Paternities at a distance: Discomforts of parents separated from their children

Paternidades a distancia: Malestares de padres separados de sus hijas e hijos tras la deportación

Eduardo Torre Cantalapiedraa
Maritza Rodríguez Gutiérrezb*

a Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad de México, Mexico, e-amil:

b El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, Tijuana, Mexico, e-mail:

* Corresponding author: Eduardo Torre Cantalapiedra e-mail

Received on October 3, 2018.
Accepted on February 25, 2019.
Published on February 28, 2019.

CITATION: Torre Cantalapiedra, E. y Rodríguez Gutiérrez, M. (2019). Paternidades a distancia: Malestares de padres separados de sus hijas e hijos tras la deportación [Paternities at a distance: Discomforts of parents separated from their children]. Estudios Fronterizos, 20, e023. doi:

The objective of this work is to detect and analyze the discomforts that parents experience when they are separated from their children after being deported. Based on five interviews of Mexican men deported from the United States to the border city of Tijuana, Baja California, we explored the discomforts that these men eventually experienced due to the physical separation of their children in relation to being parents and the mandates of providing and being emotional with them. Additionally, we reflect from a mainly theoretical perspective on the discomforts of men in fatherhood, especially in the case of paternities at a distance. The parents interviewed showed discomfort and other illnesses because they were not close to their children to provide them, take care of them, enjoy themselves and establish an affectionate relationship with them. The conclusions obtained, although preliminary, reveal directions for future investigations on paternity and deportation.
Keywords: parenthood, international migration, deportation, discomforts.

El objetivo de este trabajo es detectar y analizar los malestares que experimentan los padres al quedar separados de sus hijas/os tras ser deportados. Con base en cinco entrevistas a varones mexicanos deportados de Estados Unidos a la ciudad fronteriza de Tijuana, Baja California, exploramos los malestares que eventualmente experimentaron estos hombres por la separación física de sus hijas/os en relación con ser padres y con los mandatos de proveer y de ser afectivos con ellas/os. Adicionalmente, se reflexiona desde un plano principalmente teórico sobre los malestares de los hombres en la paternidad, especialmente, en el caso de las paternidades a distancia. Los padres entrevistados muestran malestares y otros padecimientos por no estar cerca de sus hijas/os para proveerles, cuidarles, disfrutar y establecer una relación de afecto con los mismos. Las conclusiones obtenidas, aunque preliminares, revelan rumbos para futuras investigaciones sobre paternidades y deportación.
Palabras clave: paternidades, migración internacional, deportación, malestares.

Original article language: Spanish.


Since the mid-1990s, there has been a surge in the number of formal deportations conducted by U.S. authorities, disproportionately affecting Mexican men who are United States residents (Dreby, 2012; Hagan, Eschbach & Rodríguez, 2008; Golash-Boza & Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2013). These deportations have resulted in a significant increase in family separations in a spatial sense,2 each year distancing tens of thousands of fathers3 from Mexico, Central America and other countries, from their wives and children ―who remain in U.S. territory― and causing a large number of men to experience long distance paternity, at least temporarily.

The CEPAL has defined paternity as the relationship that men establish with their children within the framework of a complex practice in which social and cultural factors are involved, which furthermore, change throughout the life cycle of both the father and children (Ugalde, 2002, p. 5).

The literature regarding migration and paternity has addressed the establishment and maintenance of this father-child bond through different practices in the event of a temporary separation of the father from his offspring that might become permanent, labeling these paternities “long distance”.

Many of the men deported are fathers who have been exposed to different forms of parenting both in a diachronic sense ―due to the important changes produced by paternities and masculinities in recent decades― and in a synchronic sense ―the multiple ways of being fathers that exist in Mexico (more traditional roles) and in the United States (more modern roles). Therefore, these men face long distance paternities following deportation in many different ways.

Both long distance paternity and maternity have been studied mainly in relation to diverse voluntary migratory processes, in which migrants have a certain degree of agency in mobility decision making, which translates into the configuration of transnational families (Dreby, 2006; Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997; Parrella, 2007; Salazar, 2001, 2008; Zapata, 2009). However, there have been few studies addressing what occurs with paternities or maternities when the distancing of the father or mother is produced through forced migration, as is the case with deportation.4 Additionally, these studies have reflected mothers’ suffering due to separation and distance from their children but not in the same way as fathers, who due to their gender are considered to be better situated than their partners in homologous circumstances and to enjoy a certain immunity from the pain caused by separation from their children.

