March 7, 2018
Published with the Reynolds Media Lab.
After his father was detained by ICE, Victor Hugo Manuel Alcantara self-deported from Las Vegas, Nevada, to San Francisco Cheje, Mexico, to keep his family together. Article by Natalie Van Hoozer with additional reporting by Guillermo Bautista.
A One-Way Ticket After High School Graduation
A few days after his high school graduation in Las Vegas, Victor Hugo Manuel Alcantara and his mother Yolanda Alcantara Gil booked one-way tickets to Mexico.
Like other families, Alcantara and his mother had to decide what to do when Alcantara’s father, Victor Hugo Manuel Nieto, was deported after living in Las Vegas for 15 years. They could stay in the U.S. and be a divided family, or they could pack up and move back to Mexico, a country Alcantara left when he was 3.
Alcantara experienced his first plane ride, and soon they met with his father in the Mexico City airport, where Nieto was waiting for them with chocolates and flowers to take them to their new home.
They traveled approximately 80 miles outside of Mexico City to San Francisco Cheje, a town of approximately 3,000 people. Alcantara looked at his father.
“My dad was really nervous. He was scared, he wanted to make sure that I liked the place,” he remembers. “I saw his face, which said, ‘This is the house, this is your house, no one can kick us out from here.”
Their family in Mexico welcomed them back warmly. Alcantara says he had to get used to more than speaking Spanish all day.
“It sort of felt like going back in time, because all of the houses are made out of brick and you just see a lot of things that you read about that existed like 50 years ago,” Alcantara says. He says you still see people who ride horses, and some people have never used the internet.
His Previous Life In Las Vegas
The neon-lit city of Las Vegas was what Alcantara considered ordinary growing up. He didn’t remember anything else. He was too young to remember when his parents crossed the border in Tijuana, Mexico, and brought him to the United States.
For the 15 years following, Alcantara’s father Nieto, a farmer by trade, worked as a busboy in a Mexican restaurant. Alcantara says their life was typical, normal. Normal, aside from the fact that Nieto and his family were a few of the approximately 210,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state of Nevada. That means 7.2 percent of Nevada’s population is undocumented, which is the highest percentage for any state, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
“I was waiting to see if a new law would come out that would help us fix things. We’d already been [in Las Vegas] 15 years, working, trying to have a good record, behave well. So I always had the hope that something good would happen for us Latinos,” Nieto says.
What ended up happening was Nieto’s worst nightmare.
The Encounter With ICE
On a June morning in 2012, Alcantara and his father Nieto headed out the front door of their home, Alcantara to high school and Nieto to work. As Alcantara was getting ready to leave the driveway, he saw two men approach his father, pushing him against his car.
Alcantara approached the men, who immediately pulled out their badges, which identified they were from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.
“They told me, ‘Your dad is being detained and deported,’” Alcantara says.
By that point during the commotion, Alcantara’s father Nieto did not understand what was going on, as everyone was talking in English. Regardless, he was trying to reassure his son.
“He was trying to tell me that everything was going to be okay and I was trying to tell him that everything was going to be okay,” Alcantara says.
The ICE officials handed Alcantara a card with his father’s case number and took Nieto to a detention center in Henderson, Nevada.
The Detention Center
“What happens is that when you’re inside, there are people who have already been there more time than you. These people who have been there longer abuse the newcomers,” Nieto says.
Nieto was kept handcuffed, both his feet and his ankles, during his time in the detention center. Everything was done in handcuffs, even going to the bathroom.
“They give us very little time to bathe, to eat. For eating they gave us everything in plastic dishes, as if we were dogs. [In the detention center] everything is pretty dirty,” he remembers.
Three men are housed in each small cell at the detention center, with the shared toilet in one corner.
Nieto tried to keep himself occupied by playing games, such as dominoes, so he would stay awake during the day. It was hard to keep a regular schedule, with no clocks to keep track of time.
Sometimes, Nieto’s family was able to call for a short, but expensive, five or 10 minute phone conversation. “My dad, he would call and say, ‘I’m okay, but I need you to write this number down,’” Alcantara recounts.
Nieto would then relay the phone numbers of other men in the detention facility, some of whom had been in the detention center for months and not been able to contact their families.
Alcantara and his mother would then call the phone numbers provided by Nieto and let the family members of those in the detention center know where they were.
