Puebla is one of the poorest states in Mexico. More than 60 percent of its six million people live below the poverty line. An estimated one million undocumented Poblanos are in the United States, roughly half of them in the New York metropolitan area.
New York deports more people than any other city in the United States. Many of them are from Puebla, Mexico. This is a first-hand account on deportation, told from both sides of the border.
In Santa Lucía, Puebla, the streets are almost empty. It’s hot in the mid-afternoon sun. The only sign of life is the shadowed face of a young man – it protrudes from behind his door and into the light. He motions towards sunburned hills that rise up on the edge of town: “Take the dirt road up the side of that mountain until you see the green house with three palm trees. My cousin lives there. He was deported from New York last year.” The door shuts.
A black guard dog stands barking down from the roof of the green house. We have to ask Jorge’s mother first for permission to speak to him. We find him alone in his childhood bedroom wearing a backwards Brooklyn Nets hat. The walls are still littered with the same sports-team and super-hero posters he hung as a child –he crossed the border at age 15. The lights are off. “Joandri,” the name of the newborn son he has not seen in one year, is tattooed across his right forearm. He speaks softly. “I hardly leave my room since being deported. All of my old friends are criminals. I feel more unsafe here than I ever did in New York.”
Puebla is a breeding ground for the American dream, and a cemetery for the dreams of those who return.
Over the course of ten days, we covered over 1500 miles across the state of Puebla in a door-to-door search for stories like Jorge’s, commencing a seven-month investigation on both sides of the border. Puebla represents one of the largest communities of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the United States. Most set their sights on the New York metropolitan area, escaping the extreme poverty of a state in which most families earn an average of US $70 a month.
With slim economic opportunity, Puebla is a breeding ground for the American dream, and a cemetery for the dreams of those who return: “The system in Mexico blocks deportees out. You don’t know where to go, what to do. When deported, you become nothing. You are nothing.” Juan Carlos Hernandez was deported to San Matías after 23 years in New York City.
In the New York metro area, undocumented Poblanos live in fear. We rarely see their stories published. “State officials are equally scared of saying the wrong thing and angering Trump” remarks retired immigration judge Jeffrey S. Chase in Brooklyn. But there are facts we know to be true: immigrant criminalization and deportation rates are at a record high with New York City as the chief deporting city in the United States. In 2018, over 8,000 Poblanos were deported – roughly 3000 from New York.
The vast majority of those incarcerated and deported are non-criminals who fled Puebla to escape poverty and the extreme violence of their state, where gangs like Los Zetas dominate human trafficking and kidnappings that put all clandestine migrants at risk. The deported return to face the most violent year in recent Mexican history. Homicide, femicide, domestic violence, and sexual abuse are all at record highs, and less than ten percent of these crimes are reported. If those who are deported wish to work jobs unaffiliated with cartels, they will make an average of $4 a day. They will struggle to eat.
The deported return to face the most violent year in recent Mexican history.
Still, statistics like these are cold, and often only shared in academic circles. The stories behind them are even more obscure, and under the veil of silence, the humans behind the stories run the increasing risk of becoming statistics.
Deported Poblanos arrive home ashamed and optionless, outcasts in a country they no longer know: “If you say you were deported, your neighbors think you’re a criminal” – Rosa Ortiz was deported in 2008 with no trial or attorney. The families deported Poblanos leave behind in New York City are even more frightened. After granting us permission to visit her home in Rye, the wife of a recently deported Poblano sent this text message just 67 minutes before our scheduled arrival: “I am sorry, but my children do not want me to talk about their father’s deportation. They are afraid and so am I. Please, do not come to our home.”
Media rhetoric is often sensationalist and border-centric.
Answers from government officials were equally murky. While we succeeded in obtaining statements from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, their responses and our questions were pre-approved by the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, and no face-to-face interviews were granted. It seemed often that the investigation would come up short.
America remains divided. Media rhetoric is often sensationalist and border-centric, offering only close-up snapshots of a much broader narrative that is evolving in real-time. In presenting this collection we do not aim to take sides – we aim to cut through the noise by presenting the testimony of those most directly connected to the issue. Their stories are drowning in largely unreported arrests and obscure bureaucratic proceedings. It is only through the protagonists of these stories that we can begin to paint a clearer picture. We present their words and images here.
“God bless Donald Trump.”
