Photography by Brett Gundlock/Boreal Collective for The Globe and Mail
One day three years ago, Agustin Meza left his home in San Diego and went to Tijuana. He joined a line of thousands of tourists and traders going into Mexico, but he was no day-tripper: his crossing was momentous, the kind of life choice from which there is no going back.
Mr. Meza, now 30, had lived in the U.S. since he was a toddler, but he was an undocumented immigrant. He had assessed his options, and decided that his best shot at a good life lay south of the border. So he was ready to risk leaving the U.S., knowing he might never manage to come back.
Today he lives in Puebla, a mid-size and prosperous town 150 kilometres southeast of Mexico City, still mastering Spanish and the public transportation system, but delighted at what he says is a range of opportunities he could never have had back in California.
"When you live in the U.S. you have an image of Mexico, that it's very poor and there's no education – and you get here and it's something different: it's modernizing, becoming more open," he said. "A lot of young people who left Mexico are coming back with new ideas that are changing this place." In Puebla, he earned an engineering degree for a fraction of what it would have cost in California, and found himself with a range of job options. "Because of my English and experience in the U.S., a million doors opened."
In this city, and across the country, there are tens of thousands of other returned migrants who are adapting or readapting to life in Mexico. U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall to block the Mexican migrants he says are pouring into the U.S. But the feverish campaign rhetoric has helped to obscure a significant fact: more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than going there. The net flow of migrants has been greater to Mexico than out of it, for several years now.
From 2009 to 2014, one million Mexicans and their families (including U.S.-born children) left the U.S. for Mexico, the Pew Research Centre in Washington, D.C. reports, while an estimated 870,000 Mexican nationals went the other way. It is of course difficult to measure these migration flows precisely, because there is no official figure for how many Mexicans enter and leave the U.S. each year, given that many do cross illegally, but Pew has created a modeling tool that uses multiple sources, including Mexico's national household survey, to hone in on the true flows of people.
Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a Pew researcher who has been analyzing this data for years, says she and her team first identified that Mexico-U.S. migration had broken even, so to speak – was net zero – by 2012.
When that research was published, it created a small stir. Mexico's then-president, Felipe Calderon, who was in Washington on a visit at the time, seized on it as evidence that life in Mexico has improved so dramatically that people no longer needed to leave. He trumpeted in particular his aggressive campaign against narco-traffickers and related crime, saying improved security was bringing Mexicans home. Since then, his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, who met with Mr. Trump on Wednesday, likes to boast of the growth of Mexico's economy, the strongest in Latin America, saying this is also drawing migrants back, and lowering the number who leave.
Ms. Gonzalez-Barrera says diplomatically that the presidents' interpretations are missing some of the other key factors influencing migration decisions – while migrants rarely have one reason for moving, she said, there are at least as many "push" factors, negative factors causing people to leave the U.S., as there are "pull" ones, drawing people to Mexico.
"People talk about family reunification, that they want to be together, and they talk about the state of the U.S. economy and how it is hard to find jobs," she said. Family reunification (the driver cited by 60 per cent of Mexicans surveyed) includes cases of people coming back to take care of a parent they left behind, who is now elderly or unwell. It can also include people who return because one member of the family, perhaps the breadwinner, was deported – which means the others must leave in a departure that is classified as "voluntary." (Sixteen per cent of those surveyed by Pew said they were deported.)
Barack Obama has deported nearly 2.5 million people, more than any previous United States president. At the same time, crossing the southern U.S. border illegally has become dramatically more difficult, dangerous and expensive in the past few years, Ms. Gonzalez-Barrera noted, because of U.S. enforcement and organized criminal activity. Meanwhile, the constant risk of deportation and growing hostility and racism in the U.S. makes it increasingly unpleasant to live there, said Marco Castillo, who chairs an advocacy organization called the Migrant Families' Popular Assembly. Many returnees are like Mr. Meza – they can have opportunities in Mexico they can't in the U.S., not because life is so fantastic in Mexico but because it's so difficult to be undocumented in the United States today.
People such as Mr. Meza sometimes call themselves Los Otros Dreamers, a twist on undocumented youth in the U.S. who label themselves after, and advocate for, the Dream Act in the United States. The law, which the Obama administration has not managed to pass, would create a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who grew up in the country.
Los Otros Dreamers may have left Mexico as infants or toddlers, but have come back, either because they or someone in the family was deported, or because they cannot pursue any of the education or employment opportunities that are open to friends or even siblings who have citizenship.
