MEXICO CITY — The young Mexican couple packed their possessions in boxes and garbage bags 20 years ago, locked them in a room of their half-built house in Mexico City and then migrated illegally to the United States with their 3-year-old daughter in search of work, taking only what they could carry.
The plan was to return a couple of years later, but instead they remained, undocumented, in New York City. The boxes and bags stayed where they had left them, their contents mostly forgotten: a family’s beacon of hope.
One recent morning, the daughter, Guadalupe Ambrosio, now 23, stood in front of the locked door of that room, the key in her hand. It was her first visit to Mexico since she had left when she was 3. She was about to open those boxes and bags for the first time since they had been stored, reconnecting with her interrupted childhood and closing a yawning circle for her family.
Ms. Ambrosio, an undergraduate at Borough of Manhattan Community College, was never sure she would have this chance. She, too, is undocumented. For most of her life, had she tried to visit Mexico, she would have been barred from re-entering the United States.
But in 2012, she enrolled in a federal program that allows young, undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States temporarily and work legally. Participants in the program, known as deferred action, can also apply to travel abroad for humanitarian, educational or work purposes, and re-enter the United States without penalty. Since the advent of the program in 2012, thousands of young undocumented immigrants have used the travel permission to visit the countries they left as children.
But with the American presidential election at hand, the future of the program, an initiative of the Obama administration, remains uncertain. The new president could cancel it, leaving young undocumented immigrants to wonder whether they can ever return to their homelands without having to forsake their lives in the United States.
“People are scared,” Ms. Ambrosio said. “We’ve been fighting for this.”
The trips have been intense periods of discovery, and rediscovery, as the young immigrants reconnect with relatives and family friends — many known only through phone calls or their parents’ stories — and return to places that have come to seem more imaginary than real.
The visits have been marked by deep and sometimes painful reflection about identity and belonging, freighted with the yearnings of undocumented parents back in the United States who are unable to make the trip themselves without giving up everything they built.
“It has always been so difficult to find words to describe how important this journey is,” said Alyshia Gálvez, the director of the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at the City University of New York’s Lehman College.
She added, “To live most of their lives with secondhand information about Mexico and why their families left, and given the awful stagnation in immigration law, they haven’t been able to develop their own understanding of their country and their relationship to it.”
Ms. Ambrosio was part of a group from CUNY who spent about six weeks in Mexico this summer. Nearly all were Mexican-born and returning to their birthplaces for the first time since leaving the country as children.
Nearly all were undocumented — the sons and daughters of construction workers and domestic workers, landscapers and restaurant workers — and were traveling with permission. The justification for the trip was a community-service program in San Miguel de Allende, after which the group split up to visit relatives and friends around Mexico.
Sergio Torres, 25, a theater student at Borough of Manhattan Community College, planned to confront his estranged father, whom he had refused to talk to for years because of his violent treatment of the family when Mr. Torres was a boy.
Marlen Fernandez, 24, a staff member at the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute in the Bronx, was returning with her daughter, who is 2 — a year younger than Ms. Fernandez was when her parents took her to New York City.
Gloria Farciert, 21, a senior at Brooklyn College, was heading back to her hometown, a village in rural Puebla State that, in recent years, has been gutted by migration to the United States, especially to the New York region. She had left Mexico when she was 11.
“Sitting on this airplane feels surreal,” Ms. Farciert wrote on her Instagram account on July 4 next to a photo of her Mexican passport and airplane tickets.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions happening.”
The flight to Mexico City was, for some, a transcendent experience, temporarily erasing a political barrier that had defined their lives. As the plane flew from American airspace into Mexican airspace, with the border somewhere below, Ms. Fernandez thought to herself how easy it was to cross.
“That border is so heavy for me,” she said.
In Mexico, they were something between natives and tourists, regarded by other Mexicans as not quite brethren yet not quite foreigners. This uncertain acceptance echoed the feeling of dislocation that hounded them in the United States: They had grown up American in every way but lacked the legal status of belonging.
“I don’t know if I’m an American in disguise or a Mexican trying to be American,” Mr. Torres said midway through the visit. “We’re coming home in a sense, but it doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Many also came to realize just how much the trip meant for their parents, for whom they were serving as envoys. “That puts a little pressure on you because you’re giving them voice,” Ms. Fernandez said.
After the program in San Miguel de Allende, Ms. Ambrosio stayed with her paternal grandparents in San Miguel Teotongo, a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. Reconnecting with her relatives, she felt a sense of acceptance that she had struggled to find growing up in the United States.
A watershed moment came when she opened the boxes that had been packed and stored 20 years ago. Her grandparents had gone in from time to time to dust the storage room but everyone had left the boxes as they were.
“They always thought that we would come back,” Ms. Ambrosio said.
She found a large garbage bag with dozens of stuffed animals and another full of children’s’ clothes and plastic toys — all of them once hers, though long forgotten.
“I didn’t imagine I had so many things,” she said as she methodically unpacked the stuff.
There was kitchenware, furniture, costume jewelry and even artifacts from her mother’s quincienera party. But the grand prize for her, it seemed, were the photo albums.
She had grown up with only a few photos of herself as a girl in Mexico. Now she had the motherlode in her hands. As Ms. Ambrosio flipped slowly through one of the albums — photos of her as a baby and as a child, with her mother, with her relatives, with her late grandmother — she began to cry.
“This is a childhood that I always wanted,” she said.
Elsewhere in Mexico, the other students were making discoveries of their own.
In Puebla State, Ms. Farciert was struck by the emptiness of her hometown, the rural village of San Miguel de Lozano. And she saw the length of her time away reflected in the aging of her grandparents.
“Whenever my grandfather talks to my dad, the question is always: ‘When are you coming back?’” she said. “The truth is, there is no definite answer because my mother nor my dad knows when they’ll come back.”
“I wish that my parents had this opportunity and not me,” she continued. “Borders break us in all different types of ways.”
In Mexico City, Mr. Torres visited relatives and made a trip to the Basilica de Guadalupe, a national shrine, to buy religious iconography that his mother, back in East Harlem, had requested. He then traveled to Puebla to visit more relatives. But all of that was a preamble to the most important task on his agenda: confronting his father.
When Mr. Torres was 6, his father had violently thrown him, his younger brother and his mother out of their house in the state of Guerrero. Mr. Torres had not spoken with his father since he was 13.
“I need to know why he did what he did,” he said.
The encounter, about a week later, did not go well.
“I was hoping he would be, like: ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry the way I treated your mom. I’m sorry about the way I treated you guys,’” Mr. Torres said. “But all he was, was like, ‘Oh, what I did was because your mom talked back to me.’” After arguing with his father for 40 minutes, Mr. Torres left. As Mr. Torres recounted the episode, there was pain in his voice. But he insisted his father’s total lack of remorse allowed him to move on. “I’m ready to close that chapter,” he said.
The students — now back on the American side of the border, in a country that regards them with ambivalence — have resumed their classes and returned to their jobs, caught between two nations, yet of neither place entirely.
“I came back more angry than I was,” Ms. Fernandez said about American immigration laws. Her anger extended to the Mexican government for its failures to “provide us with a better place to live,” she said.
Her relatives pleaded with her not to wait another 20 years before visiting again, but asked, if she could not make it, that she send her sister or her daughter instead.
One aunt had not seen her son since he migrated to the United States about 15 years ago. “She was like, ‘Please tell him to come back and see me before I die,’” Ms. Fernandez recalled. “‘Tell him to send me my grandchildren. I don’t care if they don’t speak Spanish. I just want to hug them.’”