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U.S. migrants returning to Mexico face challenges, strain the system

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

LAWRENCE — As a Pew Research Center study late last year noted, more Mexicans have been leaving the United States than arriving for the first time in six decades.

A University of Kansas researcher has found this reversal could put strains on mixed-status families and communities in Mexico as they seek to handle this wave of those voluntarily returning or deported from the U.S.

"Mexico and other countries are not really set up for receiving all of these migrants and their families, especially the children going to school," said Cecilia Menjívar, a KU Foundation Distinguished Professor of Sociology. "That overwhelms certain school areas, and it becomes a major issue. A lot of the people returning have not lived in Mexico for years and may even be U.S. born, and so are not familiar with new policies, new laws and new changes to the education system in Mexico."

Menjívar and Dulce Medina, a doctoral student in the Justice Studies program at Arizona State University, co-authored the study, "The context of return migration: challenges of mixed-status families in Mexico's schools," published late last year the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Through interviews with 13 mixed-status families who had returned to Mexico, the researchers found that no standard procedure exists in Mexico to enroll U.S.-born children in school, which allows for school directors and other personnel to act as "street-level bureaucrats" to interpret and regulate national policies at their own discretion, Menjívar said. Many U.S.-born children then end up in limbo while their parents try to adjust their status, but the process likely causes the students to miss valuable instruction time in school.

The issue is important, Menjívar said, as the trend began in 2008 and more people returned to Mexico due to the economic recession. Also the U.S. deported more than 2 million people between 2008 and 2014.

"That kept the trend in motion for longer, and people who weren't deported also feared they could be or be detained," she said. "The conditions were not really friendly anymore, so they initiated their own return migration."

However, if the mixed-status families are facing bureaucratic issues and other challenges such as lack of employment opportunities back in their countries of origin, it will be key to watch if those families stay there or perhaps seek to return to the U.S., she said. While this study examined formal reception of mixed-status families, the researchers as part of a pending project are also gathering information about the more informal and social context return migrant families face.

Menjívar said return migrant and mixed-status families often face stigma as outsiders and perhaps even people suspect they are criminals because they were deported, even if they returned voluntarily.

"That’s where discrimination against the returnees can happen, if they are not being received as warmly as they originally thought they might be and finding that bureaucracies are impossible to navigate," Menjívar said. "That's not a very positive context of return. We're wondering what's going to happen in the future if the trend continues."

She said as a potential policy solution perhaps countries like the United States could examine ways to give aid to help Mexico and other Central American countries handle bureaucratic challenges and make return migration run smoothly. The U.S. already gives aid to countries as a way to try to keep residents from migrating in the first place.

While past research on return migration had noted return migrants experience a difference in how they are received based on whether they left voluntarily or were deported, Menjívar said that for the families in their study this did not seem to matter.

"I thought we would find a difference, but we didn't. It turns out that given the context of the enforcement in the U.S. today, people don't have to go through the deportation process to be forced to leave," Menjívar said. "A lot of people just go because they fear that they may be next. Or they have family members who have already been deported so they have to go. In today’s enforcement context, it is increasingly difficult to differentiate on the ground between voluntary and involuntary returnees."

Menjívar is one of nine KU Foundation Distinguished Professors and is co-leading, with Victor Agadjanian, also a KU Foundation Professor, the new KU Center for Migration Research. The center will promote and coordinate KU research on causes, types and consequences of human migration at the state, regional, national and global levels.

Photo courtesy the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Patrol.

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