The Untold Story of Children Moving from the United States to Mexico

Our research on children migrating from the United States to Mexico began 25 years ago in the state of Georgia. There, we were observing the integration of Mexican-origin families and their children into local communities and school districts. As part of our fieldwork, we talked with school principals about these children. And they would often respond: “those students disappear.”

Where did these children go? Seven years later, we continued our research in schools in Mexico — and the “disappeared” children reappeared. Children who had lived in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, Ohio, Washington, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, Kentucky, New York, and Massachusetts were found in schools in Nuevo León in 2004; then many more in Zacatecas (2005), in the state of Puebla (2009), in Jalisco (2010), and in the state of Morelos (2013).

A significant percentage of these children were born in the United States. The rest were born in Mexico, migrated to the United States, and then returned while still school age. They are all international migrants. Many underwent an atypical relocation, from a historically migrant-receiving country (United States) to a traditionally migrant-sending country (Mexico). The others, those born in Mexico, are return migrants. The intercensal survey in Mexico in 2015 allowed us to estimate that there were 600,000 in the entire country.

One of the faces of this migration was Lulu, who we met in 2013 at a secondary school in the state of Morelos. She was born in Arkansas and had spent most of her childhood in San Diego, California. One day, Lulu’s parents gathered their four U.S.–born daughters in the living room of their San Diego apartment, and their mother said to them: “A few weeks ago, immigration authorities detained your uncle and will probably deport him. This could happen to your dad or me, what do you suggest?” The four sisters, without hesitation, replied: “Let’s go to Mexico.” And there they have been living for 10 years. Lulu’s older sister returned to California without any problem as a US citizen, but she did not adapt and preferred to return to Mexico. Lulu is now 23 years old and is thinking of working for some time in California, but without leaving Morelos completely. She speaks English as a native speaker.

We met 14-year-old Nanys in 2010 at a secondary school in the state of Puebla. She was born in California and had been enrolled in schools in Colorado. During the interview with her, conducted entirely in English, she recounted the undesirable life that the family led in California. When we asked her why they had decided to move from Colorado to Puebla, she replied: “Because my parents were, I don’t know, they weren’t okay with the lifestyle we were having there because we weren’t really a family anymore because there was too much work…So we, like, but didn’t see each other because we were at school, they were at work, we got home, we ate, so we weren’t really a family anymore.”

Cindy was not born in the United States but arrived in California as a baby and crossed the border without authorization. When she turned 12, her parents decided that the best thing for her was to move to Puebla to live with her grandparents. They wanted to prevent their daughter from suffering the consequences of being undocumented in the United States. She arrived alone at the airport in Puebla, speaking English as her first and dominant language, to meet her grandparents for the first time. After a month, Cindy’s father returned to Puebla, leaving his wife and two children born in California. He did not want to leave Cindy alone, a teenager proud of being bilingual.

Hundreds of thousands of children live experiences like those of Lulu, Nanys, and Cindy. Those born in the United States belong to the second generation of migrants, and those born in Mexico to the 1.5 generation. But once they are in Mexico, are they members of those generations? In the Mexican context, these categories no longer make sense.

Our inductive studies over these 25 years led us to define a new “0.5 generation.” The category contains two components. The first is zero, indicating that these children, once they arrive in Mexico, must start a new process of integration, accommodation, and socialization. The second is the “point five,” indicating that they are a generation of migrants in a gestational state. We do not know what these children, who were formed in two societies and have lived in two nation-states —many with full rights —will be like when they reach adulthood. Will they stay in Mexico? Will they return to the United States? How will they integrate into the United States? Will they decide to circulate in both countries, taking advantage of their binationality, developing their bilingualism and biculturalism?

Our new book The 0.5 Generation: Children Moving from the United States to Mexico addresses multiple dimensions of the 0.5 generation, including their geographical itineraries, the stories of their arrival in Mexico, the multiple senses of belonging they construct, their integration (or lack of integration) into schools in Mexico, their views on the present and the future. The book is a story of this unique generation of migrants.

Víctor Zúñiga is Professor of Sociology at the School of Law, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Mexico, and Emeritus Professor of Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Investigadores. He is coauthor of Les Sources de la Sociologie.