Ariel Rodriguez is a freelance journalist living in Mexico City.
At 15, I arrived in the United States with a suitcase full of clothes, a picture of my golden retriever and the excitement of starting my new life. That was 10 years ago. Last month, the day after I graduated from college, I got on a nonstop flight that carried me and my new journalism degree away from the place I call home, back to a place my family and I once waved goodbye to. I am unsure I will be allowed to reenter.
The decision to leave for Mexico City was difficult. My family and I made it as a group. We began discussing it after President Trump was elected — based in no small part on his negative rhetoric about undocumented people. We also began hearing sad stories about people being apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, sometimes separating children who were full U.S. citizens from parents. Trump seemed to have little mercy for beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which I did not qualify for by a matter of days anyway. Ultimately, my parents and two older brothers agreed. We would leave the United States once I finished my education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
That education came at a high cost. Ninety percent of my income went toward tuition. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal financial aid. I found myself busing and waiting tables in small local restaurants where background checks were not a priority. After very full days, I would come home late at night to work on the homework due the next day. Despite the financial stress and workload, however, school was the only place I felt normal. I was treated just like an American there, even though English wasn't my native language. No one questioned whether I held a green card. I was rewarded for my hard work.
But this semester, while my classmates discussed employment offers and long-range career plans, I was researching safe routes to Mexico. I was reminded daily that I did not belong — reminded by the news, reminded by Trump supporters chanting about the wall, reminded by the president himself. Despite what I knew I could offer this country, despite knowing more American than Mexican history, despite my love for America, I felt unwanted.
Friends begged me not to leave. "You'll regret it," they said. They didn't seem to understand: There were no opportunities for me. My employment prospects were reduced to zero not by any lack of skills, but by the absence of a nine-digit number. Higher education in the United States is basically pointless for the undocumented. The only jobs available are those that ordinary Americans don't want: housekeeping, landscaping, field work. And so I decided to take my chances in Mexico, where no one will question my eligibility to work or use me as a scapegoat for economic problems. I would rather do what I love — what I am now trained to do — for relatively low wages than wipe tables for tips.
My parents, my two brothers and my beloved 9-year-old poodle drove off a week ahead of me. Not long after they crossed the border from the United States to Mexico, I walked across the Thomas and Mack Center stage with my classmates for winter commencement. Then I celebrated with my closest friends, and the next morning, I took a plane to reunite with family in a land we once abandoned. I showed them pictures of the landmark moment they could not be present for. We celebrated our first Christmas in a city where we have had to start from nothing.
I left behind great friends. I left behind most of my belongings. I left behind my illusions of ever becoming a U.S. citizen. I take with me the fond memories of the college that gave me my education. I carry no grudges. The way I see it, this loss is mutual: I lost the chance to have a life in America. America lost the chance to have me.