One-way flight to Mexico: Who is the US deporting?
Mexico City (CNN)Maria Perez hasn’t seen her grandson since he was a little boy.
On her cell phone, she keeps a video of that day. It shows 8-year-old Eduardo Hernandez hugging her goodbye.
Now Hernandez is 21 and walking through the frosted glass doors at Mexico City’s international airport. His flight from the United States just landed.
His grandmother jumps toward him with both hands in the air, wiping away tears as she lays eyes on him for the first time in more than a decade.
Family members crowd around him. Two young cousins run to meet him for the first time. An aunt leans in for a hug. Perez grabs her grandson’s hand and kisses it twice.
Hernandez can’t stop smiling. He’s enjoying the attention. But he has mixed emotions.
US authorities just flew him back to Mexico on ICE Air, a division of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But his parents are still living in Wisconsin.
“I’m coming back to my people, and basically I’m happy right now,” he said. “But, I’m sad at the same time, because I’m leaving behind family.”
The first steps of people like Hernandez have become a familiar scene at Mexico City’s airport — and something that could become an even more common sight as US President Donald Trump vows to crack down on illegal immigration. In an arrivals area, tearful reunions and conversations with social workers give a glimpse at life for the United States’ most recent deportees — and a window into who the United States is kicking out.
Hernandez was one of 135 passengers on his flight.
Like the Obama administration, Trump has said deporting criminals is a priority. But the Trump administration has expanded the definition of “criminal” that authorities can use, giving immigration officers the ability to make judgments on threats to public safety.
During CNN’s recent visits to the Mexico City airport after deportation flights arrived, some people getting off the planes said they were convicted felons, like one man, who said he’d been convicted of domestic violence in Colorado. Others said they only had minor offenses on their records.
ICE Air’s deportation planes aren’t listed on arrival screens at the airport, but they land in Mexico three times a week.
Deportees are provided with a meal on the flight and a take-home plastic bag filled with water, snacks and paperwork.
Upon arrival in Mexico City, dozens are escorted to a cordoned-off area near a conveyor belt, where government workers sort through red mesh bags filled with clothes, personal items and a label with the name of a deported Mexican national.
ICE Air passengers huddle around airport workers, seeking guidance and waiting their turn to claim personal belongings before leaving the gated area.
On the other side of the gate, most are welcomed back to the country by government workers, not eager family members.
Social worker Celia Anaya smiles when she sees the doors open.
“Bienvenido a Mexico,” she says as she welcomes the wave of deportees walking by.
Some dismiss the greeting and rush off to catch rides to their hometowns from a nearby bus terminal.
Others are intrigued by the social worker and pause for a conversation that often becomes a way to vent about their experience.
Anaya listens to their concerns, then takes the opportunity to reach out and educate.
Unemployment benefits from the Mexican government, she says, could include $120 monthly for six months.
Hernandez said he lived in Wisconsin for 13 years, most recently working at a factory making countertops and attending a technical college.
Before his return to Mexico, Hernandez had several run-ins with the law, including multiple traffic violations and a felony conviction for fleeing and eluding a police officer in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Hernandez illegally entered the United States in 2003 and was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his conviction on the felony charge, ICE said in a statement.
According to his lawyer, Hernandez pleaded guilty after a 2014 incident when he was racing in the streets with friends and sped past a police officer. Afraid of admitting his immigration status to the officer, he fled the scene before he got caught, attorney Marc Christopher said.
Immigration authorities detained Hernandez in December during his monthly check-in with a probation officer. It’s likely US officials’ focus on deporting people with criminal records put Hernandez on their radar, Christopher said. The attorney described Hernandez as a “good kid” who had spent time as a volunteer teaching art to children.
“I go to bed at night wishing I could’ve gotten a different result for him,” Christopher said.
READ MORE: Immigration arrests rise in first months of Trump
ICE said an immigration judge granted Hernandez “voluntary departure” in January. That means Hernandez had to leave the United States, but he won’t have an official deportation order on his record.
