Jorge Lerma sorts through his neckties. Dozens are draped across the couch; others get tossed into the give-away pile.
Jorge rents a tiny room at this house in Bellevue, Washington. The landlord pops in to check out possible bargains and buys a flat-screen TV and a lightweight tripod. The discard pile shrinks, but on top remains a crisp American flag that Jorge used to hang in his room.
“I used to love this country, so I used to have a flag,” he says. “I always wanted to be an American, but things just didn’t work out.”
Jorge, 32, will leave Seattle in a few hours, bound for Mexico. He overstayed a tourist visa as a teenager and has lived in the country since. But now he’s grown tired of looking for opportunity. The landlord pats him on the shoulder and says suerte, good luck in Spanish.
Self-deportation. That’s what Jorge is doing. Two years ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested it as a way to deal with immigrants who are in the country without papers.
“The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide that they’re better off going home because they can’t work here, because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here,” Romney said during a primary debate. He later softened that position and other GOP leaders called the comment “horrific.” But Romney’s statement had a ring of truth. For an increasing number of Mexican natives like Jorge, leaving the U.S. is the only way to achieve their dreams.
Jorge was raised in a middle class family in Mexico, but as a teen craved life in the U.S.
“I used to watch all these shows on cable TV, like Baywatch and Beverly Hills,” he says.
He came here alone and lived with an uncle in the suburbs of Los Angeles during high school. His dad helped to pay for college, yet Jorge often worked full time to help cover his living expenses. He juggled jobs in fast food, construction and at warehouses and as result, it took him seven years to complete his degree in electrical engineering.
But it’s a degree that he still can’t use because of his undocumented status.
In his room in Bellevue, Jorge flips through his college photos, remembering some good times.
“That’s me climbing at Stoney Point,” he says. “That’s Malibu. That was like my favorite place.”
In the photos, he’s tan, fit and smiling.
Now, six years after college, Jorge looks dramatically different. These past years have taken a toll.
While his school friends landed good-paying engineering jobs, Jorge struck out. He moved to Washington state in 2010, hopeful about a better job market. Again, all he found was manual labor jobs in warehouses, where some previous shoulder and back injuries worsened. He’s stopped playing sports, he’s lost 30 pounds and his face is blotchy and red from rosacea. It’s a condition often triggered by stress.
“I feel like I’m stuck in the same place,” he says. “I feel like I’m a fish an aquarium but I can’t swim. I’m sinking and sinking and all the other fishes are moving on.”
Jorge has fought depression as he realized that the engineering career he wants can’t happen here in the U.S.
“All these years, all this work, and it failed. It was like a failure,” he tells me.
The day before, Jorge had dropped into a student club for undocumented immigrants at the University of Washington. He said goodbye to a few friends and shared his decision to leave with the group.
“I’m just like at a point where, first of all I’m broke, and second I’m just tired,” he told them. “I’ve been waiting for immigration reform for like, 10, 12 years. They’ve been saying, 'It’s coming next year or the year after that.'”
Immigration reform hasn’t happened, but President Barack Obama did approve the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives so-called dreamers, like Jorge, temporary waivers to live and work and the U.S. Jorge missed the age cutoff by just six months.
At the student club, Jorge’s comments sent a chill through the room. Like him, these students are all undocumented, with lives firmly rooted here in the U.S.
‘They’re Fed Up’
In Mexico City, Jill Anderson researches this phenomenon of young people who return to Mexico.
“They’re fed up,” she says. “And they’re fed up in an increasingly globalized world where they’re realizing well, you know, maybe all the options are not here in the United States. Why don’t I go back to Mexico where I at least have citizenship and try to study there, work there?”
Anderson has analyzed Mexican census data and found an increasing trend of young Mexicans age 15 to 32 returning to their homeland. She estimates about half a million people in this age group returned from 2005 to 2010.
And a report from the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that overall migration from U.S. to Mexico doubled in the past decade, and that the majority of people who return to Mexico do so voluntarily.
Anderson wrote a book about these young returnees and whether they’re finding a better life back in Mexico.
“I would say overall it’s an extremely challenging experience,” she said. “Sometimes they find family here in Mexico but often those ties have been weakened, or most of the family is in fact in the United States and they find themselves here alone."
‘Going Blind To Mexico’
Two overstuffed suitcases. That’s all Jorge plans to carry with him back to Mexico. He’ll take some clothes, important papers, and his Mariners baseball cap, even though he never made it to a game.
He rolls the suitcases up the driveway, to the truck he just sold to a friend.
“I just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s like driving but someone tells you to close your eyes. I feel like I’m going blind to Mexico because I just don’t know what’s going to happen. To be honest, I don’t know.”
This project was reported with assistance from the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s “Immigration in the Heartland” fellowship.