MOLCAXAC, Mexico — Tamara Alcala Dominguez sobbed, barely able to speak, as she buried her face in the sweater of the woman who cared for her when she was a toddler.
“My little girl, I hugged you so much,” Petra Bello Suarez told her now 23-year-old granddaughter, tears dampening her own creased cheeks. “I have you in my arms, my girl. ... You found me still alive.”
Alcala’s mother left her with Bello at age 2 when she went to seek a better life in the United States. A year later, the little girl joined her mother and for two decades Alcala’s undocumented status prevented her from returning to Mexico to see her grandmother and other relatives.
Then she became one of the hundreds of thousands protected from deportation under an Obama administration program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gave work permits to immigrants brought to the U.S as children and living in the country illegally.
Alcala burst out of the shadows. In her American home of Everett, Washington, she got an officially sanctioned job and pursued an education with dreams of becoming a doctor. And last year she enrolled in a special program that allowed her to make this, her first journey back to Mexico, and then return safely again to the United States.
Grandmother and grandchild spent nearly two weeks catching up on 20 years, a reunion made bittersweet by the uncertainty ahead: They said their goodbyes just before Donald Trump took office amid vows to undo the protections his predecessor put in place, promises that leave immigrants worried about what comes next.
For Alcala, the trip may have been either a last opportunity to see her grandmother, or a chance to reacquaint herself with her native land in case she winds up deported.
“It brings a lot of peace of mind to know that I was able to interact with her at least once,” she said, “before whatever happens in the future.”
In the weeks just before Trump was sworn in, more than two dozen young immigrants made the same journey as Alcala back to Mexico under a provision of DACA that lets recipients apply to leave the U.S. for academic reasons or family emergencies and then legally return. The Associated Press travelled with them.
More than 100 former child migrants have made five such trips sponsored by California State University, Long Beach emotional journeys to what is often a barely remembered homeland, to reunite with family seen only in photos or on Skype. The students on this trip scattered across Mexico to join long-lost relatives for Christmas, then gathered after the new year for an academic course in Cuernavaca before flying home to America.
About 750,000 people in the United States have enrolled in DACA. Legislation that would have included similar protections, called the DREAM Act, failed to get through Congress, prompting President Barack Obama to create the program with an executive action in 2012, declaring at the time, “We are a better nation than one that expels innocent young kids.”
Trump has a different take. He made tough talk on immigration a cornerstone of his campaign for president and has vowed to end DACA, calling it illegal amnesty. At the same time, he’s said he hopes to “work something out” for the immigrants.
Moderate Republicans are keenly aware of the political dangers of deporting college students and future doctors and lawyers and breaking up families. At a town hall Jan. 12, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Republicans had been working with the Trump team on a solution and vowed there would be no “deportation force,” as Trump once said, to round up people living in the country illegally.
“I can see you love your daughter, you are a nice person who has a great future ahead of you, and I hope your future is here,” Ryan told one DACA recipient and her daughter at the town hall.
But the details of what that solution might look like have not been released, and immigrants have spent the opening days of Trump’s presidency on edge. Asked about DACA, Trump’s spokesman said Monday that the president would focus first on border security and those with criminal records who live illegally in the U.S.
Still, Trump’s rhetoric cast a shadow over those who travelled to Mexico.
Alvaro Castillo Garcia, a 23-year-old master’s student in creative writing at California State University, Northridge, recalled how, before DACA, he had to constantly hide his illegal status amid fears of deportation.
“You can’t drive, you can’t even take a girl on a date because you’re going to have to ask her for a ride, you know?” Castillo said. “For the most part we lie about where we were born. We make up stories of why we can’t go see relatives. And DACA ... kind of granted us that liberty to feel part of society, because it allowed us to feel human.”
Ending the program would be like “giving candy to a baby and then taking it away,” he said. “We’re not babies. ... And I don’t think it’s going to be taken lightly. I don’t think people will be quiet about it.”
Like Alcala, Castillo and the others who made the trip originally left Mexico as toddlers or teenagers. Their stories show how DACA has allowed immigrants to abandon poorly paid, off-the-books jobs to pursue lives that had been out of reach. Some are college students majoring in social services or theatre. Others work with special-needs children, as a college counsellor, in accounting, as a retail store manager. One aspires to be a police officer.
They spoke of pride in representing their families, and guilt that their parents and siblings were unable to make the same trip. Some feared they’d be seen as haughty because of their lives in the U.S. or odd because of their imperfect Spanish. One man had heard that his grandmother wanted nothing to do with him.
Weighing heavily on all their minds was the knowledge that they would be returning to the United States just five days before Trump’s inauguration.
“There’s more concern, more fear because of the change in the political realities,” said Armando Vazquez-Ramos, a lecturer in Chicano studies at CSU Long Beach who leads the cross-border course. “But ... they’re driven by the fact that this could be the last opportunity.”
Soft-spoken and shy, Alcala’s demeanour reflects an upbringing living with fear of deportation. Growing up, her family mostly kept to themselves and a few friends. Alcala’s mother encouraged her not to speak Spanish outside the home to avoid attracting attention. She wasn’t to let on that she was Mexican, and never to tell people where her mother worked.
“I always felt like I always had to hide everything,” Alcala said.
