I Left the U.S. After Living Undocumented for 21 Years — Here’s What I Learned

When Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential Election, I knew I had to leave my home in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump talked about canceling Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — President Barack Obama’s executive action granting undocumented people that arrived in the U.S. as children work permits and protection from deportation. Nine months into his presidency, Trump finally announced his plans to terminate the policy that offered me sanctuary — and I knew I had to set a plan to leave the country that raised me.
On May 17, 2021, after living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years, I boarded a plane and moved to Querétaro, Mexico. I’m not alone. While there aren't currently any figures available that show how many former DACA recipients have left the country, more and more are considering leaving the U.S. in search of a life that offers more certainty.
As DACA recipients, our status — and thus our way of life — is in limbo. The latest ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals states that DACA is unconstitutional. For now, current recipients can continue renewing their permits in two-year increments and apply for Advanced Parole — a travel permit allowing reentry into the United States to immigrants with temporary status. However, no new DACA applications can be reviewed and approved. 

"As DACA recipients, our status — and thus our way of life — is in limbo."

Grecia Huesca Dominguez
I knew I wanted to leave the U.S. in 2016, but I didn’t pick a date until October 2020. During those years between wanting to leave and taking the leap, I thought extensively about my and my daughter's quality of life, whether we stayed in the U.S. or left. Leaving the place where I spent two-thirds of my existence seemed almost impossible, but staying and continuing to live a life of uncertainty felt even more impossible.
With every new policy development surrounding DACA, I fell deeper into depression. I knew I had to go, but I didn’t know how. I was scared that I didn’t have enough time, that I wouldn’t be able to properly prepare to leave before DACA was canceled. So for five years, I prepared mentally and financially to leave my home of two-plus decades, New York, and move somewhere foreign to me. 
I considered a few countries in Europe and, most seriously, Canada. I even talked to Canadian immigration lawyers about the immigration process. But at the end of my research, I settled on Mexico because I didn’t have it in me to deal with another arduous immigration system.
The journey toward repatriation is difficult and confusing, but I did find community. In the spring of 2020, immigration justice activist Angy Rivera hosted a series of Instagram Lives through her nonprofit New York State Youth Leadership Council where she spoke with other women who were once undocumented and made the decision to leave the U.S. Hearing their stories helped me see that there was hope for a good life outside the U.S. 
Through that same series, I met Madaí Zamora, a former DACA recipient who left in 2018. Through her, I learned about Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA), a Mexico City-based NGO that helps returnees and deportees upon arrival. The people and organizations helped and supported me in invaluable ways. I asked them questions about what I could expect and which documents I needed to prepare. With their assistance, I made a to-do list of tasks to complete and slowly chipped away at it. 

"I don’t have to worry about my immigration status, so I have more time and energy to spend with my daughter and on my writing."

Support didn’t stop there. After talking to my publishing job about the urgency of my move, they agreed to keep me on remotely. Once I knew I would have a steady income, I Googled everything else, from the cost of living, to schools with dual-language programs for my daughter, to apartments, and I put all my faith in Google Street view to pick a new neighborhood for us. 
During my first few weeks in Querétaro, I felt like I was on vacation. I couldn’t believe I would be living in such a beautiful city far away from my family for the first time. When my daughter joined me a month later, we visited Veracruz to meet extended family, including two great-grandmothers. I got to go back to the place where I spent the first 10 years of my life for the first time since I left. It was difficult facing how severed my family ties were with my aunts, especially since they were once my second mothers. It was even harder to face the absence of so many other people I had once loved, like my paternal great-grandparents and my maternal grandmother.
In truth, I feel unrooted in Mexico, which surprises me. For a long time, I imagined that coming back would mean finding a part of myself I had lost when I left. Instead, I find myself even more lost. My daughter is starting to make friends at school, but we still don’t have a community here in Querétaro that we can count on. We could leave tomorrow and no one in this city would miss us. It feels unsettling because, in New York, we had so much community: I miss going to my favorite bagel spot and seeing familiar faces waiting in line and greeting me at the cash register. I miss running into family everywhere and knowing that if my car broke down, there were many people I could call to ask for help.
I have also been overwhelmed by the possibilities my new life has to offer. For the first time since college, I have time to think about what I want for myself and my future, even though I am still struggling with looking further than a few months ahead. After not being able to plan a future for so long, this is wildly unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. I am trying to lean into this new life by recognizing what a great problem it is to have. I have friends back in the U.S. who I can talk with about this, but if I decide to go through any new plans, I am still here on my own. 

"I know leaving was necessary and best for me and my daughter, but I will always be angry that I had to leave my home in the U.S. to build this life."

I am not very surprised by how things have turned out, though. If anything, many things are going to plan. I don’t have to worry about my immigration status, so I have more time and energy to spend with my daughter and on my writing. 
But this logical decision has also been risky — and, honestly, that was part of the appeal for me. For so long, I had to play it safe. Growing up undocumented, I always had to be careful because one bad decision could mean deportation. When I became a single mother, I had to play life even safer. I had no one else to fall back on — I had to be the one to have it all together, all the time. 
This move signifies a milestone: I can finally take a risk with my life — a well-calculated one, but a risk nonetheless. I didn’t want to stay in New York and wonder about what life could be. I wanted to leave and find out. And I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with me always being depressed and stressed. I wanted us to have a different life, together.
As time has gone by, my mental health has improved greatly. But the better I feel, the more I wish I could have been this person back in New York. It is bittersweet to finally be able to build the life I always wanted so far from the people I love. I do not regret my decision to move. I know leaving was necessary and best for me and my daughter, but I will always be angry that I had to leave my home in the U.S. to build this life.

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