ISLA, Mexico — The day the caravan swept into her hometown, Martha Virginia Aguirre grabbed an armful of leftover tamales from the Day of the Dead holiday and gave them all to the Central Americans camping out on her street.
She was thinking of her parents in Maryland, her aunts and cousins in California.
For years, Aguirre was a “dreamer,” an immigrant in the United States brought in illegally as a child. Her family moved to Maryland, but college back then was prohibitively expensive for students in the United States illegally. In 2011, her parents sent Aguirre and her older brother home to Mexico to finish high school and earn their degrees.
Less than a year later, President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which would have let them stay in the United States. Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has tried unsuccessfully to end DACA.
A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that Trump cannot immediately end the program that shields from deportation young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
Aguirre, now 20, has relearned Spanish, finished high school and enrolled in a private college in the city in the state of Veracruz. But she hasn’t hugged her parents for seven years — if they leave the United States without papers, they might not be able to get back in.
In Maryland, they work long hours at a seafood restaurant and send money home to cover Aguirre’s studies and rent. Her brother, Salvador, 23, finished high school and did not go to college; he is a bartender in Cabo San Lucas.
When she misses her parents, her father gives her pep talks over the phone.
“Don’t cry,” he tells her. “It’s going to be worth it.”
But in a small cottage outside Baltimore on Thursday, tears welled in her father’s eyes. He has not seen his mother since 1999. His father died in 2007.
He and his wife — who asked not to be identified, for fear of deportation — worked two jobs for years in the United States. She is 41 and has arthritis. He is 47, and his arms are scarred with long burns from cooking oil.
Though migration by Mexicans is declining, they remain the largest group of immigrants in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington research organization. Most have lived in the United States for nearly two decades, and many are here illegally.
Even before Trump was elected, more than 1 million returned home, and Aguirre says there is some relief in being away from an increasingly hostile environment. Trump characterized Mexicans as criminals during his campaign and vowed to build a wall at the Mexico’s expense.
“I know that I’m in my country. I know that I’m home,” she said in English. “I know that if I go outside, I don’t have to worry about someone coming and taking me away from my family.”
Trump has fired similar criticisms at the Central American migrants traveling through Mexico toward the United States. But Mexicans along the route would not have it. They showered them with gifts, clothes and food.
On Nov. 3 in Isla, as hundreds of migrants crammed into a community center and spilled onto the street, Aguirre’s grandmother Martha Ascanio Dominguez ordered Aguirre and her aunts to make them coffee and serve sweet bread and tamales left over from the Day of the Dead.
She let a long line of women use her shower and waved a hand at them when they offered to pay. She washed their clothes and dried them. They slept on her porch.
“I did it with all my heart,” Ascanio Dominguez said, noting that she hasn’t seen three of her eight children since they moved to the United States to work starting in the 1990s. “When I’ve felt sick, I have had such a longing for my children.”
The next day, Aguirre returned to her college town.
On her wall she has photos of a family trip to Lake Tahoe, from when they lived in California. She and her mother used to watch “The Polar Express” together every Christmas. Now they watch it over the phone, from their houses.
“It’s hard, because sometimes you want to come home and you want to find your mom or your dad,” she said.
“You know,” she said, starting to cry, “you never stop needing them, actually.”
In Maryland, her father said he wishes he could freely travel between both countries.
“I’ve always worked in this country,” he said with a deep sigh, noting that his original recipes have made it onto the restaurant menu where he works. “I’m very grateful to the United States.”
But he said he intends to be home for his daughter’s college graduation with a psychology degree, probably in 2020.
“That’s, like, his dream,” his daughter said.