Through high school, Alcala was content with her under-the-table restaurant job. But as college neared, the limitations of her legal status became increasingly clear. Her job was never going to be enough to pay for tuition. She began to question why her mother brought her to the U.S.
“What’s the point of dreaming if you’re not going to be able to follow through?” she said.
Then one day, at age 19, her life changed. News popped up on her phone about Obama’s executive action. Earlier in the day she had experienced the humiliation of being asked for a Social Security number while applying for a hospital position. She arrived at her restaurant job with puffy eyes, determined to immediately apply for DACA.
Alcala was accepted, quit the restaurant job and pursued a student position in a lab at the University of Washington. She recently graduated, and is working while studying for medical school entry exams. Her grandmother and great-grandmother were curanderas, traditional healers in Mexico, and she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that she was drawn to the medical profession. An end to DACA could scuttle her plans.
Being a “normal” student, she said, “made me feel less alone.”
Last year, just before the November election, Alcala stumbled on a blog that talked about how some people with protection under DACA could travel, and that led her to Vazquez-Ramos’ program.
For the first time, Alcala had hopes of being with the grandmother she barely knew. And with Bello now 75 years old and suffering from hypertension, diabetes and other ailments, Alcala was determined not to repeat the anguish she felt when her grandfather died of prostate cancer before she could see him.
“I said to myself, I’m gonna apply,” Alcala said. “This is the year.”
Molcaxac, where Alcala was born, is a dusty village about a 90-minute drive southeast of Puebla state’s eponymous capital city. A colorful arch decorated with religious imagery welcomes visitors. It was put up with the help of donations from her grandmother’s family. On a recent day, about a dozen people sat on plastic chairs on the edge of town gulping down orange soda and cola and eating goat slow-steamed in a covered fire pit with agave fronds for flavouring.
Folks here say so many working-age residents have migrated to the U.S., the town is mostly populated by the elderly and the very young. Oswaldo Lorenzo Cabrera Medel, a family friend who is also something of a municipal historian, estimated that 95 per cent of families in Molcaxac have relatives north of the border who send money to help pay for everything from home additions to startup capital for small businesses and a fireworks show at the annual town fair.
The first wave of migration started in 1942 with the bracero program, which allowed Mexicans to temporarily ‚Äî and legally ‚Äî work in the United States. After the program ended in 1964, people continued to go north illegally. Alcala’s grandfather was a bracero. With the money he made in California, he purchased a large lot across the street from the main square that has been subdivided among family members who live in a cluster of two-story homes around a common patio.
On the drive from Mexico City, Alcala was re-introduced to her birthplace as an aunt sought to explain the unfamiliar: How in this part of the country, many people get around on bike or horseback. How in one neighbouring town, everyone makes a living manufacturing and selling fireworks. At a toll plaza on the highway, vendors approached cars hawking sweets and beverages; one man held up two small fluffy dogs.
“They’re selling puppies!” Alcala squealed.
Then she was back in her grandmother’s arms. Once the crying stopped, Alcala dined on salty carne asada and the rich mole sauce for which Puebla state is famous. She leaned her head on Bello’s shoulder while flipping through her smartphone photos. She skipped around the backyard checking out the peacocks the family raises for their ornamental feathers, and the two giant ostriches whose eggs they sell. She played hide-and-seek with cousins.
Alcala followed Bello everywhere ‚Äî to the store, to meet neighbours and, clutching tightly to grandma, to the town holiday party, where a priest celebrated Mass.
They said goodbye in Cuernavaca, with Alcala’s grandmother promising to teach her even more the next time they are together. Alcala promised that would happen, even though she couldn’t really be sure.
“I told her this still wasn’t the last goodbye,” Alcala said. “I told her I’d find a way to go visit her.”
And once more, they clung to each other and cried.
On Inauguration Day, Alcala was back in Washington state as all eyes were on Trump and whatever new policies might come.
At least 22,340 DACA recipients have received special permission to travel out of the country and return. For those, that trip back to the U.S. puts a legal entry on their records, which can help toward eventually gaining permanent legal status through sponsorship or marriage, said Jorge Baron of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Alcala doesn’t know what she’ll do if her DACA protection ends under Trump; because her younger sister was born in the U.S., Alcala could apply for a family reunification visa. But sibling sponsorship is a long road, with a backlogged application process.
For now, she’s grateful for both her life in the United States and the time she had back in Mexico. During the class session in Cuernavaca, Alcala heard from other migrants who were brought to the U.S. as children but were not there during DACA and either got deported or left voluntarily. Their stories, and the days spent with her grandmother, provided the glimpse she needed into what life would be like if deported. She would still pursue her dreams; the pursuit would simply be harder.
“I feel better, like 100 per cent better. Before, I was just thinking the worst,” she said. “If I get deported, I’d know nothing. I didn’t know my family well. I had no clue what’d be awaiting me.”
Now, she said, “I’m not scared ... anymore.”
And as she settled back into life in the country she ‚Äî for now ‚Äî calls home, Alcala had a message for President Trump:”What’s the worst you can do, send me back to Mexico? Now I know I can succeed (in Mexico) or in the States. It was a great burden off my shoulders ... to not fear Mexico.”