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The Disappearing Road Home

Inside one immigrant family's search for a different American dream

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

The house in Mexico is a two-story, three-bedroom brick building with a bright blue door and a jacaranda tree in front, set against a hill in the southern state of Guerrero. Atanacio, who cannot give his full name because he has lived as an undocumented immigrant in New York City for 12 years, built it with the wages he earned washing dishes and delivering Mexican food in Manhattan. “I designed it myself,” he said in Spanish as he and his wife, Maximina, who is also undocumented, showed me pictures at their kitchen table one day in March. “I drew the plans and sent them to my brother in Mexico.”

The house was finished in early 2011, but it remains empty. Atanacio, Maximina, and their two daughters—Diana, 9, and María, 5—are still living in the cramped two-bedroom apartment they rent in Corona, Queens. The girls share the first bedroom with their parents, while Atanacio's two brothers share the other; the table where we sat took up most of the dining room, the apartment's only common space. The house in the pictures was a mansion by comparison, and it embodies a desire far more common among immigrants, especially Mexicans, than the current debate on immigration reform would suggest.

The immigration-reform bill approved Thursday by Senate includes a "border surge," making it easier for conservatives to stomach Democrats' demand for a pathway to citizenship. But both sides of the debate have been premised on the conventional wisdom that people migrate to the United States to settle permanently. In reality, many immigrants pursue a different American dream, one in which the U.S. is not a final destination but merely a pit stop on a circular route—to return home better off than when they left. “I always said I was going to go back,” Atanacio said. “What good is it to have a house there with us living here?”

Atanacio, 32, and Maximina, 33, hail from the same small town in rural Guerrero, and they migrated independently to New York in the early 2000s. Each intended to work here for three to five years, then go home. But they found each other in Queens, married, and had Diana and María, who, having been born in the U.S., are American citizens. As the girls grew older and adjusted to life in New York, Atanacio and Maximina kept deferring—but never abandoning—their return. “Our plans kept slipping away,” Maximina said. “We would always say, 'We'll do it next year,' but then the next year wasn't right.”

Neshi Galindo
Atanacio's 5-year-old daughter.

The couple's attitude is emblematic of stateside Mexicans, by far the largest immigrant group in the country. According to survey data collected by El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a research university in Tijuana that regularly polls migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 60 percent of migrants who crossed into the U.S. between 1998 and 2003 intended to stay for a specific and limited period of time. Of the remainder, less than 1 percent expressed a desire to stay permanently, rather than for as long as necessary or as long as they could. Mexicans typically migrate to the U.S. “to solve a problem at home,” according to Douglass S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton. “They want to earn money for a specific purpose: buying land, putting their kids through education, building a house—some mobility project within Mexico.”

Before the modern era of immigration enforcement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was common for migrant workers to circulate over the border, entering the U.S. to work temporarily and then returning to Mexico with the money they had earned here. But as U.S. policy shifted toward border security and mass deportation, the number of people who settled here illegally and indefinitely ballooned, spreading from a few border states to the rest of the country. Like Atanacio and Maximina, many never returned to Mexico to visit their families for fear of having to make the costly and arduous hike back into the U.S., or of getting caught in the process. Instead they adapted to undocumented life, however hostile. They made friends and started families, many of which were divided between undocumented parents and citizen children.

Gathering the pictures from the table, Atanacio, who has a slight build and a kind, unassuming mien, talked about the future he envisions for his daughters. He wants to take them to Mexico, where he would open a restaurant or a general store and, with his newly elevated status, send them to school to pursue professional careers: teachers, doctors, whatever they want to be. When he talks to them about Mexico, the girls grow excited about having their own rooms to paint any colors they please. But Atanacio also fears that they wouldn't feel at home there. Guerrero was his and Maximina's land, and that of their parents and theirs before them, but Diana and María are Queens girls.

As Atanacio spoke, his daughters laughed and talked in the bedroom, speaking mostly in Spanish but switching here and there into English.

“They were born here,” Atanacio said with a smile and a shrug. “They're from here.”

And after a recent, unexpected turn in one of those daughters' lives, Atanacio must defer his version of the American dream for a little while longer. 

In the summer of 2002, mere months after Maximina had crossed the border and more than a year since Atanacio had, they crossed paths in Queens. They knew each other by sight from their town in Guerrero but had never spoken. The courtship was brief: “He kidnapped me one night,” Maximina summarized drolly. She and Atanacio moved in together, and soon she was pregnant with Diana.

When Diana was born Atanacio was a deliveryman for an upscale Mexican restaurant on the Upper West Side. Shortly thereafter he took a dishwashing job at the restaurant's second, more elegant location in midtown. He was earing $450 a week when most dishwashing jobs paid $300, and the restaurant even had high-flying clientele. “Giuliani, Pataki,” Atanacio listed. “And Ronald—what's his name? Donald Trump. He was a real tyrant. I didn't like him at all. He would show up, not talk, and everything had to be spotless.”

