When 29-year-old Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano first returned to his birth home, the Mexican city of León, he didn’t speak the native language.
“I barely speak Spanish now,” he says.
He arrived in León alone, and today, nearly two years since his deportation, Olivas-Bejarano has still not seen his family in person.
Sitting in his small apartment, furnished with hand-me-downs, he pores over a homemade photo album of pictures printed off Facebook. It’s filled with memories from his former life in America — picnics, a Pride parade, birthdays with his family back in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Now, he’s more than 1,000 miles away from them and part of something new: a generation of young people who are neither Mexican nor American, neither undocumented nor fully able to participate in the society around them. And they’re bringing a different attitude, and expectations, to the country of their birth.
Olivas-Bejarano’s parents left León for the United States when he was 2 years old. They ended up in Oklahoma, where Olivas-Bejarano and his U.S.-born siblings were raised.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Olivas-Bejarano’s parents had warned him that one day his citizenship might come into question.
But it wasn’t until he saw other students taking a drivers education course that it hit him: He was undocumented, and that meant he’d be afforded fewer opportunities than his American peers.
“I was all excited like, ‘Oh, I get to sign up for this class. I would get my driver’s license.’ And that’s when my parents were like, ‘Well, no. You’re not going to go through the normal steps like everybody else. Things aren’t gonna be the same as everybody else.’ “
That was his life, living in limbo, until a shift in immigration policy gave him a chance to stay in the United States.
The shift came with the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, in 2012. The program allowed Olivas-Bejarano — and hundreds of thousands like him who were brought to the U.S. as children — to remain in the country legally, free from the threat of having to leave the country they called home.
Olivas-Bejarano says he remembers the day that DACA was announced by then-President Barack Obama.
“I literally called my boss, and she didn’t even have to know what I was calling about. She was just like, ‘I know, I heard! I’m so excited, I’m so excited!’ “
“I was just like crying in my car after work, just like, ‘Oh my God, something’s finally happening.’ “
But then in 2014 and 2016, he was caught driving drunk, misdemeanors that the Obama administration didn’t prioritize as deportable offenses.
Those standards changed, however, with the Trump presidency. In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order that expanded the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to apprehend undocumented immigrants, regardless of any criminal record. Later that year, the president announced he would be phasing out DACA.
That June, Olivas-Bejarano’s DUI charges caught up to him. He’d just had a job interview for a bartender position, but when he walked outside and headed toward his car, he saw an ICE agent approaching him.
“As soon as I saw him it was kind of like this gut feeling, you’re like, ‘Oh crap.’ Like, ‘I hope he doesn’t come talk to me. I hope he doesn’t come talk to me.’ “
He wanted to run away. The agent proceeded to pull him out of his car and, as the restaurant staff looked on, put him in handcuffs.
He describes that day as earth-shattering.
“I had to come to this realization within like 15 minutes that, you know, you’re about to be deported.”
ICE detained him for several weeks, first in Oklahoma, then in Texas. Eventually, on his lawyer’s advice, he left the country voluntarily, to leave open the possibility that he could one day legally return.
He was shackled and put on a bus that dropped him off at the southern border. He recalled pausing at the border crossing in Laredo, Texas, to take in an otherworldly scene.
“I remember looking over and seeing Texas and then looking over and seeing Mexico,” he says, “And just being like, ‘I wish I could just stay here and not have to worry about going anywhere.'”
“And then actually crossing onto the Mexican border, it felt like going to another planet. It was two different worlds.”
In his new world, the country where he was born, he was again an outsider.
In November 2017, he moved to León, the center of the Mexican shoe industry, where there’s a large bilingual community that supports it. Still, Olivas-Bejarano’s accent stood out.
“Eventually my neighbors would start calling me ‘gringo,’ ” he says, amused. “Which is really weird to me because I always thought gringos were white people and then, here I am, obviously Mexican.”
He spent his first year in Mexico in denial, until part of his life in the U.S. entered his new world. On his 29th birthday, his friend Elise visited him in León.
“Actually seeing her in my house, actually holding her and hugging her and being like ‘You’re here!’ It made it real. It was like, ‘No, this is your life now, you’re actually here and your friend came to visit you. This isn’t a dream. Wake up.’ “
Nights are the loneliest, he says. When he calls his parents, about twice a week, he doesn’t talk about his life in León — he likes to pretend he’s just around the corner.
In reality, if his parents were to visit him in Mexico, they wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S., to their other children.
“The family part was probably the hardest thing … not being able to hug my mom or hug my dad or harass my brother,” he says, through laughter and tears.
Despite the loss and sadness, he says he has no desire to sneak back into the U.S.
For the first time in his life, he wants to make his own choice about crossing the border. “I’m actually against illegal immigration,” he says. “Too much of a risk for me. I wouldn’t want to end up in jail for 10 years.”
Instead, he says there should be better pathways to legal migration so that people don’t have to put their lives at risk.
But back in Washington, Congress and the Trump administration have struggled to identify what those pathways might look like. While DACA remains in place amid legal challenges to phase it out, the program doesn’t provide a track to citizenship. Meanwhile, the president’s latest immigration proposal, announced this past week, doesn’t address what to do with immigrants who have entered the country illegally.
For now, Olivas-Bejarano’s English and his education have landed him a customer support position at Charly, a multimillion-dollar Mexican sportswear company.
Six months into the job, Olivas-Bejarano is already in the running for a promotion.
As he forges a new life for himself in León, Olivas-Bejarano says that, along with his young, educated immigrant peers, he’s got a lot to offer Mexico.
“I mean, you can teach kids here in Mexico English just like you can teach kids in the states Spanish, but you can’t teach American culture, you can’t teach Hispanic culture.
“And that’s what I bring, is a different viewpoint,” he says. “Fresh ideas and … a drive.”
A drive that’s beginning to make its mark on Mexico.
NPR has been collaborating with the the PBS NewsHour, which will feature reporting by Lulu Garcia-Navarro on its broadcast on Monday, May 20, 2019.
NPR’s Emma Bowman produced this story for the Web.