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Returning migrants: Strangers at home

September 02, 2011

Since the passage of Arizona’s tough new immigration law, SB 1070, many Mexicans living in the United States have started returning to their native country, in spite of a federal injunction blocking some aspects of the bill.

Some migrants leave voluntarily, while others are deported and forced to start over in Mexico. But for many of these people, who have built a life in the United States, their country of origin no longer feels like home.

Dulce Medina, a doctoral student in ASU’s School of Social and Family Dynamics, immigrated to the United States with her parents at age three. She traveled back to Mexico to study return migration for her master’s degree in sociology, which she earned this summer at ASU. Although her research was conducted months before SB 1070 went into effect, her findings could have increased relevance now as more people leave due to the law.

In the early stages of her research, Medina came across anecdotal reports that many people who had returned to Mexico were families with school-aged children who were born in the United States.

“I couldn’t help but wonder, what happens to children who are uprooted from the country their parents usually strived to get to?” Medina says. She spoke with children in Mexico who had that very experience.

Medina interviewed 21 people from 11 different households in a municipality within El Estado de Mexico (the State of Mexico), located in South-Central Mexico. She focused on mixed-nativity households – families with members born in different countries. Specifically, the families Medina spoke with were comprised of parents born and raised in Mexico, and children who were born and raised in the United States. Medina identified a specific set of challenges that these mixed-nativity households face when returning to Mexico.

In Phoenix, there are “ethnic enclaves” for Mexican immigrant families. They live in close proximity and assist each other in the settlement process. This is called a co-ethnic community, and they can be found in cities all over the country. Certain parts of South Phoenix in particular serve as ethnic enclaves for Mexican immigrants.

In Mexico, the return migration of mixed-nativity households is a fairly new phenomenon. Many of these families have not yet established a co-ethnic community, like the one they had in the United States, to help them integrate into Mexican society. For mixed-nativity households, the appropriate co-ethnic community would be other mixed-nativity households. Unfortunately, these family units have not yet established a connection with one another. 

“In the near future they may need to build ties with other mixed nativity families, but at this point, they’re on their own,” Medina says.

Returning migrants must also assimilate into the greater community, which often includes their extended families and old friends of the parents. The mixed-nativity households Medina spoke with had varied experiences in joining the community, some positive and some negative.

“I found that the incorporation process at the society level is not binary. The adults have histories with their relatives and community members, and they weren’t always well received,” Medina says. “The children, on the other hand, were well received by their extended family, partly because they’ve had a desire for family and relatives. That’s something they didn’t have in the United States.”

Despite being embraced by family members, children were typically not welcomed into their new schools. Medina learned that it was common for them to be teased, taunted and excluded by the other kids because they had come from the United States.

“There was a little girl who had a habit of taking off her shoes, and her classmate threw them over the roof,” Medina says. “The girl explicitly said that nobody wanted to be friends with her because she was from the United States.”

The children’s negative experiences extended beyond the playground. School officials also seemed to exclude children who had come from the States. One student, who had dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico, was denied grant money for school supplies, despite being eligible and in need.

“When the mother asked why, they said it was because the child was not from Mexico,” Medina says.

But the biggest problem for return-migrant families was getting kids enrolled in school in the first place.

In Mexico, each resident is issued a Clave Única de Registro de Población (CURP), a unique code that registers them with the National Population Registry. The CURP is similar to a Social Security card, and all children must have one to enroll in school and to receive their report cards. To obtain a CURP for a U.S.-born child, parents must provide the child’s birth certificate and an apostillado, a translated certificate with a special seal verifying that the child was born in the U.S. Many families were unaware they needed an apostillado, and left the U.S. without one.

“This is where it gets complicated because it’s an inconsistent practice,” Medina says. Of the 11 families she interviewed, each one was given different instructions for obtaining the ID card. Many also had issues with the enrollment process. While most were asked for the child’s birth certificate and CURP, others were asked for additional documentation such as proof of dual citizenship, an apostillado, and grades in order to complete school enrollment.

“The process was long, tedious and convoluted, where parents had to visit multiple offices in the state sometimes just to obtain this card,” Medina says. Schools will allow provisional enrollment without the card, but this practice was also inconsistent. Schools gave some families a matter of weeks to provide a CURP, while others were told they had years to obtain it. Medina attributes the discrepancies to a lack of communication among different levels of government.

Since the return migration of mixed-nativity households is a relatively new phenomenon, Medina says it will require more time and research to determine how to best help these families in settling and integrating into the community. However, standardizing the school enrollment process is one way the government can make a difference.

“There should be a documented school enrollment process,” Medina says. “If the local, state and federal governments come to terms with what this practice will actually be, families will not have to face the inconsistencies and may have an easier time settling in Mexico.”

The School of Social and Family Dynamics is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This project was funded by the School of Social and Family Dynamics 2010 Graduate Student Initiative.

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development