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Men are led off a bus to a deportation gate at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. / Photo by David Maung

When people talk about deportation, they often discuss it as though people are being sent home.

But Beth Caldwell, who has been following the lives of deportees and their families in Tijuana for years, wants to change the way people view deportation.

“For people who came to the U.S. as children, they view deportation as being ejected from their home and they are landing in a place that is effectively foreign for them,” Caldwell, a professor at Southwestern Law School and a former Los Angeles public defender.

In the process, many are forced to establish their identities as Mexican — both on paper and in their mind — as they search for a sense of belonging.

“They were socialized and grew up in the U.S.,” Caldwell said. “They have a different cultural frame of reference.”

As a public defender in Los Angeles, Caldwell constantly found herself having to talk to her clients about the immigration impacts of the crimes they were being charged with. For even some lawful residents, a couple of misdemeanors could lead to deportation.

Later, while conducting research in Mexico, she kept coming across deportees yearning for someone to speak English with and talk about the United States. Then members of her extended family were deported, and she saw firsthand the pain that reverberates through families of deportees who remain in the United States.

In 2011, Caldwell began more formally interviewing deportees. Eventually her informal and formal experience turned into her new book, “Deported Americans,” where she tracks the long-term consequences of deportation on deported individuals in Tijuana and their families in the United States. Caldwell specifically looks at cases of those who came to the United States as children and were deported as a result of a criminal conviction.

Caldwell notes that many of the people she spoke with compared deportation to death. Even the people who seemingly had achieved success in Mexico — they started businesses and seemed to better assimilate — reported experiences with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

How well a person was able to adapt to life in Mexico often depended on his or her family. The people who had the hardest time, Caldwell said, were those trying to keep a relationship alive with a spouse or child in the United States who they couldn’t visit regularly. Those who did better tended to have their family with them in Mexico or they started fresh, with new families and social circles.

“A lot of the rhetoric presents immigrants as ‘outsiders’ or ‘invaders’ or ‘others,’ and I think this research highlights that many immigrants are a part of U.S. society and families,” Caldwell said. “Some have lawful status, some don’t, but all of these people have become integral members of U.S. society. That piece is often missing from the debates.”

Caldwell hopes that her research can inform policy. Some of her suggestions include letting courts consider family unity claims before deportation – something judges had discretion over before 1996. She also suggests the United States open a path for people to lawfully return to the country, even if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

“If they show they are rehabilitated, they could at least have a procedure to return to the U.S., which is nearly impossible now,” she said.

Caldwell found that being in Tijuana or other cities along the border is in some ways a benefit to people who have been deported — their family may be able to visit more easily or there may be more job opportunities.

“But there were challenges in seeing the border, constantly seeing San Diego or the border fence, and hearing about people coming and going when you can’t,” Caldwell said. “That made their status — the fact they couldn’t even go across — even more tangible.”

‘Remain in Mexico’ Expands With Some Hiccups

Questions Remain Unanswered on DHS Database

NBC 7 obtained documents showing that the Department of Homeland Security kept a database of advocates, attorneys and journalists who worked with or covered the fall’s migrant caravan. After the report published, legislators, advocates and government watchdogs demanded to know why the database existed and whether it was an appropriate use of DHS’s power and resources.

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection failed to meet a deadline set by the House Committee on Homeland Security to provide detailed information about the program.

CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security’s Officer of Inspector General have launched an internal inquiry of the surveillance program “to ensure that all appropriate policies and practices were followed.”

Officials kept dossiers of some individuals in the database, pulled others aside for additional questioning while crossing at ports of entry and placed security alerts on the others. To make sense of all this, we put together a guide laying out people’s rights when crossing the border.

Tijuana’s Security Issues Continue

More Border News

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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