During this time, Alcantara and his mother Yolanda, who were still in Las Vegas, had to decide what to do. They were told that if they moved back to Mexico, Nieto would be released from the detention center sooner than if they remained in the U. S. They decided to self-deport, or voluntarily leave, the U.S. and return to Mexico, but to wait until Alcantara graduated high school.
Nine days after his arrival in Henderson, Nieto was taken from the detention center at 1 a.m.
Following a series of truck rides and a plane trip, “… at ten at night they released us at the border,” Nieto says.
During the journey, Nieto’s suitcase was stolen, so he arrived in Mexico with nothing. He then traveled to Mexico City to reunite with his family.
A New Life with New Jobs
The family now has a new life. Alcantara, 23, is now an English teacher, though teaching was not the career path he pictured for himself when he was younger.
“I always had the idea of working as a police officer, or an FBI agent. I wanted to get into law enforcement when I was in Vegas,” Alcantara says. “That was always the dream, I always envisioned myself in a uniform, keeping my city safe.”
However, in Mexico, he saw that being a police officer is dangerous, underpaid work, so he decided to enroll in the university to earn an education degree.
“At the end of the day the idea was to help out my community, I’m just doing it in a different way now,” he says.
While Alcantara and his mother brought all of the documentation they could to make the transition to university easier, Alcantara admits that earning a university degree in a new country was still difficult. Alcantara made it one of his missions at school to downplay the fact that he had recently moved from the United States.
Alcantara’s cultural difference came through though, even in simple conversation. When asked what his favorite book was, he would say he liked the Harry Potter series, just to have an answer that everyone could relate to. If he mentioned any other books, his new friends knew immediately that he had been living in the States.
Nieto, 49, and his wife Yolanda own a cafeteria in the town where they and their son live, close to family.
“The truth is that, even now, I still haven’t adapted,” Nieto says. “I miss life [in Vegas], because the reality is that here in Mexico, salaries are small. I still dream sometimes of working [in Vegas], but I can’t do anything about it because I’m already here in Mexico, so how do I go back?”
Although keeping the family together is important to them, Alcantara has found that he has a passion for travel. Now that he is employed full-time, he goes abroad on his own. So far, he has visited Belize, France, Spain, China, Japan and recently returned from a trip to Canada.
“Even though I’ve been to all these places, I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, I’ve been to Tokyo, at the end of the day, I think it would be really nice to get a chance to visit a city that I call home, a city that I call my own,” he says, “I wouldn’t feel like a tourist, I still think of [Vegas] as my city. It’s the place where I grew up.”
Kept Out of the U.S.
Alcantara has applied for a visa to the U.S. once and been denied, with the only offered explanation being that he is seen as someone with a high likelihood of living undocumented in the U.S. for a second time. He is not yet married and does not have his own house, so he is not seen as someone who has a strong incentive to return to Mexico after a trip to the United States.
Alcantara misses many aspects of Las Vegas, such as not being able to return to see friends. “The first thing that comes to mind are my friends. There were certain individuals that I spent my entire childhood with, and I feel like they’re more like brothers than friends,” he says.
“The fact that I’ve had to miss a couple of funerals, a wedding or two, I think that part really bugs me, especially the part with the funerals,” he says. “I had two friends that were very close pass away because of heart attacks and I wasn’t able to be there.”
He also has a message for his fellow undocumented youth still in the United States. “I would tell them that even though life in Mexico is hard, it’s not the end of the world,” he says. “I think that, as long as you’re willing to work hard and stay on the straight and narrow, you’re going to have a good life regardless of where you live. Just because you’re not in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re not in a place with opportunities.”
When Alcantara isn’t teaching or traveling, he gives talks and shares his experience as someone who self-deported. He has set up a Facebook page for returnees who are teaching English in Mexico, to connect people and help them find jobs. Through this work, he met Maggie Loredo, who has made it her mission to advocate for deportees and returnees.
Otros Dreams En Acción (Other Dreams In Action)
Those like Alcantara who have already experienced it know how shocking the transition to life in Mexico can be after a life in the United States, and that is where the nonprofit organization Otros Dreams en Acción, or ODA, comes in.
ODA started in 2015 and Maggie Loredo, 27, is a co-founder and co-director of the organization. Loredo lived undocumented for 16 years in the United States before she self-deported from Georgia in 2008, hoping for job opportunities in Mexico.
