A new generation of migrants is arriving in Mexico: young adults who were born in Mexico, raised in the United States and are now returning — some voluntarily, some by force — to the country of their birth. They've been dubbed "Generation 1.5."
With only limited support available from the Mexican government for these often well-educated returnees, several nongovernmental organizations and at least one private company are looking to help them out and take advantage of their skills.
At the start-up Hola Code in Mexico City, 20 or so young people in a conference room pepper their instructor with questions about coding and finding jobs in Mexico's software industry. Their queries flicker between Spanish and English. "How long does the whole interview process take? What do they ask you?"
These students are former migrants who have been deported or who returned voluntarily and hope to turn their U.S. experience into a tech career. Among them are several DREAMers — young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and later protected from deportation by the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The Trump administration tried to cancel DACA in 2017, but that effort is being challenged in the courts. Still, under President Trump, DACA protection has become much more precarious.
Marcela Torres, the CEO of Hola Code, says she founded the company in 2017 when she saw that the Mexican government wasn't doing enough to assist returnees, many of whom could barely speak Spanish.
"The brutality of arriving to a country that you don't know and it's supposed to be your home and it's not ready for you is incredible," says Torres. "And the amount of people coming back is also very large to the extent that if Mexico doesn't do something about this, it's going to be an entire generation that gets lost."
In response to the growing number of returnees, the Mexican government in 2014 launched a program called Somos Mexicanos aimed at helping returning migrants integrate into Mexican society, offering things like health services, phone access and local transportation, but critics say the program has been ineffective and underfunded.
In addition to software training, Hola Code provides meals, banking services, yoga classes and mental health support during its five-month program. Students don't pay for classes until they land a job, often with one of the company's 116 hiring partners. In the coming weeks, about 100 students will have completed training with Hola Code, according to Torres.
Torres says her start-up is meant to help anchor new arrivals. These binational migrants, she points out, often describe themselves as de aquí y allá — "from here and there," the U.S. and Mexico. But, she adds, they can also feel like they are neither from here nor from there.
Mexico needs these new arrivals, says Torres, noting that thousands of tech jobs go unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.
Claudio Gage is in the finals weeks of his Hola Code course. He's a 26-year-old with a hipster beard and a penchant for the word "dude." He came to the U.S. illegally with his parents when he was 12 and has a degree in science and human biology from the University of California, San Diego, where he worked as a researcher after graduation.
Gage says he enjoyed DACA protection until a few nights before Christmas in 2017, when he popped across the border into Tijuana to have dinner with friends, as he often did. On the way back, he says, he was stopped, questioned and denied reentry by a border agent.
"They told us, 'Well, new Trump policy — your visa's going to get canceled," Gage says.
Gage says the border agent made it all up. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says that when Gage presented himself at the border, CBP officers determined that he was out of status for his visa and it was canceled.
Gage's lawyer told him that border agents have complete autonomy to deny entry for any reason and that he had simply been unlucky.
Suddenly in need of an income, including money to pay for his diabetes medication, Gage moved to Mexico City. At first, he tried the job that many English-speaking migrants take upon arrival — a job at an international call center. He says it was mind numbing. Then he became a bike messenger. The pay was better, but with the Mexico City traffic and his lack of insurance, it did not seem like a good career move. Then one day a friend from the U.S. came for a visit.
"We were talking, and he was like, 'Hey, dude, I heard about this program, Hola Code. The info session is tomorrow night. Let's go visit it.' And I read about the program, and I was like, 'This is too good to be true.' And I was like, 'There are other people like me that have gone through the same, and, well, these guys are already getting tech jobs. Like, wow, I cannot let this go.' "
Andrea Bautista agrees with Hola Code's Torres that Mexico is not doing enough to help people like Gage. A researcher at the Colegio de México who studies migration, she says the returnees have trouble accessing the necessary documents to get basic services like education and health care and so end up undocumented in their home country too.
"Having these people come back who have this profile and level of education ... we don't know how to deal with them or integrate them," says Bautista. "And that's the problem — a lot remains to be done to get them into the system ... and to take advantage of their abilities."
