When Tania Mendoza looks at the metal barrier separating her from her family in the United States, she says, she sees “sadness. Nothing but sadness.”
Mendoza was 3-years-old when her parents brought her to Los Angeles. She was deported in 2010, 21 years after she arrived in the United States. Since then, she has been separated from her three siblings who live in America and her now-14-year-old daughter. Mendoza hasn’t seen her daughter face-to-face in nine years, went more than two years without being able to speak with her, and is now in a custody battle to preserve some of her parental rights. Though she has lived in Tijuana, Mexico, for nearly 10 years, she says she can never feel at home. “I cannot be settled without my daughter,” Mendoza told me. “As much as I try every day to wake up and have a normal life, just the fact of waking up and not taking your daughter to school … I don’t think we could ever establish [a life] without your kids.”
Mendoza’s face is featured on the Playas de Tijuana Mural. Her portrait—and those of five others whose lives have been upended by deportation—now appear at the edge of America’s border barrier on the beach between Tijuana and San Ysidro. Visitors can scan QR Codes to watch the people depicted on the mural tell their stories firsthand in videos. The mural is a community project conceived by Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana, as part of her dissertation at UC–Davis. The mural was completed in September, three years after Santana came up with the idea.
Other faces include Isaac Rivera, a young man who was detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement checkpoint stop on his way to a pastor’s conference and deported one day later, and Monserrat Godoy, a deportee who has been separated from her U.S. citizen children after fleeing domestic violence.
At the end of September, one week after the mural was completed, Mendoza attended a film screening on the Tijuana side of the binational Friendship Park, telling the story of how the mural came to be. Santana, who also made the film, based the stories of the mural on the work of the “Humanizing Deportation” archive at UC–Davis, where Santana is a Ph.D. student and researcher. Santana also took inspiration for the mural from her experience with a previous partner, who had been brought to the United States as a 3-month-old and only learned of his undocumented status when he was applying for college. “That’s the story of a lot of kids who were raised in the U.S. and were born in Mexico,” she told me.
Santana said she wanted specifically to tell stories of those who had been removed by President Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, which set records for the number of deportations that even the Trump administration has not surpassed. “Anyone is vulnerable to deportation if you’re a noncitizen,” Santana said.
Currently, one possible exception to that rule is for DACA recipients. While Obama set deportation records, he also established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy through executive order in 2012. The policy allows for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who met certain criteria to apply for deferred action from deportation and gain eligibility to receive a work permit. More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants have received DACA status. On Tuesday, though, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in a case to determine whether the Trump administration will be allowed to reverse that policy. Trump rescinded the program in 2017, claiming that the program was unlawful despite ample evidence that his real motivation for ending the program was to use it as a bargaining chip. The outcome of that Supreme Court case is far from certain. If the court sides with the Trump administration, hundreds of thousands of childhood arrivals will overnight be vulnerable to the same fate as Mendoza.
Mendoza was deported two years before Obama signed DACA, for which she otherwise would have been eligible. In 2010, she says, she was arrested after her neighbors called the police following a domestic dispute. Mendoza says she was told that the other participant in the dispute was not going to press charges, but she was taken into ICE custody anyway. She then says she was asked to sign a form confirming her identity. She says she later discovered that the form she signed was to allow her removal. Less than one week after she had been arrested, she was removed from the country she had called home for two decades.
“Everybody, I have everybody over there, all of my family,” Mendoza told me. Mendoza’s daughter, who is American and lives in Ontario, California, was 5 years old when she was deported. “I missed pretty much nine years of her life.”
After Mendoza’s deportation, her daughter’s father cared for their daughter in the U.S. Mendoza says that the father would not bring her daughter to visit her in Mexico but that she was able to speak over the phone with her for a time. “She sent me these beautiful drawings, letters until the technology got a little bit better and we Skyped,” Mendoza said in her Humanizing Deportation video. Mendoza says in 2016 her daughter’s father moved without letting her know where and that the phone calls stopped for more than two years. Last year, though, the father reopened the case to seek full custody. Mendoza is still fighting her end of the case from Tijuana. She has not yet been granted visits with her daughter in Mexico but has been granted 20-minute phone calls once a week. “That’s a big win,” she said. It is not without its difficulties, though. “I can’t even really say anything good emotionally because it’s just not nice,” Mendoza told me. “It’s not nice for a mom and a daughter to be talking via FaceTime after nine years of not being with each other.”
As we spoke, we could hear a vehicle drive by on the heavily guarded American side of the beach. Looking at the barrier is “a reminder of how cruel laws can be with people,” she said.
Another childhood arrival featured on the mural, Rivera, spoke at the September screening. DACA did not come soon enough for him, either. He was deported in 2011, almost one year exactly before he would have been DACA-eligible. He sunk into a deep depression after deportation, having left his fiancée and his family in the U.S. “To me it was an honor and it was a privilege to be able to share my story, because I crossed illegally when I was 6 years old. And that was my only crime,” Rivera told the audience during a Q&A session. He encouraged the crowd to watch his “Humanizing Deportation” narrative. “You’re going to see that this is a dilemma, it’s an issue, that needs two solutions from two countries,” he proclaimed.
While she fights to see her daughter, Mendoza hopes her own face on the barrier makes some difference to others.
“I just hope that this can bring awareness to how much an immigrant can actually suffer,” she said, “and all the things that we go through for just trying to have a better life, a better living for our kids.”