In a corner of her room is a pink drawer. It’s almost hidden by the 3-foot pile of clothes. But when Alejandra Pinzon clears a path and pulls open the plastic drawer, she can touch her most cherished possessions: a jumble of mementos that connect her to a life that’s slipping from her grasp.
Homecoming photos from her high school back in Kansas. A worn letter from her aunt in Overland Park, Kan. A report card of five A’s and, in Spanish, a B minus. And her SAT scores, numbers she’s never bothered to read.
Kneeling on the floor of her Mexico City apartment, Pinzon riffled through the drawer until she found her gold Taylor Swift concert tickets. She stared at the tickets and smiled.
“I’m obsessed with Taylor Swift,” she said. “I wish she’d come to Mexico.”
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Just months after the concert, in the spring of 2010, while her friends were chattering about what to wear to prom, Pinzon faced an irreversible decision – whether to return to Mexico – that would forever shape her future.
Pinzon was 17 and living in the United States illegally. She wanted to go to college, but she knew that wasn’t an option. She worried about being deported. She thought she could go back to Mexico, get her degree, build her skills and then, hopefully, a U.S. company would sponsor her to return on a visa. She might be back in as little as four or five years.
It didn’t work out that way.
When Washington lawmakers debate pro and con, immigration is framed as a political issue. But the repercussions are real for young people such as Pinzon, whose parents chose the difficulties of starting new lives in the United States illegally over the safety and small horizons of home. This fractured relationship between right and left, Republicans and Democrats, has half a million young people like Pinzon caught in a state of limbo between countries.
The now 21-year-old with big brown eyes and a wide smile lives in Mexico City. But emotionally she’s tied to the broad suburbs and flat accents of the American Midwest. It’s an ambiguous space for these young people that affects everything from the relationships they develop to their sense of self. It’s a space that exists somewhere on both sides of the border, but not on one or the other. The late poet Gloria Anzaldua called it the “borderlands.”
An estimated 500,000 Mexicans ages 15 to 32 returned to their homeland from 2005 to 2010, according to an analysis of Mexican migration records by Jill Anderson, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In all, about 1.4 million people moved from the United States to Mexico in that time, about double the number that did so from 1995 to 2000.
About 11 million people, including 6.1 million from Mexico, remain in the U.S. illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“For these young people, like Ali, it’s a very painful and confusing space, because the question is ‘Where do I belong?’ and ‘To whom do I belong?’ ” Anderson said. She’s editing a book, “Los Otros Dreamers,” that documents the sociological challenges that young returning migrants experience. “And I think that becomes even more painful when you’re separated from your family.”
Ali Pinzon could be anyone’s American-born next-door neighbor. She adores country music and peppers her sentences with “like” and “you know.”
But she’s not next door.
Her family has been divided by the consequences of the U.S. immigration policy. While sister Lulu – born in the United States and thus a U.S. citizen – lives in St. Louis, their younger sister, Gaby, 19, lives in Mexico City. Gaby Pinzon also lived for a period in the United States, but she returned to Mexico several years before her sister did.In the spring of 2010 as she was about to graduate from high school, Pinzon felt she had two choices. She could remain in the United States, be dependent on Lulu and work illegally as a waitress or in some other service job. Or she could return to Mexico and attend college. She thought it’d be easier to go to a Mexican college.
Lawyers told her that if she returned to Mexico before she was 18 she could avoid immigration violations.
Sister Lulu was against the move. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” Lulu told her. “You haven’t been to Mexico.”
On Aug. 9, 2010, Pinzon stepped off a plane into a country that felt foreign to her, even though it was her native land. She walked out of the airport in her UGG boots and breathed in the city, which she said smelled like burnt rubber, to begin a new life in a place teeming with 20 million people. She didn’t know when she’d be back in the U.S. again.
“I felt like I was going somewhere where I had never been before,” she said. “I didn’t really speak a lot of Spanish.”
At first, Pinzon spent much of her free time on Facebook and Skype, up to eight hours a day. The friends she does have in Mexico are almost all recent returnees from the U.S., many via deportation. She doesn’t have to worry about being judged by them when she speaks English. Until she found them, she felt as if no one in this massive city understood her homesickness.
“In my mind, I felt like I was the only one who knew English,” she said. “I felt like I was the only one who was going through this situation.”
She still speaks more English than Spanish. She estimates that 80 percent of what she says is in English. Her phone and Wii video game console are set up in English.
Pinzon was taken to the United States when she was 11 years old by her father, who was hoping to cultivate a better life, along with little sister Gaby. Their mother remained in Mexico, and Lulu was already living in the U.S. The three then overstayed their tourist visas and moved in with Pinzon’s grandmother, a legal U.S. resident, in Overland Park.
Pinzon entered the seventh grade at Oxford Middle School in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. She was the only Hispanic child in her class. Later, at Blue Valley Northwest High School, she joined the yearbook committee, sang with the chorus and danced with the Dazzlers drill team.
She lived at the pool during the summers. She went to almost every high school football and basketball game and treated Kansas City’s Zona Rosa shopping center as if it were a higher calling. “Retail therapy,” she called it.
One of her favorite things – and what she misses most – was a holiday stop at the Red Robin burger joint on West 135th Street for a gingerbread milkshake.
“You can taste the fat in your mouth,” she said. “You know you shouldn’t drink more than one a month, but we’d have three a week.”