Mexico is already feeling the influence of these returnees. In the heart of Mexico City is a new community that has come to be known as Little LA. It's a part of the city where many call centers are located and English-speaking workers congregate at food stalls featuring Tex-Mex cuisine that offers a taste of home.
Mauricio Lopez, a former DREAMer himself, says Little LA has become a refuge for members of Generation 1.5, who often feel like they don't quite fit in. Lopez moved to Mexico in 2017 after growing tired of living with the fear that everything would be taken away from him under the Trump administration.
"Trump, he was the one who basically initiated all this, because as a community, we cannot just stand there and watch our people being discriminated, treated like animals," says Lopez.
He now works at New Comienzos, or New Beginnings, an organization that helps the returnee population. He says people like him back in the States, worried about their immigration status, are reaching out.
"They contact us all the time. 'Hey, I'm thinking of going back to Mexico. What do you have there?' "
Back at Hola Code, Gage will soon be graduating from the program, and he's thinking about his future, maybe even starting his own business. Like other members of Generation 1.5, he's hoping Mexico can find a place for him.
"I want to do my best always. I think that's the most valuable thing any DREAMer, any migrant, has, because if you see anyone who goes to the States, [it's] because they want a better life," says Gage. "I think that sense is something that's part of you, and I want to do something great with it."
This story was produced as part of a collaboration with PBS NewsHour.
SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
In Mexico, a new generation.
MARCELA TORRES: What we call Generation 1.5, which is born in Mexico, raised in the U.S., returned to Mexico.
DAVIS: It's young, educated and growing in size as its members take the American dream to the country of their birth. As part of a reporting collaboration between NPR and PBS NewsHour, our own Lulu Garcia-Navarro takes us now to Mexico City to see if that country is ready to help this new generation succeed.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The group of 20 or so young adults pepper their teacher with questions about coding and finding jobs in the software industry in Mexico.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I was in some interviews that took a month. Some of them took a couple months to get back to you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The questions flicker between Spanish and English.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How - when you enter the company, (speaking Spanish) based on, like - on the knowledge, like, was it...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're at Hola Code in Mexico City. It's a startup where they teach former migrants, who've been deported or returned voluntarily, to turn their American experience into a tech career. Among them are DREAMers and DACA recipients, young people who were taken to the U.S. illegally as kids by their parents and were then protected from deportation by President Obama. Marcela Torres is Hola Code's founder and CEO. She says tech is a good fit for these workers.
TORRES: The tech sector was looking for people that are resilient, that can learn really fast and they know how to speak English. So I was like, that's very interesting because all of these young people have all the skill set.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's got long, pink hair and a black hoodie on. And she tells me that in Mexico, there just isn't the trained workforce to fill all the tech job openings. She came up with the idea to teach returning migrants when she noticed that more and more of them were showing up in shelters in Mexico with no support and almost no ability to ask for it in Spanish.
TORRES: The brutality of arriving to a country that you don't know - and it's supposed to be your home - and it's not ready for you is incredible. And the amount of people that are coming back, it's also very large, to an extent that if Mexico doesn't do anything about this, it's going to be an entire generation that gets lost.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This population often needs so much help that Hola Code is also providing meals and banking assistance and even mental health clinics during the five-month program. Students don't pay for these classes until they land a job. Hola Code has 116 hiring partners and says most of the students do get work in the industry.
Marcela Torres says her startup is meant to help anchor them. These binational migrants often describe themselves as de aqui y de alla, both from here and from there - the U.S. and Mexico. But Torres says they can often feel like they are neither from here or from there.
TORRES: We're providing them that opportunity that's, you know, been built for many years for them. You're the DREAMers, you know, the American dream. Like, they grew up with all of these cultural messages. But they've also been denied to them on both sides of the border.
CLAUDIO GAGE: My name is Claudio Gage, 26 years old.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's got a hipster beard, square black glasses. He's currently enrolled in Hola Code and has another thing that defines this generation - education. He is a DACA recipient who was brought to the U.S. when he was 12, as his family fled drug violence. He then graduated from UC San Diego.
GAGE: Bachelor's in science and human biology.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gage got a job at the university researching acute kidney injuries. And that got him a temporary work visa that allowed him to travel outside the U.S. So one night in December, 2017, he popped over the border to have dinner in Tijuana with some friends, which he did pretty frequently. On the way back, he was stopped, questioned and denied reentry.
