Deportees despair despite US-Mexico border reopening

·4-min read

Families separated by the pandemic are planning joyful reunions when the Mexican-US border reopens on Monday, but not Martin Figueroa, who left his "mind and soul" behind when he was deported.

He is one of a number of Mexicans who lived legally in the United States until, due to legal offenses, they were sent back to a country that no longer feels like home.

"It's sad to know that many will be able to cross, but I won't," Figueroa, 52, said in the simple room he rents in the border city of Tijuana after being expelled in 2018.

The deportees left behind families, friends and -- in the case of war veterans -- financial benefits and the comrades they fought alongside in countries including Vietnam and Iraq.

"It's hard because you could say that my mind and soul stayed on the other side. Only my body is here," said Figueroa, who was separated from his seven children.

"I can't say when leaving work, 'I'm going to see my children.' No. Because there's that wall," he said, referring to the fence snaking along the more than 3,100 kilometer-long (1,900 miles) border.

Figueroa was sent back to Mexico while working in construction in Bakersfield, California, despite having steered clear of gangs for several years, he said.

He had arrived in the United States at the age of two, after being adopted by Mexican immigrants.

Now, Figueroa works in a call center in Tijuana that deals with customers in the United States.

- 'Bring us home' -

In Ciudad Juarez, another border city, veterans demanding the right to go "home" fly the US flag near the wall that separates them from the twin city of El Paso in Texas.

Jose Francisco Lopez was expelled in 2003 after serving a sentence for trying to buy drugs.

Four years ago, he founded an organization supporting deported veterans.

"I lost my wife, my children. I haven't seen them for many years," said Lopez, 76, who fought in the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and has not met his grandchildren.

He helps around 30 deported former soldiers taking legal steps to try to regain their residency. Some have died during the process.

In July, US President Joe Biden's administration announced a plan aimed at bringing back deported veterans "who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled."

"It was one of his promises," said Lopez.

"We hope he will deliver and bring us home soon to be with our families," he added.

- 'In their sights' -

Mexico's National Institute of Migrations says that this year alone, it has assisted more than 181,000 people of Mexican origin repatriated from the United States, without specifying how many were deported.

Figueroa said he believed his case resulted from former president Donald Trump's tough immigration policies, because when he was deported, the authorities brought up events that happened in 1994.

"They hadn't looked at me until Trump came in and... (then) they had me in their sights," he said.

On Monday, Washington will reopen its land borders with Mexico and Canada to foreigners vaccinated against Covid-19, almost 20 months after they were closed to non-essential traffic.

It is estimated that of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, about half come from Mexico, and many have relatives across the border.

The deportations leave a deep psychological scar on the people who made their lives from an early age in the United States.

"Depression hits you," said Figueroa, who does not want to risk entering the United States illegally because he fears spending the rest of his life in jail.

Ivan Ocon, who took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said post-traumatic stress disorder was common among veterans.

"We all have depression, anxiety, trauma from the war," said Ocon, 44.

Deported for a second time in 2016, former military service member Marcelino Ramos is devastated to be separated from his six-year-old daughter and two sons, who are members of the US National Guard.

"My whole life is there," said Ramos, who was expelled for domestic violence.

"We made a decision: to fight for America, for the United States, and not for anyone else," said Ramos, 53.

"It's an injustice that we're here," he said.

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