The objective of this study is to detect and analyze the discomforts that fathers experience when separated from their children following deportation.

We draw upon the conception of discomfort presented by Tena and Jiménez (2014, p. 334), who stated:

He who suffers discomfort expresses a feeling of uneasiness or irritation given his way of being, space, situation and social condition; but this feeling is undefinable; that is, it is unclear both as a feeling and in its magnitude and determinations. In this sense, perhaps discomforts cannot be considered pain or disgust when one is confronted with a condition that is clearly identified in space and time and even indicates the possibility that he who suffers said discomfort finds it difficult to describe it but, nonetheless, expresses a certain degree of discomfort in response to certain events.

To achieve the proposed objective, this article is divided into three sections. First, the rise in the phenomenon of long-distance paternities following deportation is situated in its historical context, the height of U.S. immigration policies of control and deportation that have centered particularly on Mexican men, many of whom are fathers whose families remain in the United States. Second, in an eminently theoretical way, we reflect upon the ways of being a father ―in the sense of a social practice that goes beyond a merely biological function― and the mandates derived from the dominant paternal models ―both traditional and alternative or new― which can generate discomforts in men, especially in the cases of those who must experience long distance paternity. Third, based upon five in-depth interviews with Mexican men deported by the United States to the border city of Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, and thus separated from their children, we explore the discomforts that these men eventually experienced as a result of this separation in relation to being fathers and the paternal mandates of providing for and being affectionate with one's children. The conclusions that we draw, while preliminary, reveal paths for future research on paternities and deportation, and we present them as final reflections.

Male deportation and family separation

Deportation is a disciplinary instrument that leads certain populations to be labeled as “deportable” ―migrants who are considered “undesirable”― despite their connections and affective ties with the host society (Peutz & De Genova, 2010). According to various authors, the reason for subjecting these migrants to a potential process of deportation is the generation of inexpensive and obedient labor that can be employed ―exploited― when needed (De Genova, 2002). Similarly, it is paramount to examine who is selected for deportation and the effects that this process has on their lives.

Public information regarding the characteristics of undocumented immigrants deported by the United States reveals the selectiveness of this process that focuses on the male Mexican population. According to data in Simanski and Sapp (2013), in 2012, 89.3% of formal deportation events corresponded to men. Similarly, according to official statistics, a very high percentage of these men were Mexican. In 2015, 72% of formal deportation events corresponded to migrants from Mexico (242 456 events; data from the United States Department of Homeland Security, 2016).5

This reality has been taking shape for years. In 1986, the reform of migration laws entailed the transformation of Mexican migratory patterns to the United States. Migration went from being masculine and temporary to being a family enterprise tending toward permanence in the target country (Massey, Pren & Durand, 2009; Torre Cantalapiedra & Giorguli, 2015). This new migratory scene has translated into family separation, with thousands of Mexican men deported and separated from their wives and children, some of whom were U.S. citizens.6

By 2016, approximately one out of every ten Mexicans deported (11.2%), the great majority of whom were male, stated that they had children who were minors in the United States (Calva & Alarcón, 2018). Therefore, these fathers separated from their children have strong motivations to undertake new journeys to the United States: family reunification7. To achieve this goal, they will employ diverse strategies, both legal means of entry and clandestine crossings (Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.).

Mariscal Nava and Torre Cantalapiedra (2018) reported that anti-immigrant policies at different levels of the United States government ─border militarization, the criminalization of re-entry, restrictions in the U.S. labor market, the rise of deportations, among others─ together with the elevated costs and risks of clandestine crossing, constitute important incentives for deported Mexican immigrants to choose or be forced to remain in Mexico. The results of Rodríguez Gutiérrez and Torre Cantalapiedra (n.d.) showed that the hardening of migratory policies of control in the United States has provoked an increase in the time that deported migrants remain separated from their families. This outcome is also the case for migrants whose intention it is to cross the border on an undocumented basis and who, due to the high cost of crossing ─the fees of coyotes─ must remain in Mexico for as long as it takes to gather the economic resources needed to fund a new excursion.

Given the difficulties involved in achieving reunification in the United States, many deported immigrants, including fathers, employ the strategy of establishing themselves in Tijuana to maintain “closeness” and ties with their families, allowing for and facilitating visits from family members residing in the United States (París-Pombo & Peláez-Rodríguez, 2015; Rodríguez Gutiérrez, 2016; Ruiz, 2014; Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.).

