When You’re Undocumented, “Going Home” Is Complicated, Dangerous, or Even Impossible

·14 min read

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I couldn’t sleep the night before my flight to Mexico back in 2016. I double-checked that I had packed everything I needed, but my fear of leaving behind my favorite pair of sneakers or a charger wasn’t what was keeping me up after hours. I couldn’t doze off because I was in disbelief. In a matter of hours, I’d be back in my home country for the first time in 20 years.

As someone who has been undocumented nearly my entire life, I had come to accept that returning to the land that birthed me was impossible. In the U.S., traveling, especially outside of the country, while undocumented is risky and at times unsafe. Leaving U.S. borders means you may never be able to return, forcing people to risk their lives on dangerous treks to make it back to their loved ones in the States. As a result, many undocumented immigrants go decades without returning to their homelands, and some never do. Unable to cross borders, we miss out on so much: births, marriages, funerals, and everything in between. Our grief stretches across land and sea, with invisible barriers keeping us in while keeping us out.

That’s why I couldn’t sleep that anxiety-ridden night six years ago: I was about to do what was previously unthinkable. At 21 years old — and as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy that provides protection from deportation for certain immigrants as well as work authorization, driver’s license, and social security — I was traveling to Mexico City to study abroad during my final year of college. I was able to make this trip through Advance Parole, a travel document that lawfully allows certain immigrants to safely travel outside of the U.S. and return.

Our grief stretches across land and sea, with invisible barriers keeping us in while keeping us out.

Jacqueline Delgadillo

I was filled with anticipation. When I landed in Mexico, I thought I’d feel complete, like a yearslong void would finally be filled. But, to my surprise, I didn’t get the magical feeling I was expecting that would tell me I was home.

My parents and I immigrated to Southern California when I was eight months old. My earliest memories all take place north of the border, and while I’ve always known that I’m Mexican, for many years I felt like a fraud. Aside from my birth certificate and the vaccination scar on my right arm, I felt like I had nothing else to prove that Mexico was something I could call mine.

While this gorgeous land I had dreamt about didn’t feel like home, it offered me something that my neighborhood in Riverside couldn’t: I visited the homes my parents grew up in, I experienced the vibrant energy of a tianguis, and I gained a better understanding of what makes my culture both beautiful and complicated. While Mexico didn’t feel like home initially, I still miss it every day. Honestly, I haven’t been the same since.

Like me, there are other immigrants who are journeying to their homelands for the first time since they left after obtaining certain forms of legal status or relief. While these trips are often longed for, they come with a complexity of emotions. We spoke with four immigrant women, formerly undocumented and presently undocumented, who share what their voyages back to their birth country meant to them.

Angy Rivera (She/Her), 31-Year-Old Colombian in New York

After I adjusted my status, I avoided booking my first trip back to Colombia because my mom and I immigrated while on complicated terms with the family. We left without saying goodbye. Even though I was only four years old at that time, I was afraid that when I returned, I’d be the one to face the repercussions.

There were some existential worries, too. I pondered if I would belong and feel welcomed. If I didn’t, I feared what that would say about me and my identity.

When you’re undocumented, it feels like so many people are telling you who you are and what identity you can claim. Growing up Colombian in Queens, New York, you’re scrutinized a lot. When I was younger, people often told me that I wasn’t actually Colombian because I hadn’t been in so long. Others wondered how I could miss a place I didn’t have memories of. But I feel like you miss it in your body. Even if you left when you were a newborn, there’s still a sense of grief. But it’s hard to explain that to people who don’t understand it.

I’m still trying to figure out what home means to me. At its core, it has to be the place where you feel safe, and that is not limited to a location, like a neighborhood or a town. For me, home has become a feeling.

Angy rivera

In 2018, at 28 years old, I took my first trip back to Colombia. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t the only one anxious about the trip. My family there thought that they didn’t have enough to offer me, the girl visiting from New York. But once we were able to talk openly about all of our individual anxieties, we all laughed. On the plane there, I had set an intention not to let any potential judgments weigh heavy on me. Fortunately, I didn’t feel scrutinized by my family. Instead, it felt like we were getting to know each other.

While beautiful, this trip also opened a door to grief that I had locked away, grief I didn’t even know existed. One journey back to the homeland doesn’t heal the pain of displacement. In a weird way, I felt like I became even more displaced. Yes, I got some answers, but I also came back with more questions. I even questioned what immigration justice really means.

I’m still trying to figure out what home means to me. At its core, it has to be the place where you feel safe, and that is not limited to a location, like a neighborhood or a town. For me, home has become a feeling.

Alejandra Pérez (She/Ella), 28-Year-Old Guatemalan in Washington

When I was 12 years old, I emigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. with my family. I remember so much from my childhood there: playing in the streets of my neighborhood and going to my friend’s house every Friday.

I’m a DACA recipient, so I have been able to travel on Advance Parole three times. Two of those times were through study abroad programs; the first time was to India, and the second time I visited Guatemala for the first time since I left.

I was so excited but also nervous. Although I had already traveled on Advance Parole before, this time I’d be going home. It felt different. My luggage was filled with gifts for family members that my mom and I had shopped for before my trip. But I also got to witness how much easier it is for folks who are not from my country to travel there. I had a layover in Texas, and the plane was filled with non-Latine white people who were headed to Guatemala. I felt so frustrated knowing that they have easier access to my country than I do.