Leonor Rodriguez, 54, at her home in the room left behind by her three daughters, all of whom were deported trying to cross the border near Nuevo Laredo in early 2018. The three sisters stayed at a detention center in Texas before returning 15 days later to her parents’ in Chichotla, Puebla, a small village with brick houses built with remittances from the United States. “I was happy to have them back home, but they were determined to try again.” Her daughters successfully re-crossed the border one month later. The three women now live in New York City and all of them work to send money back to Mexico, where their children stayed behind with Leonor. “I don’t know how to read. We’re poor. My children send us 150 dollars a month to help us survive. I give thanks to God that my children are working there. God bless Donald Trump. He doesn’t like us, but he’s human like us.”
“Some immigration officers are real monsters.”
As asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) outside her home in Brooklyn. She provided testimony on condition of anonimity. “The Mexicans we see are fleeing from gang violence. Many of the cases I see are life or death, but it is very difficult to prove these. We’re overwhelmed with petitions. With increasing demand, I am afraid immigration judges might just rubber-stamp ‘deport’ on legitimate files just to move cases along quickly.” Before joining the DHS, she was an immigration attorney for seven years. “I’ve had a lot of interaction with ICE. Some of their people lie about appeals and slander lawyers. Some ICE officers have a lot of resentment towards Mexicans –they’re real monsters. But I work with a lot of people that truly want justice and that gives me hope.”
Above, Jose broke his right leg in several parts shortly before reaching the border. “I’ll never try again”. On the right, Abel, Guillermo, Diego and Rodrigo, who were apprehended two weeks before at the border and deported back to Puebla under expedited removal orders –no judge, no court, no attorney. It will take years to pay off the cartels that helped them cross.
“I was proud to be part of New York.”
Juan Carlos Martínez, 45, at a roadside taco stand with his family near his hometown of Libres, Puebla. Carlos crossed the border in late 1997 and settled in Corona, Queens. He was there the morning of September 11, 2001, and worked as a volunteer at ground zero during the aftermath. “I was proud to be part of New York. I loved it there.” In 2004, Carlos moved to Phoenix, where he worked as a coyote shuttling Poblanos from the border. On April 19, 2007 he was arrested after a traffic stop in Denver, and spent three months in a Phoenix detention center before deportation. “In many ways I am still readapting to Mexico, and it’s not easy. New York was my youth. It was my home. I still talk about it all the time. I worked at a restaurant there and made money. Here I drive a cab and I hardly get by. But I love my family. Family is everything in Mexico.”
Juan Carlos Martínez in his taxi as he flips through a scrapbook of memories of life in New York. He served as a citizen volunteer in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
“New York eats you up.”
Lazaro Cortes, 33, taking the train from Queens to his job at a restaurant in Manhattan. Lazaro has crossed the border three times –all the way from a small village about two hours from Puebla City, where his family still lives. “It’s so hard to cross the border that it makes you hungry for work”. He first arrived in New York when he was 18. He started as a dishwasher. “All restaurants in Manhattan work with Poblanos earning the minimum wage or less. I used to cook steaks that sold for 120 dollars –more than my entire day salary. We’re exploited but we cannot complain because we’re undocumented. New York eats you up. I don’t have a life. Everything is work. I stand in the kitchen all the day, every day. I have no health insurance. No vacation. Like all of us, if I were deported I’d return to Mexico sick and spent.”
Corona, Queens, also known as Puebla York, is the New York neighborhood with the highest number of foreign-born residents. Most are from Puebla. Increased fear of deportation does not deter the congregation of Our Lady of Sorrows on the Day of the Dead.
A Mexican construction worker in New York earns more in one day than he would make in one month in Puebla, where most struggle to survive. Remittances from the US offer some relief. After Tijuana, Puebla City has received more remittances than any city in Mexico this year.
“The process of deportation is murky.”
Jeffrey Chase, 58, pictured at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, served as an immigration judge for 12 years. He retired from government over a year ago. “The system has a lot of holes. Tattoo profiling is common at ICE, and there is a terrible bias against Latin Americans.” His specialty was asylum cases and other removal-related matters. “Our government has no accountability in regards to deportation. There is no guarantee of impartiality or adherence to due process, and very little sense of compassion. The process of deportation is murky. It’s like a machine they’ve created and we don’t know what’s really going on. When it relates to immigration, government officials are scared of saying the ‘wrong thing’ and angering Trump. So there is no transparency. ICE has been instructed by the Trump administration to shut up and be aggressive. When I was a judge it was easy for someone to pick up the phone and talk to somebody at ICE. That’s not the case anymore.”
“I was deported without a court hearing.”