Therefore, in addition to considering the phenomena of family separation, transnational families and long-distance paternities following voluntary migration, it should be considered that these three phenomena are also the results of deportation. The forces of globalization and other related forces are not the only ones contributing to the increase in the number of families that “inhabit” the transnational space. Rather, paradoxically, states also contribute to this growth.

Paternity, migration and discomforts

New versus traditional models: Mandates of paternities and discomforts

Moving beyond definitions, to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of paternity, it is necessary to draw from a series of points that bring us closer to its multiple aspects:

First, paternity, like maternity, is socially constructed (Olavarría, 2001). Here, we must speak of “paternities” more than “paternity”, given that there are multiple ways in which men relate to their children. These ways of relating have changed over time and present important differences, both across societies and within them (Bonino, 2003; De Keijzer, 1998; Gutmann, 1998). In an analytical sense, we can speak of paternity models or referents to the extent that these forms of parent-child relations have meaning and serve to guide men in their role as fathers.

Second, important mutual implications exist between masculinities and paternities: a) fathers understand their paternities from their gender conditions, which occupy a significant place according to the mandates of hegemonic masculinity (drawing from the concept used by Connell, 2003);8 b) a basic mandate of masculinity in adult life, perhaps the most important, is having children and being a father; and c) the mandates of masculinity are redefined from the moment at which men become fathers, a fundamental event in the personal construction of masculine identity.

Third, each man experiences his paternity in a different way, adopting or having imposed upon him certain models of how to “be a father”, and he exercises his paternity in a certain way, all of which changes throughout life. Fundamental to this process of constructing one's paternity is the paternal figure as a reference that can be reproduced to a certain degree, as well as rejected. The impact that paternity has on a man begins even before he has children,9 and after he has them, it continues until his death.

According to the vast body of literature on paternities in Latin America, both the referents and the content and practices have changed substantially over recent decades. In this sense, it is emphasized that traditional fathers10 are being replaced by “new fathers” (Bonino, 2003). This process of change promises progress in parent-child relations, but it is not without its challenges for men:

The new generations of fathers who now recreate the paradox of attempting to reevaluate the traditional model of paternity and give way to a paternity based on a rational exercising of authority that generates more pleasant family relations are free of the weight of outdated norms that create distance between members of the family circle, instead of a closeness based upon affection and respect for others (Montesinos, 2004, p. 198).

For the analysis of these processes of change, various authors generate father typologies, whereas, in this study, we consider it more useful to adopt the following analytical proposals. First, we understand paternities in terms of mandates. According to Rebolledo (2008), the emerging forms of exercising paternity can be understood in relation to the changes that they make to the mandates of traditional paternity: from those that make small changes to these mandates to those that appear radically opposed to them, including those that seek to renovate declining patriarchal power. Second, we consider that the transformations of paternities are interwoven with changes in masculine identities and gender relations (De Keijzer, 1998; Figueroa & Franzoni, 2011; Montesinos, 2004).

Regarding the configuration of current paternity models, following the line of changes introduced to traditional models, two relevant changes should be noted: a) the fall of authoritarianism ─not the positive aspects of paternal authority─ and the greater prominence of aspects such as the father's active role in child raising and the affective-emotional bond between fathers and children; and b) the role of the provider being maintained but in a different form.

Faced with the traditional paternal figure, which is now being questioned, the exercising of paternity by “new fathers” entails that they participate more in child raising and that the affective-emotional bond of fathers with their children be strengthened in particular (Bonino, 2003; Montesinos, 2004). Thus, in a paternity guide for fathers, it is noted that:

Being an active father and taking care of your child means:

As can be observed, what is proposed and promoted is a paternity in which the affective father-child bond and participation in child raising and caretaking tasks are vital. However, we concur with Rebolledo (2008) that the emergence of new ways of understanding paternity do not displace all of the elements of traditional paternity. According to this author, our current understanding of paternity is characterized by a mix of traditional and modern elements. The role of provider no longer occupies the central place that it held in the more traditional views of paternities. However. this change does not mean that this role disappears as a fundamental mandate of paternities, both in discourse and practice.

In any case, changes in paternities are synonymous with men “being involved in practically all activities, from providing economically to housekeeping and childcare. On occasion, this role generates some difficulties, discomforts and even complaints in men” [author's emphasis] (Salguero, Córdoba & Sapién, 2014, p. 458-459).

