For Undocumented College Students, Visiting Mexico Is Worth the Risk

Students from the summer 2016 California-Mexico Dreamers study abroad program traveled to cultural landmarks in Mexico, including the Temple of the Sun in the ancient archeological complex of Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City.EXPAND
Students from the summer 2016 California-Mexico Dreamers study abroad program traveled to cultural landmarks in Mexico, including the Temple of the Sun in the ancient archeological complex of Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City.
Courtesy of Armando Vazquez-Ramos/California-Mexico Studies Center of Cal-State University Long Beach

No matter how many times Professor Armando Vazquez-Ramos succeeds in taking college students with him to study abroad in Mexico, he must always caution that there is no guarantee they will return to the United States. That is because the students he takes with him have no Social Security number. They are undocumented. "It is a gamble every time," says Vazquez-Ramos, a lecturer in the Chicano and Latino studies department at California State University, Long Beach. 

In 2012, President Obama started the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy that made as many as 1.7 million "unauthorized migrants" eligible for a renewable, two-year work permit and, therefore, exempt from deportation. Those who benefit most from the new policy, because of its age and education requirements, are high school and college students — the so-called DREAMers — who were brought to the country at the age of 16 or younger, and have lived here for five years or more. 

At Cal State Long Beach, where more than 28 percent of students identify as Latino, where undocumented students are numerous enough to have their own campus organization, and where the current student body president is undocumented, the effects of DACA were immediate and far-reaching. As Vazquez-Ramos discovered, students who are covered by DACA protections are free to study abroad under a provision known as Advanced Parole. He jokingly refers to them as DACA-mented.

But there is a disclaimer on the permit: It doesn't guarantee you can come back in.

The test case came in 2014 when Vazquez-Ramos added two DREAMers to a group of 15 students on a spring-break trip to Mexico. He organized the trip through the California-Mexico Center, a nonprofit extension to his department, of which he is the coordinator. The re-entry went off without a hitch. It went so smoothly, in fact, that once word got around campus, 14 of the 15 students on the spring-break trip the following year were DREAMers.  Last December, that number ballooned to 30, and earlier this month, Vazquez-Ramos went with 35. 

Nevertheless, every student assumes a certain risk, and the risk seems to increase with every trip. Vazquez-Ramos believes the November presidential election is the latest, gravest challenge. "You know the Border Patrol is supporting Trump," he says, referring to the presidential endorsement by the union supporting Border Patrol agents.  If he wins, I may have to cancel the idea altogether. It's like quicksand."

On June 23, the Supreme Court announced it was deadlocked in a case challenging President Obama’s plan to expand DACA to shield as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation and allow them to legally work in the United States. The court's decision came a month before the group of 35 students left for Mexico. 

For Noemi Lopez, who left Mexico with her parents at age 14, the case was a warning that the legal protections of DACA could be taken away. But the risk, she believes, is worth it.  

"I took a chance because I really wanted to go and see my dad,"she says, adding that she hadn't seen her father, Fernando Lopez, in nine years.

Noemi Lopez, 29, embraces her father, Fernando Lopez, in Guadalajara, Mexico. She lives in Long Beach and had not seen her father in nine years.EXPAND
Noemi Lopez, 29, embraces her father, Fernando Lopez, in Guadalajara, Mexico. She lives in Long Beach and had not seen her father in nine years.
Courtesy of Armando Vazquez-Ramos/California-Mexico Studies Center of Cal-State University Long Beach

Noemi, her mother, father and four siblings migrated to Downey from Mexico in 2001. As the oldest, she had to remain behind in Tijuana for six months to care for her younger siblings while her mother and father raised the money to bring them across the border, one at a time. Her mother crossed first, taking the dangerous route through the mountains; the family lost contact with her for a week. 

Later, her mother and father separated, and he returned to the family's native city of Guadalajara — where he and Noemi, now 29, reunited in August. Noemi waited in the van while her sister, Sandra, brought out their father, who didn't know Noemi was in Mexico.