Atanacio was earning enough to support Maximina and Diana, and saving plenty more. “Money goes a long way if you don't have many vices,” he said. It helped, too, that the family has always lived in a single room in a sequence of apartments in Corona. Nearly everything Atanacio saves he puts in a bank account in Mexico. Remittances are commonly seen as supporting families in origin countries, which is accurate, but for many immigrants they also serve to pave their own road back home. In Atanacio's case, the money was one of several ways to anchor him to his native soil as he further settled up north: Diana was growing up, learning to speak English just as well as Spanish, so Atanacio and Maximina decided to stay a little longer to let her learn more. Then Maximina became pregnant with María.

Atanacio started paying taxes in 2008. Before then he hadn't much seen the need—“I'm not from here,” he'd say—but he realized it would help his chances in the event of an amnesty. Otherwise, legal status was a pipe dream: The U.S. has a limit of 5,000 green cards for low-skilled workers per year for the entire country, paltry compared to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter illegally to work low-wage jobs. Even if Atanacio were somehow able to go aboveboard as a legal worker in the U.S., he sees the option not as a path to settling permanently but as a way of making life easier in the meantime. He could get a driver's license and a car, he could apply for credit cards. Above all, he could visit Mexico and take the girls with him. He longs to introduce them to their grandparents and great-grandparents. But crossing the border has grown ever more treacherous and expensive, so they huddle down.

One day late in 2005, Atanacio's father told him there was an affordable plot of land in Tlapa, the city closest to where they grew up. Atanacio pounced. After another three years he had saved up enough to start building the house. Atanacio's older brother was his point man, delivering the plans to the contractor and sending Atanacio pictures of the construction process. The builders would break for months at a time to work the fields in the rainy season, but slowly the house rose: bricks, pipes and wires, drywall. The rooms became rooms, the house finally a house.

Historian Mark Wyman, in his 1993 book Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930, wrote that "the incoming tidal wave of peoples has always had an outflow, a reverse movement of immigrants turning their backs on the United States.” Wyman argues that throughout American history, and especially during the foundational modern era of American immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many more migrants than is commonly acknowledged returned to Europe after forays to the U.S., using the wherewithal they picked up across the Atlantic to become a distinct class of Italians and Greeks and Poles.

In the 1940s, the American and Mexican governments tried to harness this tendency toward circular migration by instituting the Bracero program, under which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were brought into border states every year as temporary agricultural workers. The program was rife with abuse: backbreaking labor, often done by children, in dreadful conditions, for pitiful wages that were chronically withheld. In 1964, the program was abolished in the midst of a wave of landmark civil rights legislation. For the next 20 years, “the system basically resumed under undocumented auspices,” said Douglas Massey, the Princeton sociologist. “When border crossing was fairly easy, people circulated.”

In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which established the now-familiar two-pronged approach to comprehensive immigration reform, legalizing those who were already here while devoting enormous resources to strengthening the border and boosting enforcement agencies. However, the law did nothing to prepare for future immigrants, who began coming in droves in the 1990s, on the tail end of an economic crisis in Mexico and on the heels of an economic boom in the U.S. The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 was the knockout blow, flooding Mexico with the cheap, subsidized products of American agribusiness, severely weakening the Mexican agricultural sector and its ability to employ Mexicans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to treat immigration as primarily a security issue, culminating in a massive increase in border enforcement after 9/11—just after Atanacio made it into the country. Circular migration was replaced by one-way entries into the U.S. “In any circular process or temporary labor arrangement, people's lives change,” Massey said. “They acquire ties that bring them to settlement. And that was occurring before. But when you militarize the border you end up frustrating the natural inclination of people to return home, and you transform what had been a circular flow of male workers going into three states into a settled population of families living in 50 states.”

After his home in Tlapa was finished in early 2011, Atanacio turned his attention to saving enough money to start a business in Mexico. He had reserved the second story of the house for this purpose, installing storefront gates and leaving the floor plan open to accommodate a restaurant or bodega. “But then the thing with my daughter happened,” he said.

Late last year, shortly before Diana turned 9, she complained about a lump on the side of her foot. A podiatrist dismissed it as harmless, and Maximina, thinking it was caused by ill-fitting shoes, bought Diana a new pair. But the lump didn't go away. A few weeks later Diana, who is tall for her age and thin like her mother, came home from school and said that she had felt a pain in her groin during gym class. Maximina found a second lump under the skin of her upper thigh.

Neshi Galindo
Atanacio's 9-year-old daughter.

Within a week Diana was diagnosed with myoepithelial carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that is even rarer in children. A pediatrician in Corona referred the family to a well-regarded children's hospital in Long Island. The first day of her chemotherapy was February 20. They inserted a catheter just above her left collarbone and, over the course of three days, filled her with medicine: Mesna (15-minute dose), Ifosfamide (2-hour dose), Doxorubicin (24-hour dose), followed by a cocktail of pills to fend off infection and ameliorate nausea. She has stayed home from school since her treatment started, her immune system devastated.