Following the argument of these authors, we believe that it is essential to consider the discomforts that fathers suffer. Many times, these discomforts remain hidden due to men’s gender condition in two senses. First, as men, fathers should be strong and control their emotions, as well as negate, or at least conceal, pain and loss, among other things.

The construction of masculinity does not only entail the generation of representations and practices but also of a series of pressures and limits as regards certain manifestations of emotion, principally all those related to fear, sadness and frequently, even tenderness (De Keijzer, 2003, p. 6).

Second, from the perspective of patriarchal power and privilege, masculinity has been constructed as the opposite of vulnerability. Thus, there have been few studies considering men's suffering.

We must consider that “the subjective recognition of a discomfort requires identifying that there is a conflict between the social ‘ought to be’ (deber ser) and the individual ‘desire to be’ (querer ser), which is not always recognized by them” (Tena & Jiménez, 2014, p. 335). The co-existence of various paternity models that can and actually become the normative referents of many fathers for how to be “a good father”, closely tied to what it means to “be a man”, can be and are sources of contradiction, confusion and conflicts. Indeed, the presence of various referents and the prescriptive nature of these assume the existence of a series of sometimes contradictory mandates with which men should comply. In the event that they do not, discomforts can present themselves in the very subjectivities of these men and in their relations with other women and men.

As we will see, exercising long-distance paternities following deportation is an enormous challenge for fathers who experience this situation, and it can lead to discomforts in men or even seriously affect their mental health.

Long distance paternities, mandates and discomforts

As noted above, long-distance paternities and maternities arise as the result of voluntary and involuntary migratory processes. Studies regarding long-distance paternities conducted in different geographies of origin and destinations have addressed cases in which families had a certain degree of agency in the mobility of their members. These studies analyzed how paternal bonds are recreated despite spatial separation and that family members are on both sides of an international border. The majority of these studies have prioritized analysis regarding the generation and maintenance of the affective-emotional bond between fathers and children, but they have also analyzed the provider role and the financial remittances that fathers send.

Zapata (2009) emphasized that Colombian fathers and mothers develop strategies for maintaining affective ties with their children despite distance, ensuring their emotional presence, even if it is from a distance. Fathers and mothers use social remittances to this end (phone calls, contact via the internet, etc.) and monetary remittances to soften the changes produced by their absence (Zapata, 2009).

In the case of the Philippines, Salazar (2008) confirmed that Filipino transnational fathers, with their migration, reproduce and reinforce traditional paternal roles in that country, being an authority, imposing discipline on their children and fulfilling the provider role (as pillars of their homes). However, she also highlighted the existence of an emotional gap between Filipino fathers and their children (based upon interviews with the latter). This emotional gap exists insofar as the children feel a discomfort and uneasiness in relation to their migrant fathers. Similarly, this gap refers to the difficulty with which children are able to openly communicate with their fathers.

In the case of Mexico, migration for economic reasons has allowed Mexican men (of different origins and social classes) to reinforce ─recover in many cases─ their roles as providers by fulfilling the mandates of hegemonic masculinity and paternity (Dreby, 2006; Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997; Rosas, 2007). According to Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila (1997), when men arrive in the north (United States) and leave their families in Mexico, they do so ─as they did in the past─ to fulfill their family obligations as providers. Furthermore, fathers have been able to postpone their closeness to their children without feeling hurt or blameworthy as a result (Bonino, 2003). In contrast, migrant women must bear the stigma ─they are accused of abandoning their children, among other things─ and the blame and criticism of others when they leave their families behind (Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997).

Dreby (2006) analyzed and compared the way in which Mexican mothers and fathers in the United States live apart from their children. First, she pointed out the similarities between the two. Both mothers and fathers use telephone calls to manage relations with their children, and they provide economic support and gifts to their children through remittances. However, in relation to the provider role that Mexico attributes to men, Dreby (2006) found that fathers who are successful in fulfilling this role are those who tend to maintain stable and regular relations of contact with their children, regardless of their marital situation. Conversely, relations between mothers and children are determined more by the mother's ability to show emotional intimacy from a distance, independent of her role as provider.

París-Pombo and Peláez-Rodríguez (2015), Peláez-Rodríguez and París-Pombo (2016) and Peláez Rodríguez (2016), despite do not including the experiences of men, provided useful findings regarding the experiences of Mexican mothers deported to Tijuana who remained separated from their children. These authors found that the women that they interviewed experienced deportation with feelings of deep sadness and pain regarding the distancing from their children. Furthermore, it was not possible for them to resignify their maternities by sending remittances ─something that Mexican mothers who migrate to seek better living conditions for their children can achieve.