Jorge Vargas, 27, in his bedroom in Santa Lucía, Puebla, where he lives with his parents. “Since I was deported I hardly leave my room. All of my old friends are involved in gangs and drugs, so I stay home. I feel more in danger here than I ever did in the United States.” Jorge crossed the border at age 15. When he was detained, his wife had just given birth to their son. Jorge believes an arrest following a noise complaint from a party in high school, years earlier, put him on ICE’s radar. The morning of April 4, 2017, Jorge was arrested by ICE on his way to work. At the time, he was on the verge of qualifying for DACA, having just passed the biometrics screening. His attorney assured him that on his appointed court date, April 26, he would be allowed to return to his wife and son. Instead, two days prior, ICE officials came to his cell around 2 AM and told him to pack his things. “Two ICE officials were dressed as gang members, and they intimidated me into signing my own deportation papers. They told me I was deported already anyway. They took my ID, my credit cards and everything else. They denied me my rights. I was deported without a court hearing.”
Farmers and construction workers in rural Puebla make about US $40 a month. Most employment in Puebla is in the informal sector.
Young deportees in Puebla struggle to make a living and often fall victim of organized crime.
“My deported husband came back an abusive man.”
Maria Montenegro, 42, in her kitchen in San Félix Rijo, Puebla. Maria crossed the border with her husband in 1997. They settled in Brooklyn, where they had two daughters. “My husband would not allow me to work there, so after three years I returned to Mexico with my daughters to have my own life. He stayed behind.” Maria built a small catering business at home. When her husband was deported in August 2017, she had not seen him for nine years. “As far as I was concerned, we were separated. His only responsibility was to send money to take care of our daughters. Since his deportation he’s become an abusive man. I hardly know him anymore. He came back very violent, as if I was responsible for his deportation. The wives of deported husbands are the ones who suffer the most in Mexico. But nobody thinks about us.”
According to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, 70 percent of Mexican women have suffered violence. Migrant women are the most vulnerable, particularly those crossing the border and those who are deported.
Official government data indicate almost 1,500 cases of sexual violence against women, over 6,000 cases of domestic violence, and 26 femicides in Puebla so far this year.
“They cut my wings.”
Juan Carlos Hernandez, 44, walking with his mother in San Matias Tlalancaleca, Puebla. He arrived to New York City in 1985 at age 12 and spent 23 years working a variety of jobs. “I felt like I was a part of New York. I grew up there.” Juan Carlos had no criminal record when he was arrested in 2008 by ICE officials at an immigration checkpoint as he exited the train station at 136th and Broadway on his way home from work. After five days in a criminal court, he was flown to an ICE facility in Pennsylvania. “They fed me only twice a day and the toilets were out in the open. I was humiliated.” He recalls a judge simply read him his rights. A day later a bus took Juan Carlos to Texas, and across the border to Tamaulipas. “They removed my chains and told me ‘just walk straight.’”. He left behind his siblings and nephews in East Harlem. “It’s been ten years and I have not yet readapted to Mexico. My mind plays tricks with me –sometimes I think I am in New York, and then I realize I am not. The United States cut my wings.”
Juan Carlos Hernandez holds his deportation papers. He kept these along with the Metrocard he used the day he was deported. “Like most Mexicans in New York, I paid taxes with a fake social security number for years.” Like Juan Carlos, the great majority of Mexicans deportees don’t have criminal records.
By December 2018, New York City had deported more immigrants than any other city: 32,000, counting Newark and Elizabeth, NJ. Over 4,000 of them are Mexican. At Varick St. courthouse in Manhattan, immigrants from Mexico account for 20 percent of the filed deportation cases.
A family facing deportation enters the New Sanctuary Coalition in Manhattan to receive legal help from pro bono lawyers. A recent study estimates that only 20 percent of Mexicans receive legal counsel in the deportation process. Those without are most often deported.
“The immigration system is meant to destroy you.”
Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), an advocacy program for immigrants, on the phone before an NSC meeting in Manhattan. Ravi himself faces a well-publicized case of deportation. “ICE is waging psychological warfare. The immigration system is meant to destroy you, to break your spirit.” NSC is flooded with new cases daily. “We constantly hear about children crying in class because they’re afraid they will come home and their parents will be gone. When you destroy three million families you know you’re doing something wrong.” NSC pairs trained citizen volunteers with immigrants who are afraid to attend their government check-ins alone. “Community pressure is the longterm solution. We create change through education and empowerment.”
“If you say you were deported, your neighbors think you’re a criminal.”
Rosa Ortiz, 50, at her shop in Chilchotla, Puebla. Rosa was deported in 2008, without being given an attorney or a trial, after seven years in the United States. “I didn’t do anything. They took everything from me, my clothes, my watch, my ID, my phone… They took my life.” She was arrested unexpectedly at dawn one morning while taking out the trash. “I don’t know yet why I was detained. Mexicans are the hardest workers in America, yet we are the first to be targeted”. Rosa returned to a desolate job market in Chilchotla, where she has opened a small convenience store which operates with no electricity. “People here are ashamed to say they were deported. If you say you were deported, your neighbors think you’re a criminal. I never talk about it with anyone. Only God knows what happened to me.”
