in the immigration reform plan so that she can return “to my country [the United States] with me.”
Five-year-old María Guadelupe Vanegas, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, also pleaded with Obama to include her parents in immigration reform so that they could all return to the United States, where they’d all have better life opportunities and she’d be able to continue to learn English. Jesús Salvador Piña Luna, born in New Jersey in 1997, asked that President Obama allow his mother to re-enter the United States so that he could continue going to school there and so that he wouldn’t have to wait until he is no longer a minor to do so.
Even those that weren’t old enough to write, like three-year-old Yoselyn Reyes Urbina, born in Indianapolis, marked their letters in ink with their handprints. Jazmine Cruz Martínez’s letter to Obama bore her footprints and the following message: “God bless you and your family, although much more so if you can put an end to all of the injustices of family separation.”
Adam Goodman is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Mexico City. More of his writing can be found at adamsigoodman.wordpress.com, and he can be reached on Twitter at @adamsigoodman. All photos courtesy of the author.