The transition to Mexico was not smooth, and Loredo says she spent several years regretting her move back to Mexico.
“The language was a huge barrier, or even understanding the Mexican jokes,” she says. “They seemed like small things, but in reality, made me put up a wall because I didn’t really feel like I could be part of a conversation with people.”
Loredo found it difficult to get her education credentials accepted in order to go to college in Mexico. She has also had to tolerate the stereotypes she says many Mexicans hold about Mexicans who have lived and grown up in the United States. Some even told her they considered her parents “traitors” because they left Mexico for the U.S.
Then she discovered a group of people who made her develop a more positive mindset.
“It wasn’t until I met other people in my community of returnees and deportees that I started to change my attitude,” Loredo says.
Loredo found the deportee community by submitting her personal story of deportation for a book called Los Otros Dreamers (The Other Dreamers), a collection of the stories about deportees, authored by Jill Anderson.
Loredo and Anderson started ODA as a nonprofit, and they work with volunteers like Alcantara to help other deportees integrate into Mexican society and spread information about deportation.
Arriving at the massive Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City, surrounded by people speaking rapid-fire Spanish can be overwhelming, so members of ODA go to the airport to receive the incoming flights of deportees. They greet the newcomers, speaking English and letting them know that deportation is an experience shared by many.
For many deportees, it is not easy to enter into the job market as a competitive candidate. Limited proficiency with Spanish, or the fact that educational and work credentials do not hold the same validity that they do in the United States, are all contributing factors.
“The thing that worries me more are the messages that [the Mexican government] is giving out to the U.S., that Mexico is prepared, that there are opportunities in Mexico,” she says. “It’s a reality that it’s not going to be all pink and rosy when people come back to Mexico, and we need to be honest about that.”
Many deportees work in facilities referred to as “call centers,” where they take advantage of their fluency in English to answer technical calls from the United States. With many of these companies, the pay is low and Loredo says that working for them is often a “dead end” for deportees who are trying to advance professionally.
Until recently, another central issue for many deportees was that they could not get their United States education validated in Mexico. In April of 2017, the Mexican government passed “Acuerdo 286” (Agreement 286) which made it easier for people who have “studied abroad” to get that education approved. Importantly, the U.S. General Equivalency Degree, or GED, will now be accepted by the Mexican government and Loredo says she hopes this change will help more deportees find job success.
Loredo and ODA also collaborated with a university in the Mexico City area to establish a program for deportees to earn the TOEFL certification for teaching English. Loredo says that while many like Alcantara did not originally plan to teach English, it is a skill in high demand and helps many deportees find stable jobs.
ODA is also working to involve deportees in a program called HolaCode, which provides intensive computer engineering training and can prepare deportees for jobs in the technology sector.
By providing a network of deportees, Loredo and ODA offer mutual, emotional support to one another. “Emotionally it was very hard,” Loredo says of her move to Mexico. When she thinks back to leaving the United States: “I was leaving the country that my parents considered was the best place where I could have better opportunities.”
For Loredo and many of her fellow deportees, separation from family proves to be the most painful part of the move to Mexico. In the future, Loredo would like ODA to offer resources for psychological therapy, specifically for deportees.
Looking at U.S. politics, Loredo is concerned about the tenuous situation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA. Her brother and sister-in-law both live in the U.S. with DACA.
“I really hope the DREAMer movement will go back to the streets, will organize again, and will really fight for something more than just the DREAM Act,” Loredo says.
She is concerned that the DREAM Act will be passed with other stipulations attached, like border security requirements.
Loredo adds one thing she would like to tell the undocumented population living in the United States:
“If they get deported or they return with their families, ‘la lucha sigue’ (the fight continues),” Loredo says. “We can organize and we can totally support each other and eventually be strong enough to create changes in Mexico and the U.S.”
While Loredo herself has a visa which allows her to travel from Mexico to the U.S., she does not forget that many families are permanently separated by a border. Her ultimate goal is to fight for the rights of those who have been deported and establish a way for more deportees to be able to travel back and forth between Mexico to the U.S. legally.
Photo caption for header image: “I always knew deep down that I was Mexican,” Alcantara says, “but just the fact that I was actually going to the motherland, as some people would say, was just weird.” Photo by Guillermo Bautista