Luis Vargas Garcia walked out of the gate at Mexico City International Airport with his head shaved, a duffle bag over his shoulder and blue sneakers without shoe laces in them.
Vargas had landed in one of the three planes that land in Mexico City full of people being deported from the U.S.
He was six-years-old, he said, when his parents took him from Acapulco and across the border to Reno, Nevada. He was 18 when he was convicted of drug possession for carrying cocaine and paid court-ordered community service, he said. And last year, Vargas said, he got picked up when federal agents raided the construction site where he was supervising a painting crew. So now, at age 37, it’s as if it were his first time in Mexico -- where his only remaining relative is an uncle in the capital city.
“I’m a little bit scared, man,” he said. “I’m afraid.”
When his plane landed, Vargas got help from Mexican government employees: they gave him a form of temporary identification (he’s never had formal Mexican documentation, he said) and gave him pamphlets on how they could help him look for employment, he said.
“Then they send you on your way,” Vargas said.
As Mexico prepares for a presidential election next year, it has recently become popular for politicians here to stand up for their fellow country-people, even though the country began seeing a spike in voluntary returns and deportations in 2008.
That year, many struggled to find work during and after the financial crisis. At least 2.5 million were deported during the tenure of President Obama, who some immigrant advocates began calling the “Deporter In Chief.”
Mexican presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is scheduled to speak on Tuesday afternoon to a crowd in Phoenix. Similarly, the head of the right-leaning National Action Party, Ricardo Anaya, is speaking about migrant rights at university campuses across the U.S. And last week, Congressman Braulio Guerra, who represents the state of Queretaro, climbed the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana, calling the structure “absurd.”
Sen. Armando Rios Piter, who represents the state of Guerrero, said he empathises why many people being forcefully returned to Mexico would be apprehensive about a country that, in practical terms, they might not know.
Piter, a member of an informal non-partisan group in the senate seeking to help Mexican migrants in the U.S., helped put together one of the Mexican government’s few tangle efforts to help its immigrants: setting aside almost $50 million so the country’s 50 consulates can better help people worried about getting deported.
“This is to defend our people,” Rios Piter said. “Giving them information, paying these legal buffets, so they can give advice and help migrants to take care of their human rights and their civil rights.”
Many advocates look at politicians’ statements with skepticism.
“I think migrants are just more visible now that there’s a face to the villain,” Guadalupe Chipole runs the non-profit Center for Migrants and Families in Mexico City. That’s the way politics work. It’s about adversaries, and now there’s an adversary.”
But Mexicans began returning in droves long before Donald Trump was elected president. Chipole said Mexican government officials have made some efforts, but that she hopes they’ll show more leadership and evaluate how some institutions are collaborating or should be collaborating.
“I think they should change their political speeches from being about unity to being about collaboration and communication,” she said.
Vargas, the man from Acapulco by way of Reno, said he’s skeptical about any government helping him, especially in Mexico. He said he thought the government employees greeting him when he got off the plane were just checking off boxes on a list.
"I gotta look into it because I, like I said, I'm new. I really don't trust people," he said. “But I could be wrong, too."
Vargas said he wants to start a construction company, like the one he worked for in Nevada. And on his first day back in Mexico, he got a small reprieve: His aging uncle eventually arrived at the airport to ride the metro home together.