The first caravan of migrants from Central America in 2018 started its pilgrimage in Chiapas on March 25, 2018. The first week of April about 1000 of them arrived in Puebla, taking refuge inside Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church in Puebla City.
April 5, 2018, the day these pictures were taken, President Trump tweeted: “The Caravan is largely broken up thanks to the strong immigration laws of Mexico and their willingness to use them so as not to cause a giant scene at our Border.” The caravan disbanded a few days later.
“Our nation has a generous legal immigration system.”
John Tsourakis, not pictured, is the Field Office Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations for ICE in Newark, NJ. Pictured in his stead is Emilio Kabul, Public Relations Director for Tsourakis, in the lobby below the ICE offices in Newark. Tsourakis declined an in-person interview and provided email responses to a series of pre-approved questions. His responses were also revised and approved by DHS in Washington, DC. According to Kabul, for security reasons, Tsourakis decided not to be photographed. “ICE does not target individuals on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity”, Tsourakis maintains. “Our nation welcomes immigrants and has a generous legal immigration system.” In response to questions about conditions for immigrants in ICE detention, Tsourakis states that ICE “adheres to rigorous national standards and maximizes access to counsel and visitation, promotes recreation, improves conditions of confinement and ensures quality medical care.” Tsourakis asserts that “some media outlets and individuals with political agendas spread misinformation about ICE.”
“I still don’t know why I was deported.”
Alejandro Reyes, 58, at his home in Coyula, Puebla, holding the last set of clothes he wore on American soil. He and his wife built their Coyula home out of concrete over the course of his 20 years in the New York City area. He was apprehended by ICE officials the morning of July 29, 2017, on his way to work. “Less than five minutes after leaving the house I was handcuffed and placed in the back of a car. I asked one of the officers what was happening and she told me: ‘You’re already deported’. I still don’t know why I was deported.” Alejandro spent six months in a New Jersey detention center. His family hired an attorney, but he decided to sign his own deportation papers. “I could not stand being in detention any longer.” Alejandro leaves behind eight children and 17 US-born grandchildren. His wife soon returned to Coyula to join him. “I no longer recognize this place. I have to readjust completely.”
A 9 year old boy rests in a hammock while visiting his recently deported grandfather in Puebla. He lives in New York with undocumented parents. Approximately five million children live with at least one undocumented parent in the United States. Most of them are originally from Mexico. Forced separation of family members through deportation induces traumatic experiences for children.
“Mexico has a narco government.”
Gustavo Rodriguez Zarate, 72, giving mass at Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church in Puebla City. At the time of our interview, in April 2018, the church was hosting part of a caravan of over 1500 migrants from Central America hoping for refugee status in the US –an event that captivated worldwide media attention. Zarate, a public figure in Mexico, has spent the past 50 years helping migrant communities, including deportees, all around his country. “There are over one million poblanos in New York, many more spread across the US. They are the backbone of the New York City working class.” His work in Mexico has been met with political opposition and death threats. “Mexico has a narco government. There is widespread corruption and impunity. That creates an atmosphere of high risk that kills the investment and entrepreneurial spirit of Mexicans, raising their incentive to cross the border.”
“There are many human rights violations in the deportation process.”
Ana Flores, 33, giving welcoming remarks at an event reunifying immigrants from Puebla with their families in Passaic, NJ. Flores is executive director at Mi Casa Es Puebla in Manhattan, an extension of the Puebla government designed to offer support to undocumented Poblanos in the area. “We’re a very resilient community. But people are struggling. Deportation, and fear of deportation, bring lots of mental health problems. Domestic violence often occurs within immigrant families also, especially those involved in the deportation process.” Puebla is the only Mexican state that has a New York office devoted to immigrants. “Besides what we do, pro bono lawyers help in many cases and are a huge relief for families.” One of her main concerns is the situation of Poblano women. “There are many human rights violations in the deportation process. Many are woken up at 2 AM and forced to sign deportation papers without the proper time to read them. And then there is sexual assault on women. I’ve heard some women say: ‘I’d rather go back to Puebla than being sexually abused again.’”
Every year, the Puebla government sponsors reunions of Poblano families, who are allowed to visit their undocumented relatives in the United States for three weeks on temporary visas.
In June 2018, over 100 Poblano families reunited in Passaic, NJ, and Brooklyn, NY. Most parents had not seen their immigrant children in 25 years, and few of them had ever met their US-born grandchildren.
