“Welcome back!” a cheerful government worker called out, taking down names and phone numbers.
Then the men, who had spent as many as 20 years in the United States before being caught and held in detention for several weeks, walked out into a Mexico many of them barely remember, where job opportunities are scarce and worries about the worst inflation in a decade await them.
In the wake of new enforcement policies announced by the Trump administration recently that dramatically expand the pool of undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation, Mexico is bracing for an influx of men and women like them. Their arrival — along with a surge of undocumented immigrants leaving the United States voluntarily — promises to transform Mexican society in the same way their departure did.
Since President Trump took office in January, the number of U.S. government flights landing in Mexico City loaded with deportees has jumped from two a week under President Barack Obama to three, Mexican officials said. The arrivals include convicted felons but also many without criminal records.
The numbers of immigrants deported from the United States waned in the final years of the Obama administration, which took steps to focus enforcement on hardened criminals and recent arrivals.
Trump, who made immigration enforcement a centerpiece of his campaign, has been clear that he views illegal immigrants as potential security threats and competitors to Americans for jobs. Last week, he told journalists at a private lunch that he might be open to a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a path to legal status for those who had not committed crimes.
But Trump did not mention such a plan in his remarks to a joint session of Congress, emphasizing his deportation initiatives instead.
About 500 deported Mexicans, including some who had been picked up when Obama was in office, are arriving here daily.
“Many of these people come not knowing how to speak Spanish,” said Amalia García, secretary of Mexico City’s labor department, which serves as a point of contact for the deportees. “They come feeling very bitter, very ashamed and very hurt.”
More returnees means lower wages for everybody in blue-collar industries such as construction and automobile manufacturing, where competition for jobs is likely to increase, economists say.
Moreover, the loss of remittances from the United States — Mexico’s second-largest source of revenue at roughly $25 billion last year — could have devastating effects, particularly in rural areas.
At the same time, though, there will be more English-speaking Mexicans entering the workforce who've honed their skills in the United States, a development that in the long run could position Mexico to be a stronger player in the global economy, analysts say.
“A lot of these people ran businesses in the U.S. and did well,” said Andrew Selee, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “In the same way that in the United States we saw a wave of Mexicans who became part of the American culture and changed it, we’re now seeing a wave of Mexicans moving back who are integrating American culture into Mexico.”
The Mexican government hopes to tap into that potential — and to diminish the likelihood that deportees will try their luck again across the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Trump administration plans to build a wall.
A federal program launched in 2014, called Somos Mexicanos (We’re Mexican), tries to help returning migrants find jobs, start businesses and deal with the emotional trauma many experience after leaving families in the United States.
Under the program, arriving deportees receive food, a medical checkup and bus fare to wherever they plan to live in Mexico. Local case managers then connect them to social services and job leads and, in some cases, help with moving their families back.
“The first thing that many have in mind is: ‘I want a job,’ ” said Gabriela García Acoltzi, director of the Somos Mexicanos program. “We help them identify other areas where they need assistance.”
But the government’s ability to provide such services to the tens of thousands of returning migrants expected in the coming years is uncertain.
The value of the Mexican peso plunged after Trump took office, prompting worries about the worst inflation in the country since the 2008 global recession. Those fears have heightened as the possibility looms of a trade war with the United States that would affect $1.5 billion in daily cross-border commerce.
Meanwhile, prices for tortillas, meat and other necessities have gone up in response to the federal government’s 20 percent hike in gasoline prices last month, hitting poorer Mexicans especially hard.
In dispensing government resources to the returnees, García cautioned, "the important thing is to be flexible in what they're requiring."
At the Mexico City airport, many passengers arrived in the same rumpled clothes they were wearing when U.S. immigration authorities grabbed them. Some wore gray detention center pants after serving time in jail.
Not liking their chances here, several of the men made a beeline toward a nearby bus terminal to find a way back to the border.
“The situation here doesn’t look good,” said Luis Enrique Castillo, 47, adding that he planned to return to his wife, four children and two grandchildren in Chicago, where he lived for 20 years.
Castillo said he was arrested when U.S. immigration officials knocked on his door looking for one of his sons, who had been scheduled for deportation. They didn’t find his son and, after checking his ID, picked him up instead.
José Armando López García, 50, is trying to make a life in Mexico after being deported about a year ago. He left a wife and five children in Las Vegas after a routine traffic stop revealed he was using a fake driver’s license.
López, a professional carpenter, received a $1,260 government grant through the Somos Mexicanos program that allowed him to start a contracting company out of the home he shares near the airport with his 92-year-old mother.
The money he makes is barely enough to live on, López said. And his depression deepens when he sees other children, who remind him of his own.
“I can’t imagine them living here,” López said, tears streaming down his cheeks. “There’s too much insecurity, and I don’t know how it would work with the schools.”
Jill Anderson, director of Otros Dreams en Acción (Other Dreams in Action), an advocacy group for former undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States, said many returning students face problems being admitted to Mexican public schools.
The system for transferring U.S. school credits into Mexican schools is rife with red tape, requiring translated transcripts and other proof, which can take more than a year, Anderson said.
Her group has backed legislation to speed up the process, which President Enrique Peña Nieto recently endorsed. But Anderson also noted the resistance here to doing too much to accommodate a population of returning compatriots who rub many the wrong way with their English and their more aggressive American manner.
“It really interrupts the economic and social norms of Mexico,” she said. “They speak English, and they’re asking for access to higher education and to employment in ways that their parents were not able to.”
When José Manuel Torres, 23, followed his deported father back from Georgia about five years ago, he was denied admission to Mexico City’s public university system because he lacked proof of graduating from his middle school outside Atlanta — despite having his high school diploma.
“I told them, ‘Dude, if I finished high school, isn’t it common sense that I went through middle school?’ ” said Torres, speaking in English with a Southern twang. “They said, ‘Yes, but this is the process.’ ”
Torres was hired by an international call center in Mexico City — a growing industry filled with younger English-speaking Mexicans who, as their parents did in the United States, tend to socialize in isolated communities where they resist speaking the language of their new home.
He left that job, though, and, through a family connection, found another job as a school orchestra stage manager at the public National Autonomous University of Mexico. This has allowed him to take classes in software engineering, his real interest.
“This place really beats you up,” Torres said about Mexico. “There are so many circumstances here that constantly keep hitting you, pulling you down, and you’ve got to keep driving through it, grinding and pulling.”
It’s that spirit — forged for many returning Mexicans during years of living illegally in the United States — that may ultimately benefit Mexico, said economist Luis de la Calle.
De la Calle predicted that, in the short term, average wages will drop as more qualified people enter the country to compete for scarce jobs. But the overall economy is likely to expand in the long run when those people start to succeed, he said.
“We suffered a cost as a nation by sending those hard workers to the U.S., in the sense that we lost a lot of talent,” de la Calle said. “When they come back to Mexico and they are properly trained, they will make more than a proportional contribution to Mexico.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the National Autonomous University of Mexico as private. It is a public institution.