For her 17th birthday, an aunt got her Taylor Swift concert tickets. Hunched over her kitchen table one recent afternoon, she flipped through an album with dozens of photos from the show. She pushed a tress of brown hair behind her ear and recounted how her best friend, Kristin, surprised her with a “Happy late 17th birthday Alibear” message that flashed on a screen behind the country singer.
“I still get very homesick,” she said. “I miss my friends. I miss everything. Like in the winter I miss the snow. Right now, here it’s been raining. But I know there it’s been super sunny. And I want to be there and go to the pool and get tanned.”
Pinzon regrets that she didn’t keep up her Spanish while she lived in Overland Park. Her grandma spoke to her in Spanish, but she always answered in English.
After her father and grandmother died, Pinzon moved to Indiana in 2009 to live with the family who once employed her grandmother as a housekeeper.
She graduated the next spring. Like her closest friends, she wanted to go to college. Her sister Lulu went to Saint Louis University. She wanted the same experiences and opportunities. She’d maintained a 3.5 grade-point average through high school. She fantasized about attending the University of Missouri or Indiana University and studying journalism or international relations. She took the SAT at her aunt’s request, but she’s never looked at the scores.
“Why would I look at them?” she asked. “It’s not going to help me. It’s just going to torture me. I could have gotten into college.”
As many of her friends were packing to go to college, she was packing to return to Mexico.
Pinzon tried to get into college when she returned to Mexico City, but she couldn’t overcome the bureaucracy. The government wouldn’t validate her U.S. high school diploma because she’d used a hyphenated name in the United States. Many returning migrants struggle to certify their transcripts. Pinzon was told she’d have to get a U.S. court to validate her identity or wait until she was 21, when she could take a GED-equivalent test.
With her good grades and diverse extracurricular activities, which included collecting school supplies for children in Uganda, Pinzon probably would been a shoo-in for a U.S. state college, had she been there legally. But in Mexico, she couldn’t even get the government to accept her high school diploma.
“It was so much paperwork,” she said. “So much bureaucracy that it kind of wears you out, and eventually you’re going to need money. So I just got a job, and that’s what I do now.”
She ended up finding a job at a call center, one of thousands where telephone and cable companies, among others, hire Americanized migrants to take customer service calls from the United States at Mexican wages.
One day, she recognized the 913 area code. It was a woman from Overland Park who needed her cable services transferred. Pinzon ignored the five-minute-per-call limit and chatted. She told the woman she used to live by Johnson County Community College. They talked about a local Greek restaurant they both liked.
“Don’t you love Overland Park?” she asked the caller.
On June 15, 2012, less than two years after Pinzon returned to Mexico, she was playing foosball with friends when her sister called from St. Louis.
It was about the DREAM Act. Her sister said there was news: High school graduates no longer would be deported.
Her sister sounded anxious, but Pinzon paid little mind. What did it matter to her? She was already in Mexico. She went back to foosball.
But that night, she opened her laptop and typed in “DREAM Act.” News stories popped onto her screen. President Barack Obama raised the hopes of many immigrants when he announced from the White House Rose Garden that he’d block deportations for hundreds of thousands of young people, like Pinzon, who’d arrived as kids and graduated from U.S. high schools.
More than 400,000 already have been accepted into the program and more than 1 million probably are eligible. Pinzon might have been one of them. but she’d gambled by leaving the country.
“What have I done?” Pinzon thought to herself.
Her sister called again the next day, as Pinzon headed to work.
“I guess I should have stayed,” Pinzon told her flatly.
“You have to come back. You have to come back,” her sister pleaded.
Pinzon arrived at work. She put her bag down and walked to the bathroom. She closed the stall door.
She threw up.
She should have waited, she now says.
“It would have just taken me two years,” she said. “The two years I’ve been doing this, I could have been doing it there.”
Pinzon returned home after getting sick and didn’t leave her apartment for two days. She skipped work and ignored friends’ calls. Gaby Pinzon said her sister fell into a deep funk.
She feared that the next time her older sister left it might be forever. She feared that her sister would flee, possibly illegally, to the United States.
“I kept telling her, ‘It’s OK, you’re going to get used to it.’ ” Gaby Pinzon said. “I didn’t want to lose her.”
Alejandra Pinzon’s friends in Overland Park often talk about visiting her in Mexico, but it hasn’t happened yet. She thinks they’d be surprised that some of her new friends in Mexico include deported former gang members with tattoos on their necks and heads. They’re so different from her social circle in Kansas.
“They’re like pit bulls or Rottweilers,” she said. “They look rough, but inside they’re softies.”
She still hopes to attend college in Mexico. When she turns 21, she’ll be able to take an equivalency exam for high school and hopefully then enter a Mexican college. She still hopes to earn a degree and entice an American company to sponsor her in the United States.
Going back illegally is also an option, Pinzon admits. She’s thought of various ways to return.
“I’m always going to think about going back,” she said.
Her sister Lulu even bought her a plane ticket. Pinzon still has her tourist visa, which she could use to return and then overstay again. But she’s not sure whether she’s ready to start over again, leaving Gaby and her new nephew, Santiago.
But she’s keeping the ticket, which she has saved on her computer in her room. It’s near the pink drawer with the rest of her American stuff.
This three-part project was sponsored by an international reporting fellowship administered by the International Center for Journalists and funded by the Brooks and Joan Fortune Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation.