Deported After Living In The U.S. For 26 Years, He Navigates A New Life In Mexico | WGLT

Deported After Living In The U.S. For 26 Years, He Navigates A New Life In Mexico

May 19, 2019
Originally published on May 20, 2019 3:08 pm

When 29-year-old Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano first returned to his birth country of Mexico, 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 parents or siblings 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.

In his home in León, Olivas-Bejarano looks through an album with photographs of his time in the United States.
Alicia Vera for NPR

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 Chihuahua, Mexico, 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.' "

The sun enters Olivas-Bejarano's kitchen in his León home, furnished with hand-me-downs.
Alicia Vera for NPR

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 U.S. 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, and 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.

Olivas-Bejarano says the toughest part about his immigration status is being apart from his family in Oklahoma. But he says the risk of reentering the U.S. illegally is too great for him.
Alicia Vera for NPR

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.

Olivas-Bejarano shops for fruit at a market in León this month. His Spanish has improved in the nearly two years he has lived in Mexico, but his American accent is noticeable among a large bilingual community.
Alicia Vera for NPR

Despite the loss and sadness, he says he has no desire to sneak back into the United States.

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.

Olivas-Bejarano walks home in León.
Alicia Vera for NPR

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 has 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 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.

Correction: 5/18/19

A previous Web version of this story identified Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano's birth city as León, Mexico, and said his parents moved from that city to the United States. In fact, Olivas-Bejarano was born in Chihuahua, and his parents left for the U.S. from that city.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Imagine suddenly finding yourself alone with no ID, no friends, no idea what to do in a place where you can barely communicate.

How was your Spanish when you first got here?

GILBERTO OLIVAS-BEJARANO: It didn't exist.

(LAUGHTER)

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I barely speak Spanish now (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano. He's 29 years old. He grew up in Tulsa. And he's home now in Mexico. We visited him during a reporting collaboration between NPR and "PBS NewsHour." And we're bringing you his story now because he's part of something new, a generation of young people who are neither Mexican nor American, neither undocumented nor fully able to take part in the society around them. So-called DREAMers, kids who were taken by their family to the U.S. as children from Mexico, are now returning to Mexico. And they're bringing a different attitude and expectations to the country of their birth.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: This is my photo album, which is kind of pictures of my friends and family back home - my 21st birthday, my little brother.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's so cute.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: (Laughter) Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gilberto is in the city of Leon, poring over his homemade album of photographs printed off of Facebook and filled with images from his former life - picnics, pride parades, birthdays with his family back in Oklahoma.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: This is actually my - one of my middle school classes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His small apartment is furnished with hand-me-downs, nothing that truly belongs to him.

What do you think when you look at these pictures?

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I don't regret anything. I don't ever wonder what I could have done different because it made me who I am today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Who he is today is someone in between identities and countries. He was taken to the U.S. by his family when he was 2. His siblings were all born in the States.

When did you realize that you were different from your brothers, that you actually were undocumented?

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: It was more so around middle school, whenever kids started getting their driver's license. And I was all excited like, oh, I get to sign up for this class. I'm going to get my driver's license. And that's when my parents were like, well, now, you're not going to go through the normal steps like everybody else.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that was his life, partially in the shadows until June 2012, when President Obama announced DACA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: It makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was an executive order protecting DREAMers from deportation and allowing them to work.

Were you excited?

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I literally called my boss. And she was just like, I know. I heard. I'm so excited. I'm so excited. And I was just, like, crying in my car after work, just like, oh, my God. Something's finally happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But in 2012 and 2016, he was caught driving drunk, misdemeanors that the Obama administration hadn't prioritized as deportable offenses. But then Donald Trump became president, and the standards changed. In 2017, Gilberto was at a job interview.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: And when I came outside, there was a man with a bulletproof vest on, and it said ICE on it. And 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. And he started walking towards me. And I just - I wanted to run away. I was just like, I'm just going to take off running. And he literally just pulled me out of my car and put me in handcuffs in front of everybody that I had just interviewed in front of. And that day was just - earth-shattering, really, is the only way I can explain it because I had to come to this realization within, like, 15 minutes that you're about to be deported.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ICE detained him for several months. Eventually, his lawyer advised him to voluntarily leave the country in the hopes that he could someday legally return. He was shackled. He was put on a bus. And then he was left at the southern border. He started walking.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I stopped in the middle of the bridge. I remember looking over and seeing Texas and then looking over and seeing Mexico 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 was like - to me, it felt like going to another planet. It was just two different worlds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And in his new world, the world where he was born, he was, again, an outsider.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: They'd hear my accent. And they'd be like, you're not from here, are you? Where are you from? And then eventually my neighbors would start calling me gringo, which was really weird to me because I always thought gringos were white people. And then here I am, obviously Mexican.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gilberto spent his first year in Mexico in denial.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: And then on my 29th birthday, my friend Elise came from the States to visit me. And it was just like - actually seeing her in my house, actually holding her and hugging her and being like, you're here was just - it made it real. It was like, no, this is your life now. You're actually here. Your friend came to visit you. This isn't a dream. Wake up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He moved to Leon, the center of the Mexican shoe industry, where there is a large bilingual community that supports it. At night, Gilberto gets lonely. He calls his friends back in the U.S.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: And you already decided on a name, too?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. We're naming him (unintelligible) Sebastian.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I love it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're going to call him Sebastian.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I love it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And his parents.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gilberto doesn't talk to them about his life in Leon. He likes to pretend he's just around the corner. Has that been the hardest thing, not being able to see your family?

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: Yeah. I think that's - the only hard thing, really, is not being able to hug my mom or hug my dad or harass my brothers (laughter). I'm sorry. Just the family part is probably the hardest thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Despite the loss, though, and the sadness, Gilberto doesn't want to sneak back into the United States. For the first time in his life, he wants to make his own choice about crossing the border.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: I'm actually against illegal immigration - too much of a risk for me. I wouldn't want to end up in jail for 10 years. I think if we had better avenues of getting into the United States legally then, you know, people wouldn't have to put their lives at risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's building a life for himself in Leon, and he's got company. A new generation of young, educated immigrant Mexicans are returning to their home country, too.

Do you feel like you have a lot to offer to Mexico?

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: Yeah, I do. I definitely do. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His English and his education has landed him at a position at a multi-million-dollar Mexican foot-and-sportswear company doing customer support. And after six months on the job, Gilberto Olivas-Bejarano is in the running for a promotion.

OLIVAS-BEJARANO: And that's what I bring - is a different viewpoint, fresh ideas and a drive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's that perspective and that drive that's making its mark on Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.