GAGE: And they tell us, well, new Trump policy. Your visa is going to get cancelled.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He was accused of lying about his employment, among other infractions. Gage says the border agent made it all up. We asked U.S. Customs and Border Protection for their response. A spokesman said simply that CBP officers had determined he was, quote, "out of status." At the time, Gage's lawyer told him that border agents have complete autonomy to deny entry for any reason, and there wasn't much he could do.
GAGE: So it's like, it's your word against him. And you're not a citizen. Like, you're - like, it doesn't matter what you said.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he came down to Mexico City. He's got diabetes and needed money for medicine. So he took the first job he could - at a call center, which he said was mind numbing - after that, as a bike messenger. One day, a friend from the States came to visit.
GAGE: And we were talking. He's like, hey, dude, I hear about this program, Hola Code. The info session is tomorrow night. Let's go visit it, you know? And I read about the program. And I was like, this is too good to be true. Then I was like, oh, my God. There's, like, other people like me that have gone through the same. And, well, these guys are really getting tech jobs. Like, wow, I cannot let this go.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Andrea Bautista is a researcher who studies migration at the Colegio de Mexico. She says charities and businesses like Hola Code are stepping up because Mexico isn't doing enough. For example, returnees and deportees have trouble accessing the necessary documents to get basic services. So they end up undocumented in their home country, too. She says Generation 1.5 presents particular challenges.
ANDREA BAUTISTA: (Through interpreter) The DACA program hasn't been around very long in the United States. So having these people come back who have this profile and level of education, we don't know how to deal with them or integrate them. And that's the problem. A lot remains to be done to get them into the system and to take advantage of their abilities.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But they aren't waiting for Mexico to change. They're already changing their country.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the center of Mexico City, the nationally iconic Plaza of the Revolution has become the hub for these recent arrivals.
MAURICIO LOPEZ: Right now you're in Little LA in Mexico. Can you imagine that?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We took a tour of what's been dubbed Little LA with former DREAMer, 25-year-old Mauricio Lopez. And we stopped at a food stall where they're selling something that's actually uncommon in the Mexican capital.
I'm watching a man make Tex-Mex-style burritos at the stand in the heart of Mexico City. And right in front of me, there is a menu on a board. And the names of the different burritos are the California, the Texas, the Hawaiian, the cactus - all meant to give people a little taste of home.
Mauricio Lopez points out several call centers here where members of this bilingual young community often find their first jobs.
LOPEZ: People just don't come here, you know, and work. But after their shifts, they actually, you know, hang out - hang around, you know, talk with other people from call centers. So it's starting to become a community.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why is it important to have a place where you feel that you belong?
LOPEZ: Because coming back, especially, you know, me, 20 years later coming back - yeah, I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He now works at New Comienzos, or New Beginnings.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The office is bustling. And it's one of a number of organizations founded by returnees that have sprung up to help their community. That's another thing that defines this group. They are using the advocacy skills they learned in the U.S. here at home.
Mauricio says he left the United States after the 2016 election, dropping out of DACA because he was tired of living with the fear that everything would be taken away. He tells me a lot of DREAMers still in the U.S. are reaching out.
LOPEZ: They contact us all the time. You know, hey, I'm thinking of going back to Mexico. What do you have there? Especially Trump, he was the one who basically initiated all this because we - as a community, we cannot just stand there and watch our people being discriminated, you know, treated like animals.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Trump administration announced the cancellation of DACA in 2017. But that decision is still being challenged in the courts. Still, advocates say the future of the program is uncertain. And neither Democrats or Republicans are taking up the issue for now.
Back at Hola Code, UC San Diego graduate Claudio Gage will soon be graduating from the program here. He wants to start his own business.
GAGE: I want to do my best, always. I think that's the most valuable thing any DREAMer, any migrant has because if you see anyone who has gone to the States, it's because they want a better life, you know? And I think that sense is something that - it's part of you. And I want to do something great with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As Generation 1.5 comes back home, they're hoping that Mexico can find a place for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF IVY SONG, "I STILL WANT YOU")
DAVIS: That was Lulu Garcia-Navarro reporting from Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.