Hernandez said he spent two months behind bars in Wisconsin before immigration authorities transferred him to a detention facility in Louisiana for a week. From there, they escorted him onto a plane bound for Mexico.
He called it a long, frustrating and demeaning process that is enough to keep him away from the United States.
“Now that the situation is pretty bad,” he said, “I’m not thinking of going back.”
Planning to return
David Padilla doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the social worker who greeted him at the airport in Mexico City.
The 26-year-old tells her he plans to go back to the United States because that’s what he promised his children, now living with their mom in Utah.
He doesn’t go into detail about how he will return to the US, but jokes about finally having an opportunity to attend a professional soccer game in Mexico.
Padilla said he left Mexico when he was a toddler and lived in Salt Lake City for 24 years. According to Padilla, he was on his way to his construction job in early March when ICE agents, looking for his uncle, pulled him over and took him into custody.
Padilla has two misdemeanor DUI convictions and a number of traffic offenses on his record, according to court documents. In 2008, he was sentenced to 30 days of jail time for shoplifting.
Padilla blames Trump for his deportation.
“If I would’ve been pulled over the day that it happened without Trump being in office,” he said, “I think I would’ve been able to go home.”
He chokes up when he looks at photos of his dog and his 1-year-old and 5-year-old daughters on his phone. For him, the separation is the most difficult part.
“It’s just so hard. They pull you away,” he said. “You can’t even say bye to anybody.”
Padilla describes his return flight as a nightmare. He didn’t like being handcuffed or having his shoelaces cut off by ICE agents.
“They don’t treat you like a human,” Padilla says.
ICE didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Padilla’s case.
Agency spokesman Bryan Cox said deportees are handcuffed on ICE Air flights for officer safety. All aspects of enforcement are in keeping with federal law and ICE policies, he said.
“Enforcement is done in a humane manner in accordance with policy,” Cox said.
Guadalupe Figueroa doesn’t consider herself a dangerous criminal. She first came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant in 2003. According to US immigration officials, she was deported twice within days after she was caught trying to cross the border illegally that year.
She eventually made it across, found a home and started a family in Somerville, Alabama. While she cleaned houses, her 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, both born in the US, attended school.
According to her attorney, Geraldine Escalante, Figueroa returned to her hometown in Mexico when her mother became ill in 2012. That’s also when Figueroa claims she became a victim of extortion from cartels. Hoping to seek asylum, she decided to cross the border again in August 2015. Border Patrol agents detained her in California, then allowed her to go to Alabama for the remainder of her immigration proceedings.
Former President Barack Obama was still in office when her deportation process began. In December, Figueroa’s appeal to block a judge’s order for removal was denied. When she checked in with immigration officials in January, she said they took her into custody.
According to ICE, Figueroa’s February 27 deportation was “in accordance with a final order of removal issued by a federal immigration judge after her case received all appropriate process through the federal courts.”
Even though Figueroa has never been convicted of a violent crime or linked to any gangs, ICE says she is still a priority.
“ICE is focused on identifying, arresting and removing public safety threats, such as convicted criminal aliens and gang members, as well as individuals who have violated our nation’s immigration laws,” ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd said in a written statement.
With tears streaming down her face, Figueroa says she doesn’t understand why she is being separated from her family. Her son also struggles to understand. In a letter Figueroa carries with her, he drew a picture of a little boy crying and saying, “I want my mom.”
“I feel horribly sad because Nightmares haunt me around every day, every night, EVERY WEEK! And I need you to come back. I drew this picture of how sad I am. I didn’t want to draw this, mom, but that is how I feel in my heart and my dreams.”
Figueroa’s husband, living in Alabama, told CNN the child is seeing a therapist to cope with the separation. Her attorney calls it a tragedy because she does not believe Figueroa is one of the “bad hombres” Trump claims to be targeting.
Figueroa agrees. She says if she ever gets a chance to say one thing to Trump, she would address what they both have in common.
“Look into your heart, because you have a son, too, and I, as a mother, am suffering for my children.”