For Americans Living Illegally In Mexico, Life As An Immigrant Comes Easier

Download Audio
A U.S. flag flies near section of the border fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, in 2017. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)
A U.S. flag flies near section of the border fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, in 2017. (Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

About 1 million Americans live in Mexico, according to the State Department. Many of them do so illegally. But it's much easier to navigate life in Mexico as an immigrant without proper documents than it is in the United States.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson explores this with two people who have firsthand experience with the differences.

Editor's Note: Here & Now agreed not to use our guests' last names for this conversation.

Interview Highlights

On Eddie's immigration story and the limitations of his status

Eddie: "We moved to the U.S. when I was 5. We moved there with a legal visa, we ended up overstaying there. We were living there legally, and then we were living illegally for the rest of the time. I went to college there. I lived in California, so it was easier to get around that so long as you had a tax ID number. After university, I was aware of the limitations of my status and decided to come back to Mexico."

"Just by going to university, you kind of train yourself to have a corporate job. [And I couldn’t get a job like that without legal status]. Since then, I've learned that you could, but that took way too much effort. That was not one of my specialties — trying."

On Eddie’s decision to move back to Mexico and whether he'd rather be in the U.S.

E: "I think that's way more complicated — yes and no. I think, since I grew up there and I was little, I wish I had. I have the mentality of someone who grew up in the U.S. In my mind, I should be able to go back. But I don't have the same social security as other people, so I can't go back. I am so happy with my life now that it's give and take. I guess I've given up something to have this."

On Carissa's immigration story

Carissa: "I grew up in Colorado and Oregon and felt like I'd had amazing experiences in those places, and I wanted to try living abroad. I chose Mexico thinking that it would only be a couple months, and if anything really went wrong it was close enough that I could hop on a plane and be back in the States in a couple hours for a couple hundred bucks. So I came to Mexico kind of on a whim, and that was many years ago now.

"When I first came here, I was kind of in and out. I was freelancing, I was popping around to different Mexican cities. So I'd come down for a couple months and go back. You can have six months being here. Eventually I ended up working here formally and had a working visa. When that ended, I reverted to a tourist visa. As long as I come and go every six months, I haven't worked here again so that hasn't been an issue. But I just have to make sure not to overstay that six-month visa."

"For us to call an entire country — for Trump to call an entire country 'bad hombres' — made me feel terrible as a person that travels in the world."


On a time when Carissa had to bribe an immigration official

C: "There was a time very early on in my Mexico experience where I was in Oaxaca and in Oaxaca City. From there, it's pretty common for people to make border runs. They'll go down to Guatemala and from Oaxaca City, I think it's like 12 hours on the bus. So I asked around, I didn't really want to take that bus. I wasn't sure if that was safe, didn't want to do it. There's a big population of foreigners in Oaxaca. All the foreigners said you can go to the airport, you can find this guy Jose. Look for a time when there's not flights coming in, knock on the door, tell him your story, couple thousand pesos, he'll stamp your passport as if you've just arrived. So that's what I did. Sort of negotiated with him and he said eventually 'Why do you want to be in Mexico? Everybody else is going to the States.' And I said 'But I love Mexico!' This is a common conversation. I love it here, I want to stay. He was still kind of skeptical, 'Why do you want to be here?' Finally knowing a bit about Latino culture, I said I have a Mexican boyfriend, which was not true. But he went 'todo por amor' and stamped my passport, and I got another six months."

On why she doesn't get a work visa

C: "I've never actually, since my previous role, I haven't worked for a company here. So there hasn't been that opportunity. I do have a lot of friends that own companies and they've said, 'Hey, just pay the legal fees, which will be like $400, and you can fake work for our company.' But it's been easy enough to leave, and I come and go often enough that it hasn't been an issue."

On what they think about Trump's rhetoric on immigration

E: "I do believe American values, the idea of order, and I can understand the argument coming from that sense. But we were categorized — that's what I don't understand — we were in a system. We may not have had a Social Security, but most immigrants, from my understanding, do have tax ID numbers. So I know when we were in the U.S., we kept paying into a system which we had no privilege of taking out of. And that's what you do, that's how you open a bank account. My experience is mostly California, which I understand tends to be more progressive in that sense. 'You don't have a Social Security number? That's fine, what's your tax ID?' And we did get audited several times, but so long as my parents were just claiming what they were making and giving it, the U.S. doesn't mind. Money is money. And that happens a lot. I think this whole idea of people taking from the system, they might, but I am very aware of a lot of us who put in and never took out. And I don't understand that part of the argument."

C: "Trump's ‘bad hombres’ thing really offended me. I think it offended everyone. But the day after the election, I was here and that was the only time that I've had somebody yell at me about Trump. Otherwise, Mexicans would never be that impolite. The day after the election I went shopping in this Liverpool, it's like a department store here, and the woman who was helping me stopped midway through and said ‘Wait, are you American?’ And I said yes. She started kind of screaming: ‘How could you guys do this? The peso is plummeting. What's the problem? We've never tried to hurt you.' Blah, blah, blah. She had to just walk away and one of her associates came over and apologized and helped me check out. So I feel terrible that we're picking on Mexico, in particular. Because most of Latin America is kind to Americans. When I go to visit places, I've never had an issue. And so for us to call an entire country — for Trump to call an entire country 'bad hombres' — made me feel terrible as a person that travels in the world."

On why neither of them moved legally

E: "If you can, do. But to pretend that the world isn't complex is to ignore reality. And life happens. It just does, that's how we've gotten to our places. Whatever you think life is supposed to be, forget it, because that's not what it's going to be. I think you end up pitting yourself into corners, and you have to work yourself out of it. Sometimes pragmatism is more important than legality."

C: "Initially I was coming and going and working freelance for clients in the States. So there wasn't really any incentive to pursue legal residency here. I wasn't sure that I was stay in the first couple of years. Then I did work here legally for a couple years, and then that ended pretty recently, so I reverted to tourist status. But I haven't even been here six months, actually, since that ended. So, after a couple years, I started to really think about being here more permanently, but it took that time to decide I wanted to stay. So now I have the opportunity to stay and pay a lawyer. And I think I also mentally converted a little bit to deciding this is some place I want to more permanently be, and that I do want to be here legally honestly, just out of solidarity in a lot of ways. I want to have legal Mexican status so that I can eventually — after five years you end up with semi-permanent residency. And I would like to have that because the place has a little place in my heart. Mexico has a little place in my heart. I would like to have legal representation for that."

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that both guests are Americans living illegally in Mexico. Carissa is an American citizen living in Mexico. Eddie is a Mexican citizen who was living without documentation in the United States, and self-deported to Mexico. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2017.

This segment aired on April 26, 2017.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live