Sandra, 26, a recent graduate of CSULB, was on her second trip to Mexico with the DREAMers program. It was she who encouraged Noemi to go. Sandra was a straight-A student at Cabrillo High School in Long Beach who didn't know she was undocumented until she was denied financial aid to college. So she worked as a cashier and waitress, went to community college and graduated from Cal State Long Beach in May; she works on the staff of Long Beach City Councilmember Roberto Uranga of the Seventh District.

Sandra told Noemi to hide in the van and surprise their dad. "As soon as I opened the door, she jumped on my dad," Sandra says. "I recorded it. She was just crying and crying. That feeling she had even before we left. She’d cry at the thought she was going to see him." 

Noemi Lopez, left, attends a lecture at the Centro Tlahuica de Lenguas e Intercambio Cultural (CETLALIC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.EXPAND
Noemi Lopez, left, attends a lecture at the Centro Tlahuica de Lenguas e Intercambio Cultural (CETLALIC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Courtesy of Armando Vazquez-Ramos/California-Mexico Studies Center of Cal-State University Long Beach

The family visits are an integral part of the students' experience, Vazquez-Ramos said, and one of the three main components of the trip.

But the nine-day trip to reconnect with their birthplace and families is only part of the travel itinerary for those on the three-week trip with Vazquez-Ramos. On the most recent trip, earlier this month, they arrived first in Mexico City and spent the first four days getting acclimated, culturally and psychologically, to the native country most of them barely remember. They made field trips to pyramids, museums and historical sites. The return can dredge up strong emotions, which can disrupt the tenor of the whole trip. Which is why for the first time, Vazquez-Ramos started off the trip with four hours of group therapy.

"We had sessions at the front end and back end [of the trip] with three psychologists that brought out the emotional and psychological issues," he says. "Many are damaged by the shame and embarrassment of walking around undocumented like it's a scarlet letter."

Once the orientation to Mexico and the family visits are complete, the students reassemble for coursework in Cuernavaca, which includes lectures on Mexican history and government, guest speakers from indigenous communities in Mexico, and even refugees from Guatemala. They are required to write a 10-page term paper on what they gained from the experience. Vazquez-Ramos intends to have the papers published. He provided L.A. Weekly with a sample, asking only that we keep the author's name confidential. 

One reads, "During this trip, I have heard a lot of success stories where immigration status is not an obstacle. I have met many peers that are and will continue to be successful regardless of their immigration status. Hearing their stories and knowing there's people I can relate to has lifted my spirits. Seeing Mexico once again has brought joy in my life and has given me hope.”

Sandra Lopez, 26, shows off her plane ticket to Mexico and passport at the airport.EXPAND
Sandra Lopez, 26, shows off her plane ticket to Mexico and passport at the airport.
Courtesy of Armando Vazquez-Ramos/California-Mexico Studies Center of Cal-State University Long Beach

With four trips to Mexico complete, Vazquez-Ramos says they have created a model to be replicated elsewhere. In December, students from 18 campuses in the Los Angeles area went on the trip — from seven Cal State campuses, UCLA and eight community colleges. For the next trip, Dec. 22-Jan. 15, they are accepting applications from students in other states, as far away as Chicago and Miami. The registration form is online, though the registration deadline for the December trip has passed. 

"The principle is to plant the seed in other campuses so that students come back and initiate similar programs there," Vazquez-Ramos says. "We want leaders. We want students committed to coming back and paying it forward. To open the doors for hundreds or thousands of others."

They had more than 300 applications for last year's program, he adds. 

Travel costs and fees for the immigration permits are provided by the university, various foundations and institutions, individual donors and scholarship funds, as well as the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles and the Mexican Embassy in Washington, DC. The Dallas-based foundation Juntos Podemoso  donated $86,000 to the trip in December 2015.


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