A crew of recent returnees help new arrivals make a softer landing

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — One Tuesday morning in June, Diego Miguel Maria waits near the opaque sliding glass door at the far end of Terminal 2 at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport. The planes arrive like clockwork, three mornings a week, and you can tell the deportados by the government-issue orange mesh bags they carry. They look like onion sacks, hence their nickname, cebolleras.

Diego remembers that bag all too well. Officials gave him one when he arrived here almost a year ago, after he was caught driving without a license in Georgia.

“It’s humiliating,” says Diego, who wears a T-shirt screen-printed with a photo of him holding the five-year-old son he left behind. “First you get deported and then they give you that. When you have to walk in the street with that damn bag, [people] know where you’re coming from.”

Little things, like the bags, can matter a great deal for the increasing number of people who find themselves suddenly returned to a country they may not have seen in decades. Where can I exchange dollars for pesos? How do I get to the subway? Does my cell phone even work here? For a deportado, such questions can be overwhelming.

“I was living my American dream. I just didn’t have the documents.”

As someone who’s experienced the trauma of deportation firsthand, Diego now works to shepherd others through the painful adjustment via the newly formed group Deportados Unidos en la Lucha (Deportees United in the Struggle, DUL for short). DUL organizes a variety of economic and social projects aimed at helping deportees in Mexico City and beyond. The latest is DULCafe, a coffee shop near the airport that provides new arrivals with a place to get their bearings, use the phone, learn about navigating the city and its bureaucracy, eat a hot meal and be in the company of others who’ve made the same journey.

A few hours prior, a half-dozen members of the DUL crew crowded into the pocket-sized cafe before walking to the airport to greet this morning’s flight. Founder Ana Laura Lopez led the way, wearing a shirt featuring a photo of her two teenage sons holding a sign that reads, “I miss my mom.” (Both her shirt and Diego’s were made in the DUL print shop, another of the group’s employment projects; anti-Trump and anti-wall tees will soon be for sale in the cafe.)

Ana was deported last fall after more than 15 years in Chicago, where she worked in a secondhand store, a candy factory and as a labor rights activist. While there, she got her GED certificate, had two children and took classes in English, computers and leadership skills, all while sending money back to her family in Jalisco.

“I was living my American dream,” she says. “I just didn’t have the documents.”

She was about to fly back to Mexico to start the application process for legal status in the U.S. when ICE agents detained her at the boarding gate. She was deported to Mexico City in late September and barred from returning for 20 years, despite having no criminal record.

Despondent about being separated from her kids, Ana put her community organizing skills to work, forming DUL in December to advocate for the right of deported people to be reunited with their families.

“The [Mexican] government’s programs are good, but they don’t include the other side, how deportation affects you psychologically,” Ana says. That’s why these airport trips are important, she explains, because they let newly arrived deportados know that they’re not alone.

Many of the deported immigrants arriving in Mexico have no contacts and have lived in the United States for decades. Members of Deportados Unido en la Lucha try to help the recent arrivals reacclimate. In this May 25, 2010 file photo, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent walks down the aisle among shackled Mexican immigrants a boarded a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter jet for deportation.

The returnees file into Terminal 2 with their cebolleras, looking dazed. They’re met by a few government representatives who hand them some forms to fill out and send them on their way. Many already have somewhere to go: a bus to a nearby province, or family members waiting to take them home. But a few, like one man who’s been ambulating blank-faced around the terminal for 20 minutes, appear genuinely lost.

Diego approaches the man cautiously and hands him a flyer with DUL’s contact info on it. The man says he lived in the U.S. for 23 years, and though declines Diego’s invitation of free chilaquiles and coffee at the cafe, he keeps the flyer.

“Some of them they don’t wanna talk too much, because they’re hurting,” says Diego, explaining that it’s not uncommon to hear from someone two or three weeks later, once they’ve grasped the reality of their new condition. “Right now they’re kinda like in shock.”

For Diego, too, the airport trips bring up a lot of emotions. The next time Diego sees his son, the little boy on his T-shirt will be in high school.

“Every time I see one of [the deportees], I remember everything that I went through,” he says. “But that’s why we’re here, because we know how they feel. It feels good to be doing something.”