By Sadie Pileggi-Proud ’21 and Hannah Amendola ’24
“I really feel like people looked down upon me… I felt like I was being treated as an object, like I didn’t deserve to pursue higher education or get a good job or just be happy.”
Luis Aguilar, quoted above, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who chose to return to his home country when he was 19 years old. Despite having high hopes for what he could achieve in America, Aguilar quickly discovered that he didn’t belong: “I left because… I kept getting obstacle and obstacle that was not allowing me to become whatever I wanted.”
Aguilar noted that he attempted to pursue various routes before leaving America, including higher education, joining a dance troupe, and becoming a firefighter. But because of his lack of papers, he was forced to pay triple what other students paid for community college, and he couldn’t use public transportation or drive to dance competitions, or even apply to be a firefighter because it is a government job.
Aguilar left the United States because he finally saw the writing on the wall, hidden behind the promise of “a land of opportunity”: that opportunity was not meant for him. Unfortunately, many hopeful immigrants face the same reality. Whether they come to this realization as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) forcefully removes them from the country, or they do so on their own like Aguilar, millions of undocumented Mexican immigrants have been returning to their home country in recent years. Many of them were so young when they migrated to the United States that they have struggled to adjust to life back in Mexico, where they’ve experienced culture shock, financial distress, and social isolation.
In 2015, during his presidential bid announcement, Donald Trump infamously declared, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Migration Encounters reveals that Trump’s depiction of who is immigrating and why cannot be further from the truth. While the interviews demonstrate that migrants are far from a monolith, Aguilar stressed that “a bunch [of immigrants] just want to pursue higher education.”
In an attempt to combat this dehumanization and give a voice to migrants like himself, Aguilar teamed up with Haverford professors Anita Isaacs (Political Science) and Anne Preston (Economics). The three began their project, called Migration Encounters, in 2018. After two summers of hundreds of interviews with returned migrants, they have finally released their website, which Aguilar himself developed. The new website, as featured in the New York Times, is currently home to 63 interviews and counting with Mexican migrants, in which they tell the stories of their return to Mexico.
Isaacs emphasized the importance of publishing the stories exactly as the interviewees told them, as she’s run into restrictions writing for various publications in the past: “I couldn’t actually write what these people wanted me to write. I couldn’t write their names, for example. And after having been denied all of their rights, they were claiming the rights to their stories.”
Isaacs stated that the goal of the project at the outset was to counter the political culture of xenophobia by humanizing the undocumented population. Student interviewers Claudia Ojeda ’21 and Isabel Canning ’21 both emphasized that the audio from the migrants is what makes the project so powerful. Ojeda explained, “You’re actually learning about these experiences from the source… You can’t just talk about migration and a border and the experience of immigrants without actually listening to them, and this program makes that accessible.”
Canning added, “I think one of the things that I like the most about Migration Encounters is the raw audio… we’re not editing out, or getting blurbs, or trying to force it into [a story]… [The questions] came from a place of ‘can you tell me a little more about that?’ which created space for a level of vulnerability and humanity that doesn’t always penetrate the academic sphere.”
Isaacs is hopeful that the project will reach more Americans and help shed light on what she sees as the ugly truth of the immigration system: that it’s ruining the lives of real people who come to the United States with real dreams. “It’s devastating… to hear about the way in which hopes are dashed, and doors are closed, and lives are derailed,” she said.
When asked what his goal is for the project moving forward, Aguilar didn’t hesitate: “My life’s already messed up, they already ruined my life… I don’t want this same thing to happen to some other kid that is really good-hearted and just doesn’t want to do anything bad. That’s super unfair.” He added, “By participating in this project… I feel that I’m finally seen.”