It just felt like home, and it was home.

Alejandra Pérez

It was an emotional trip from the start. Guatemala is known for its volcanoes, and the moment I saw one through the plane window, I thought to myself, Holy shit, I’m home. I’m not a very emotional person, but I immediately teared up. I was happy, but at the same time, I was upset that I wasn’t experiencing this with my parents and brother.

My trip was awesome. I got to visit places in Guatemala I had never seen when I lived there. I even got to visit the town where my dad was born. My dad’s side of the family doesn’t have access to tourist visas, so I wasn’t close to them growing up. My biggest fear was that I wasn’t going to feel connected to them, but that worry completely subsided the minute I saw them. They asked me so many questions about myself, and I could hear and see my dad in all of them. It was as if he were there, too. It was the best time I’ve ever had.

This trip gave me validation and reassurance of where I’m from. As Central American folks, it’s really hard not to assimilate to the dominant Latine culture in the U.S. Throughout my life in the U.S., Latines, particularly Mexicans, often asked me why I speak a certain way or use different words from them. But being back in Guatemala, none of that was questioned. I understood everything that was going on, and it just felt like home, and it was home.

Vanessa Garcia (she/her), 32-Year-Old Dominican in Connecticut

I was born in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States when I was nine years old. When I think about those first nine years of my life, I have memories of the school that I loved and my friends. Later, I have memories of my family visiting me in New Jersey from the Dominican Republic, but, because I was undocumented, not being able to visit them.

This changed in February 2021. As a DACA recipient, I was able to visit my home country with Advance Parole. The moment the plane landed and I was able to walk off, I was filled with so many emotions at once. Even now, I’m not sure how to describe them. It was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling. I’m not a big crier, but it took a lot to hold back the tears, especially when I embraced an aunt who I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years.

Everything in the Dominican Republic is just so different from the U.S.; it even smells different. If peaceful had a scent, it would smell like la republica dominicana. There is just such a sense of tranquility. I felt this while waking up in the morning and sitting outside with my older relatives. Life feels so unrushed and in its natural state.

While the Dominican Republic is my homeland, home, for me, is the United States. I know a lot of us feel like we don’t belong here or there, but regardless of what people say, this is home.

Vanessa Garcia

Due to my job, I couldn’t stay long. I stayed for three days during the pandemic, which wasn’t a lot of time to see all my family. But I did get to see my ailing grandfather, who prompted the trip. I wanted to be able to check on him in person and make sure he was getting his medication. When I saw him, it was the most emotional part of the trip. We both cried when we saw each other. We wept again when it was time to say goodbye, knowing it would likely be the last time we’d be together.

Since that initial trip, I’ve adjusted my status, and I’ve been able to visit again. Like the first time, there was a bit of a cultural shock, but I was able to be with other family members I didn’t see the first time.

While the Dominican Republic is my homeland, home, for me, is the United States. I know a lot of us feel like we don’t belong here or there, but regardless of what people say, this is home.

Ireri Lora Cabrera (she/her), 37-Year-Old Mexican in California

I was born in Mexico City and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents when I was eight years old. Most of my life has been spent in California. Then, in 2007, when I was 22, my dad was deported. My parents and siblings all returned soon after. At the time, I was studying at the University of California San Diego, and I couldn’t leave. Even though my family moved to Tijuana so that they could be closer to me, I wasn’t able to visit them. Sometimes, my partner, who was born in the U.S., was able to see them instead.

Then, in 2014, my dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He was terminally ill, so I requested emergency Advance Parole and was able to see my family in Ensenada, where they were living at the time. I stayed with them all of December and was able to spend time with my dad before he passed away.

The following year, I married my partner and, as a result, was able to adjust my status. Immediately afterward, I booked a trip to my birthplace, Mexico City. The last time I had been to Mexico was very tragic, and I really wanted this experience to be different, to be joyous. I was extremely excited and grateful, but I knew it was going to be very emotional as well.

For so many years in the U.S., my name had been mispronounced. Yet here, a stranger got it right on the first try, and she assured me that this country was as much mine as it was hers. I felt like I was finally home.

Ireri Lora Cabrera

Right when I landed, I had a moment that reminded me that I belonged and that, maybe, I was even home. When I got off the plane and handed my passport over to the customs officer, she said, “Ireri, Bienvenida a casa.” I started crying. It was such a big deal for me. For so many years in the U.S., my name had been mispronounced. Yet here, a stranger got it right on the first try, and she assured me that this country was as much mine as it was hers. I felt like I was finally home.

The whole time that I was there, I felt a really strong sense of validation. I grew up in Oakland, California, where I couldn’t relate to the other Mexican folks. Many of them were from the Northern part of Mexico, and our cultures are very different. People would tell me I wasn’t Mexican because I didn’t like banda music, but my family never listened to that genre. Even with the Mexican community that I grew up with, I never really felt like I belonged. Being back in Mexico City, it was nice to hear the music I heard growing up, artists like Maná and Café Tacvba, and eat huitlacoche, a corn mushroom that is hard to find in the U.S. I was home, and I didn’t want to leave.

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