“Fighting deportation has changed my life.”
Misael Martinez, 33, having dinner at Riverdale Diner in the Bronx. He left his village in Puebla at age 15, and has been in New York since. “I crossed the border with my cousin, who was also my age. I thought we wouldn’t survive.” In January 2014, on a Greyhound bus headed to New York, Misael was arrested by ICE in Orlando, FL. After spending 38 days at the Krome Detention Center in Miami, he was released with help from his lawyer. Almost five years later, Misael is still fighting his case in court to avoid deportation. “Fighting deportation has changed my life. I lost my job and my girlfriend. I am doing much better now but the uncertainty is debilitating. I have to be optimistic. I’ve never witnessed so much fear in New York, but I am not afraid of Trump –I actually loved reading his business books. I am afraid of returning to Mexico, though. I deserve my own place here.”
“There is brotherhood in Manhattan’s kitchens.”
Erick Garzon, 37, cooking at Frenchette, in TriBeCa. Erick arrived 18 years ago from Acatlan, Puebla, to live with his brothers in Astoria –still his neighborhood today. “I started as a dishwasher but a chef named Kevin took me under his wing and helped me become a cook. He was my American godfather. He taught me everything.” He claims that the majority of cooks in Manhattan are from Puebla. “I get on well with everyone. I forget all my problems in the kitchen. I always say that I am from Queens, but we feel powerless that we cannot go home to Mexico. My mother died two years ago, and I could not attend her funeral. I lost my mind. So we cheer each other up. You cannot be thinking all the time that you might be deported. There is brotherhood in Manhattan’s kitchens. We support each other. If we don’t, who will?”
The majority of Mexican deportees are dropped at unfamiliar border towns in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Northern Mexico is plagued by crime and violence led by Los Zetas –a powerful paramilitary cartel formed by deserted US-trained special forces. Many deportees are kidnapped, tortured, and exploited upon crossing the border back to Mexico.
There is ample evidence that Mexican immigration authorities are often corrupt and tied to organized crime. Extreme violence against deportees –which includes organ harvesting—is met with impunity in popular drop-off border places like Tamaulipas.
(Above, aftermath of a cockfight in the village of Xaltipanapa, Puebla.)
“You have to keep moving forward.”
Marco Tulio, 40, pictured here in the reflection of the coffee table at his sister’s home in Puebla City. Marco crossed the border at age 17 and established himself in New York, where he lived for the next 22 years. He worked his way up to a chef’s position at many top restaurants in Manhattan. On November 16, 2016, a week after Trump’s election, Marco returned home from his job at the Gallow Green kitchen and noticed a disruptive argument in the street. He notified two nearby policemen, who proceeded to throw Marco against a wall, handcuff him, and send him to Riker’s Island prison. “During detention I heard a lot of racist comments. Mexicans are not murderers and rapists. We’re workers. I got up every day at 6:30 AM, took my kids to school, and then worked every day until midnight.” Marco was deported, leaving behind his wife, a 17 year old daughter and a 10 year old son. “Adjusting to Mexico has been very difficult, emotionally and financially. I have two hearts: I am a Mexican and a New Yorker. You have to keep moving forward. I have faith.”
“The system dehumanizes migrants and takes away their civil rights.”
Dolores Huerta, 88, contemplating the Martin Luther King bust, situated by a painting featuring her, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Dolores, who became one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in the 1960’s as co-founder of The United Farm Workers of America with Cesar Chavez, is today the Founder and President of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. “The situation with immigration has never been as bad as now. The way people are being treated is really horrible. You’re not hurting anybody when you cross the border, but they have made it a criminal act. The system dehumanizes people and takes away their civil rights. Of course, if you dehumanize Mexicans then you can justify them working for nothing here as undocumented migrants.” Dolores, recipient of multiple honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, grew up in California but feels close to her Mexican ancestry. “In high school I was met with a lot of discrimination, to the point I think I was close to a nervous breakdown. And then I visited Mexico and it saved me. To see so many people who were so proud to be Mexican.”
This project was produced by DAWNING. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of social science and journalism in the public service.
Project Directors: Raul Roman & Rafe H Andrews
Executive Editor: Nick Parisse
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Research Manager: Charles Allegar
Logistics Manager (Mexico): Eliud Romero
Assistant Editor: Jake Heyka
Research Assistants: Emily Schaub & Sean Norris
Illustration: Francisco Vellarino
Photographs, Interviews, and Transcripts:
Akshatvishal Chaturvedi, Malcolm C Murray, Irais Fernandez, Charles Allegar, Emily Schaub, Sean Norris, Nick Parisse, Rafe H Andrews, and Raul Roman