Diana's situation does not reflect the way health crises typically affect immigrant families. As a citizen, she qualifies for Medicaid, which pays for her treatment. Atanacio has enough saved up to pay for transport to Long Island and back and to take a couple of days off work on the weeks when Diana is admitted for chemo. But the illness brought into sharp relief the vast legal gulf separating Atanacio and Maximina from their children. While Diana receives top-notch medical treatment for what would have otherwise been a catastrophic illness, her parents remain hopelessly uninsured. Should Atanacio lose his job or run afoul of the law and get deported, should he or Maximina get sick, or should any other form of turbulence befall them, it would mean the difference between a functional safety net and none at all.

One recent afternoon, Maximina stood in the narrow kitchen cooking chicken in salsa roja for a pile of quesadillas big enough to feed the household. Diana, who had been in the bedroom sleeping, came out and sat down at the dining room table. It had been about a week since her treatment started. She ran a hand through her hair and looked at it briefly; black strands clung to her fingers.

Atanacio's two brothers and María came to the table, and Maximina brought out the first round of quesadillas. A few minutes later Atanacio walked in the door carrying a thick folder. He set it down on the table and said he owed the government $1,277. His brothers were shocked, but Atanacio seemed to be taking it in stride. “The guy said he could do the numbers crooked if I wanted, so the government would give me money instead,” he explained. “But he also said that if there's an amnesty or I apply for status down the road, they might look into it and there might be problems.”

After everyone had put away two or three quesadillas, Diana grabbed a pencil and one of Atanacio's old checkbooks. She went around the table asking everyone how much money they wanted, for no particular purpose, starting with Atanacio's younger brother.

“I don't know,” he said. “A lot. Too much.”

“But how much?” Diana insisted.

“A whole lot. A lot of zeroes.”

Diana scrawled out a check but didn't give it to him. Then she turned to María.

“How much do you want?”

“Nine million!” María said. “No. One hundred! No. One hundred and fifty!”

The Senate bill includes a new category of temporary visa that eventually would allow 75,000 low-skilled workers—perhaps more, depending on the labor market—to enter the country.1 Rodolfo O. de la Garza, a professor of Political Science at Columbia University and an immigration expert, thinks such visa programs are too small. “You don't only bring in enough to harvest the crops,” he said. “You bring enough in so that they are in effect able to compete with the American labor force. Now, that's a lot of people, and labor's not going to like that.”

The bill also would create a 13-year-long path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, contingent on a multibillion dollar influx of new money devoted to further securing the border. To the extent that the bill has addressed the future flow of migrants, the debate so far has focused largely on high-skilled workers in the tech industry and, to a lesser extent, on agricultural labor. As for the dishwashers and delivery men, the Atanacios of the country, there is only the agreement between business and labor creating the new visa, which may be sufficient for now but will buckle if migration rates reach what they did in healthier economic times—as when Atanacio and Maximina crossed the border, for example, when immigrants were estimated to be entering the country both legally and illegally at rates of close to half a million a year.

Atanacio himself says that he would have come here legally and temporarily if such an avenue had been available to him. He would have accomplished much the same thing, earning money to build a house and start a business, with one key distinction: He would have periodically gone home, and his daughters would be familiar with the land he longs to return to. For now, Atanacio would gladly welcome legal status, though he doubts that he would stay for 13 years to become a citizen. As for border enforcement, Atanacio considers it foolish: If people have a reason to cross, they will find a way to do it. “What are they going to guard the border for, if it's only humble people who cross?” he asked. “They're not bringing weapons. They're not bringing anything.”

Now he'd like to take what he's made here—his family, his money, his life—back home. But he still can't, not yet. On a blustery afternoon in late winter, as he, Maximina, and María walked back home from the park, Diana rode beside them, grinning, on a glittering purple bicycle, its training wheels clattering on the sidewalk. She was beginning to outgrow the bike, and her knees stuck out at either side as she pedaled. When they reached their front door, Atanacio lifted the bike with one arm and carried it up the narrow staircase to the apartment. Diana removed her helmet in the dining room. The hair on top of her head was nearly gone, and the tufts along the sides were thin and sparse.

Diana and María ran together into the bedroom to watch cartoons, and Atanacio and Maximina sat down at the table. Maximina said it had become harder to keep up her spirits since Diana started losing her hair. Even though Diana was happy today, overall she was growing sadder and more lethargic, Maximina said. “It's not the same anymore. It affects me sometimes. It hurts me to see her like that.”

There was silence for a moment. “It's hard to understand,” Atanacio said. “If someone told me that I could pay any amount of money today and she would be OK tomorrow, I would find the money and I would pay it. But it's not that way.”

Atanacio, after all, has money more or less figured out. “I've done well here,” he said. “We're comfortable. We have a house back home, we have land. We have a little bit of money in the bank.” The doctors told them that Diana's treatment will take a year, and that she will need at least another year after that to recover. They will stay as long as they need to.

“This country has helped us a lot,” Atanacio added. “I don't regret coming here. I can't complain. The day I go back to Mexico, well—I'll always remember this place.”

  1. The bill would also create a separate temporary visa for agricultural guest workers, but it's unclear what the annual limit would be.