Thus, these studies addressed in detail questions that can be understood as the correlates of two fundamental mandates of the new fathers: that of providing ─a necessary condition but not sufficient to be “good fathers”─ and, especially, the mandate of establishing and maintaining an optimal affective-emotional relationship with their children. We consider that both being a long distance father and failing to fulfill these two mandates can provoke discomforts in men when contradictions and conflicts arise among the exercising of the desired paternity, the paternity that is actually practiced (which, in many occasions, is molded by structural factors over which the father in question has no control; in this case, separation following deportation), and the demands of the dominant paternity models’ mandates.

Although the literature on long-distance paternity has not sought to specifically analyze the discomforts that fathers experience in relation to this phenomenon, based upon these studies, we can offer some reflections. Salazar (2008) acknowledged the discomfort that children suffer in long-distance relationships with their fathers. The existence of the emotional gap testifies to this effect. In the same way, we can expect that some fathers also suffer when they are not able to maintain close affective-emotional relationships with their children. The emotional distancing or the rupture of the father-child affective bond that Dreby (2006) found can be the result of the discomforts generated in fathers by failure to fulfill the mandate to provide. These effects have been analyzed in diverse circumstances as a source of conflict for men (Jiménez & Tena, 2007; Torre Cantalapiedra & Rodríguez de Jesús, 2018). For its part, the study by Peláez-Rodríguez and París-Pombo (2016) explicitly addressed the suffering experienced by deported women when separated from their children due to distancing and the difficulty or impossibility of finding certain relief through providing.

In the case of long-distance paternities following deportation, it is possible that discomforts come into play that are similar to those that occur when the separation is voluntary. However, we consider that in the former case, there are elements that can worsen the discomforts that fathers experience.

a) The family has not voluntarily decided to separate. In this case, family separation occurs by force and unexpectedly and is not subject to discussion within the family (Peláez-Rodríguez & París-Pombo, 2016). b) When separation is not voluntary, the family might not be prepared for it, which can cause the psychological integrity of family members to be more easily affected. c) There are greater obstacles to family visits (sometimes becoming impossible). For example, the prohibition of re-entry involved in many deportation processes can have important dissuasive effects. d) They imply longer-lasting separations that can become permanent (Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.). e) Fulfilling the role of provider is more complex in societies of origin in which salaries are lower and unemployment rates are higher.

Exploratory analysis of the discomforts of deported fathers who remain separated from their children

Before we begin with the analysis of discomforts, we present below how the interviews were conducted and the characteristics of the men interviewed and their families. In this section, we analyze the discomforts present due to separation from children based upon five semi-structured interviews conducted with Mexican men deported by U.S. authorities.11 In the interviews, the men were asked about their migratory experiences and family histories before and following deportation, as well as about their future migratory and family projects.

Insofar as they were not expressly considered, findings regarding men's discomforts in their experiences of long-distance paternities can be qualified as fortuitous. We might say that the question of discomforts arose in the conversations as a result of the generation of empathy and trust between the interviewer and interviewee, given that the interviews were presented as relaxed conversations. In this manner, the question-answer dynamic of questionnaires was avoided, and the conversations were the result of the interviewed men's need to express feelings that they might repress with families and friends but that are “confessable” before strangers. Often, to capture these emotions, it is necessary to “read between the lines”.

The principle advantage of this way of exploring discomforts is that it is free of the bias generated by responses induced by topics of interest to the researcher. In contrast, one disadvantage is that the qualitative data obtained in this way do not allow us to examine all of the aspects of interest in each case. In short, we believe that the empirical data used are of great interest for a preliminary analysis such as that presented here.

The socio-demographic characteristics of the men interviewed and the families who remain in the United States favor the exploratory objectives of this study. The selection of the interview subjects included fathers who remained separated from their families (wife, ex-wife and children) following deportation and who had lived in the United States for at least 18 years. Table 1 shows selected characteristics of the men interviewed and their families at the time of the last deportation (some of the men interviewed had suffered more than one deportation).