Mr. Castillo says more than a generation of Mexicans are stuck in undocumented limbo in the U.S., unable to attend university, obtain health insurance, or get most professional jobs. That may have been tolerable for the generation who came 25 years ago, but they went to the U.S. specifically to seek better lives for their children. And now those children are shut out.
"Immigration reform never came, and the people who have been there for three decades, they're tired, they're tired of being squeezed," he said. "There's the frustration of being undocumented and of a bad economy in the U.S. – the migrant community there has gone through tough times in recent years and they end up thinking, 'If I'm going to be in a crisis, I'd rather be in a crisis in Mexico.'"
Reyna Linares worked in New York for 24 years, cleaning houses in the daytime and offices at night, so that her three daughters could grow up there. But eventually she sent them back to Mexico, where they could go to university. And to her own surprise, she chose to follow, six years ago. "I was tired, after 24 straight years of working," she said, making lunch for her grandchildren in the house she built with her savings in the town of Atlixco. "New York – it's too hot, then it's too cold."
Ms. Linares said the country she came back to is not the one she left: "Now in Mexico, life is a lot easier. When I was young, there were few options. My kids only ever had two pairs of shoes. My grandchildren have six."
Cesar Maldonado chose to leave the U.S. when he was 21. He had lived there since he was a kid, taken over the border without papers by his parents, and he felt at home in North Carolina – until he was accepted into university with a full scholarship and realized that, as an undocumented migrant, he could not go. His mother had returned to Mexico to care for her own mother, who was dying, and he decided to follow her, reasoning that he could get a college education here.
But coming back to Mexico is often harder than people expect. Mr. Maldonado discovered that he didn't really fit in either country. Mexico declared him a foreign student. He managed to get into a degree program but the college said he would have to have his application documents notarized, in person, by the institutions back in North Carolina – impossible, obviously.
"When I complained, people would say 'Well, why don't you go back to the States,'" he recalled over craft beer in a bar near in Mexico City. "I felt like I didn't fit in either place, and it was difficult." Eventually he surmounted bureaucracy, graduated, and now has a good job with an educational foundation – one that got him a business visa to the U.S., so he can visit his father, who is still undocumented in North Carolina.
Mr. Castillo of the migrant advocacy organization said the return is often difficult. "Reunification can be a beautiful experience that turns into hell," he said. Friends and family who stayed behind see returnees as a source of gifts and loans, making the assumption that they are prosperous; they're also targets for crime, he said, because criminals think the same. Migrants bringing cars home often choose to drive them in in caravans escorted by police because their foreign license plates single them out. "Most try to open a business – they bring their savings and entrepreneurship culture from the U.S. – but they didn't take into consideration that you have to pay narcos as well as the government to sustain your business here."
School is another frequent problem: until recently, Mexico would not recognize U.S. transcripts, and wouldn't admit migrant kids into school. The Mexican curriculum tends to be more conservative, does not value multiculturalism, and there is no accommodation for kids with English as a first language – many are bullied, Mr. Castillo said.
And then there is the loneliness. Mr. Maldonado, more than a decade into his return, says that by now, he has built a community. These days, he can list off the things that he likes better about Mexico City: "There's more life here, there are so many things to do. The States is more about working, working, working – then you go home and sleep. Here the human touch is different – people hug, you kiss people when you greet them – people when they talk get closer to people."
But, he says, he knows he would be earning twice as much doing his job in the U.S. – and while life in Mexico City is cheap, it offers far less in terms of infrastructure, traffic, sanitation, or security. Mr. Meza still feels new to Puebla, and finds it hard to meet people. Friends back in California send him pictures of new babies and weddings, reminding him he can't go back.
Ms. Gonzalez-Barrera said that she is waiting for new data to see if the trend of more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than going the other way has continued into 2016. "As the U.S. economy recovers, there could be an increase in the number of job opportunities for immigrants, and with the Mexican economy stalling – they might be more willing to come," she said.
On the other hand, Mexicans are following the Trump candidacy closely, and border enforcement is tighter than ever before.
"Mexico is undergoing a dramatic shift and fertility is dropping dramatically," she said. "In 20 years, we assume we're not going to see the same number of young people looking for opportunities and not finding them in Mexico."
Mr. Meza has started a training company, coaching professionals on business practice in English, and brims with other ideas – he thinks there's a market for a Mexican-American food restaurant in Puebla, for example. "There's a lot of opportunity here," he said. "But I'm still just getting to know this place."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to Bruno Castillo. In fact his name is Marco Castillo.