As Jorge Lerma approached the Mexican border from the U.S. side, he felt like he was hooked to a bungee cord, ready to leap into the unknown.
Jorge had lived in the U.S. for 16 years, attended high school and college in California, but his status here as an undocumented immigrant thwarted his dreams to be an engineer. So he decided to move back to Mexico.
I spent time with Jorge before he left his tiny rented room in Bellevue and gave him a recorder to document part of his return home.
On his way south, Jorge stopped in Los Angeles to say goodbye to friends from his engineering program. They gathered for a beach party and talked about careers, marriage and having children. It was like a final glimpse at the life Jorge had hoped to find here for himself.
As he approached the border, he filed a dispatch at 10:45 a.m. on the San Diego trolley, blue line to San Ysidro: “You can see Tijuana, like Tijuana is right next to San Ysidro, and I could see like a hill with houses. I was kind of like wow, this is it.”
Jorge, 32, had spent half his life in the U.S. He earned an engineering degree at a university in California. But his degree was worthless here, because Jorge was living in the U.S. after overstaying a tourist visa.
Through the years, he hoped immigration reform would open a path for him to legally work here. But he grew tired of waiting and made the tough choice to leave the U.S. By one estimate, a half million Mexicans ages 15 to 32 returned to their homeland between 2005 and 2010, a substantial increase over previous years.
Another dispatch: “Today is my day two in Mexico, and I’m at the IFE, Instituto Federal Electoral.”
That’s where you go to get a national ID card, to use at the bank or to rent an apartment.
Right away, Jorge set about re-establishing his life in Puebla, a large city about 75 miles southeast of Mexico City.
First priority was to get his U.S. high school and college records validated. That way he could apply for his professional license and finally start his career as an electrical engineer. It hasn’t been easy.
“They want so many papers,” he says. “So, yeah, it’s just very difficult, and time-consuming and super expensive.”
Jill Anderson, an independent researcher in Mexico City said for those returning, it’s a struggle simply to get documented again.
“Those who are deciding to return, return with the idea that they’re finally legal citizens,” she told me by phone. “They find themselves undocumented in Mexico also.”
Anderson’s recent work focuses on this phenomenon of young people who return home. She calls them los otros dreamers, the other dreamers.
After the paperwork is sorted out, which can take up to a year, Anderson says many returnees do find good opportunities.
“They’re studying and working and there’s a lot of surprising and moving examples of success, you know, where there really is a dream to be realized in Mexico,” she says.
Anderson says call centers are hot spot for this bilingual workforce. And the pay is decent by local standards.
After a few months in Mexico, Jorge is still figuring out his next step. Graduate school is one option for Jorge, if he can get a scholarship. He’s also got some pressure to join the family business, at an auto parts store.
In the meantime, he’s signed on with a job agency and has also applied to places like Holiday Inn and a tech company, but no luck so far.
"I used to feel hopeless. At least I feel here there's hope."
As Jorge records around him, he picks up the sounds of the rambunctious kids who live next door to his mom’s house, where he now lives. The kids are 7, 9 and 10.
During a recent visit, the kids giggle as they test out English phrases like, "I love you," and ask Jorge how much laptops and cell phones cost in the U.S.
They say they want to go the U.S. someday. Then Jorge asks what they all want to be when they grow up.
“An engineer,” one boy says. “An industrial engineer.”
You can hear Jorge’s voice change tone. He gets serious, as he warns the kids about the pitfalls of going the U.S. illegally.
“You can’t leave the country,” Jorge says in Spanish. “You can’t get a good job. Life is hard.”
He tells them the best thing to do is to study hard here in Mexico and try to get a visa to legally work in the U.S.
After Jorge had been in Mexico City for a while, I called him at his mom's home. It took us three tires to get the right connection through Google Voice on his computer.
Jorge sounds upbeat. He asks about Seattle and some local news. He’s clearly still connected to this place.
“When I open my browser, it’s set up to show the L.A. Times,” he tells me. “And I listen to the radio in Seattle.”
When Jorge left Seattle in February, he had hit a low point. He declared his American Dream a failure, and he wondered if the past 15 years here were a waste.
As we talk, he marvels at how much Puebla has grown since he left. He jokes that Puebla has a new Ferris wheel, even bigger than the one on Seattle’s waterfront. But more important, he says, foreign companies are bringing more jobs to this region, in aerospace and automotive industries.
“At least now I can apply to those places. I can aspire to those things,” he says.
He says in the U.S., the only hope was to get his papers and get documented. And the chances were slim.
“I used to feel hopeless,” he says. “At least I feel here there’s hope.”
And that’s something he hasn’t felt in a while.
This project was reported with assistance from the Institute for Justice & Journalism’s “Immigration in the Heartland” fellowship.