For One Young Immigrant Who Returned To Mexico, A Long Path To Opportunities
In 2010, when Arizona had just passed the controversial immigration law known as Senate Bill 1070, Jessica Gonzalez was riding a Valley Metro bus through downtown Phoenix when she ran across crowds of protesters and counter-protesters. Gonzalez remembers being the only person with brown skin on the bus, and that when a street mob spotted her through the window, they began shaking the bus, she said.
As she recalls it, they yelled: “‘Alien! Go back to your country! Stop stealing jobs from people!’”
Gonzalez, then a senior at North High School in central Phoenix, had migrated from Mexico as a teenager and by the time she graduated, she’d had a number of situations in which she was racially profiled, she said. She had been an almost straight-A student, wanted to enroll in Phoenix College to study biology and become a geneticist, but she couldn’t afford it because she was an undocumented immigrant and was ineligible to receive financial assistance.
A few months after graduation, she decided to leave her father and siblings in Phoenix and look for a way to go to college in Mexico City, where she was born.
“It was really sad because I wasn’t doing anything bad,” Gonzalez said. “There were people who wanted to help you, but there were also people who wanted to bring you down.”
Gonzalez, now 28, was one of the more than 1 million undocumented Mexican immigrants who left the United States in the last decade, bringing net migration from Mexico to a net zero, according to Pew Research estimates. Like many young returning migrants, Gonzalez faced challenges in transferring her American education and in finding work. Only in the last year, Gonzalez was able to go to school and find a career with the help of an unusual software engineering boot camp that caters specifically to returning migrants.
"I don't want to be undocumented anymore, anywhere."
— Jessica Gonzalez, engineer
In 2010, when Gonzalez arrived in Mexico City, she took the standardized test for admission to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s most prestigious public school. But she didn’t make it — twice, she said. She was already the mother of a young boy, so she had to scramble for work, which she found at an English-language call center serving customers in the U.S.
Gonzalez handled calls for large American corporations for seven years, she said. It was stressful work measured with a number of metrics, and she again faced discrimination. American callers were often unhappy the person helping them was in Mexico, she said.
“Sometimes, they were like, ‘No, you stupid Mexican. I don't want to speak to you. I don't want to talk to you. Transfer me to someone in America,’” she said. “It was really sad.”
Gonzalez still wanted to study biology, but she was earning less than $3 per hour, barely enough for her and the three children she had, let alone school. And then last year, she heard about a school for returning migrants that would loan her tuition and a stipend until she got a job. She didn’t even own a computer, she said, but she knew it would be a path out of call centers.
“I didn't know what a software engineer was,” she said with a laugh, recently. “I barely had any idea that existed.”
Some 50 people have graduated since the school — called Hola Code — opened in late 2017. Currently, about 30 are enrolled in the school’s third cohort. Gonzalez, who was part of the second class of students, became one of the first graduates of her group to find work.
“The students are their own agents of change,” said Bruno Torres, one of the mentors at Hola Code. “In terms of their job prospects and salaries, what they put in is what they get out.”
Still, there are people in Phoenix who miss Gonzalez, such as Jane McNamara, who was one of her teachers and mentors at North High School, and says she's disappointed she didn’t stay.
“We need people like Jessica in Phoenix,” McNamara said. “I think that it’s to all of our benefit to have young people like her in our community, working, raising families, and helping us benefit from what's best about both countries."
Gonzalez sees the idea of someday returning to Arizona with mixed feelings. She’s now an engineer at a Mexico City-based financial services start-up named Cuenca, and she finally earns enough for her and her three children to live in their own apartment. (When she worked in call centers, she could only afford for them to live in a group house, she said.)
The last time she saw her father and siblings was in 2010, and she doesn’t know when she’ll ever get to see them again — but she has no interest in living in the U.S., she said.
“I would like to visit my family, for sure. I miss them a lot,” she said. “But I don't want to be undocumented anymore, anywhere.”