Table 1 Selected characteristics of the five men interviewed and their families12
Father's age at the time of the last deportation Legal status at the time of the last deportation Time of residence in the United States Time of residence in Mexico at the time of the last deportation Daughters and sons Children's ages at the time of the last deportation
Fernando 20 years Undocumented immigrant 18 years 2 weeks Pregnant wife Non-applicable
Josué 32 years Undocumented immigrant 25 years 7 years Daughter 3 years
Antonio 36 years Undocumented immigrant 21 years 4 years Son 14 years
Daughter 13 years
Daughter 12 years
Daughter 8 years
Daughter 5 years
Samuel 37 years Legal permanent resident 31 years 14 years Son 13 years
Son 7 years
Daughter 6 years
Daughter (deceased) Non-applicable
Diego 57 years Undocumented immigrant 51 years 3 years Daughter 33 years
Son 35 years
Step-daughter 31 years
Source: Prepared by the authors based upon interviews conducted in 2016 and 2017.

The five families of the men interviewed had mixed migratory statuses. All of them had at least one child who had been born in the United States (or in one case, they were awaiting the birth of their first child), and the father at least was an undocumented immigrant or legal permanent resident (a status that he lost following his first deportation). The interviewees were deported between 2002 and 2017, which were boom years for anti-immigrant policies of migratory control and deportation (Torre Cantalapiedra, 2018; Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.).

The five migrants were deported at ages ranging from 20 to 57 years old, having lived in the United States for 18 to 50 years, indicating strong ties to that country. Preceding their deportations, four of them lived in the state of California and one of them in Illinois, indicating that our interview subjects have been in contact with a great diversity of forms of paternity, the prevailing referents in U.S. society and the referents in Mexican society. The latter referents are, in principle, more traditional, and in some cases, the interview subjects' contact with them occurred exclusively through their Mexican fathers.

The beginning of paternity

Fernando is a 20-year-old man who had lived almost his entire life (18 years) in the United States when he was deported by U.S. authorities on charges that were exclusively related to his undocumented migratory status. At the time of his deportation, his wife, a U.S. citizen, was seven months pregnant with his first daughter. On one occasion only, she visited him in Tijuana, where he decided to live. However, she could not visit him frequently due to the economic cost that these visits entailed. There are various discomforts that result from this situation in relation to the paternity that Fernando wants to exercise and the long-distance paternity that he will be “forced” to exercise.

First, Fernando wanted to witness his daughter's birth, but he assumes that this opportunity will be lost. Given that his wife will have his daughter in the United States, and family reunification in Mexico is excluded, the remaining options, both the legal and clandestine ones, would not have caused him to return to U.S territory before his wife gave birth. Reunifications in the United States, when attempted through legal means, are generally very slow and filled with uncertainties, whereas the “undocumented ways”, while relatively fast, require economic resources to pay for the services of coyotes. Furthermore, these clandestine forms can incur damaging consequences in the future (for example, deprivation of liberty) (Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.).

Second, Fernando wants to be near his daughter in the United States to care for her, due both to the values inculcated in him by his father (being responsible for one's progeny) and to his own life experience, which made it undesirable to not be with his wife and daughter at this time:

What's important to me is to be with my wife and daughter because I was alone for so long. My parents went to Fresno when I was 17 years old. I was alone for so long. You need your mother or father. I had to figure out a way to pay the rent, pay for food, and I feel like it is my responsibility [… ] to take care of my wife and daughter. I'm not saying that she can't work after she has my daughter; she can… she can because she is strong. But I don't want her to. My father taught me that if you are going to have a child, you take responsibility for him/her because there is no way that it is the children's fault. So what I want is to take care of my daughter (Fernando, 2017 [20 years old, worker in a call center]).

As we can see, Fernando understands his role as a father and man in a traditional sense, given that he does not want his wife to work and prefers to be the provider, an essential mandate of hegemonic masculinity (Rosas, 2007; Torre Cantalapiedra & Rodríguez de Jesús, 2018). With his salary as a worker in a call center, it would be very difficult for him to cover the living expenses of a newborn daughter and wife in the United States. The need to exercise the paternal role in this sense leads him to propose undocumented crossing and to disregard the advice of his aunt concerning what he should do to return to U.S. territory:

I know that, if I can't see her being born, it's okay, but I want to be in her life. My aunt says… they deported me for five years -and she says, “Stay there for five years, then seek a pardon and have your wife petition for you, and you come back with a visa” (Fernando, 2017).

Psychological discomforts, affective-emotional bonds and losses

After living for a quarter of a century in the United States, Josué was deported at the age of 32, which translated into a family separation that led to marital dissolution. The combination of the physical separation and the breaking of the marital bond were detrimental for this father's relationship with his three-year-old daughter. The father-child bond is not extinguished with dissolution. Ugalde (2002) pointed out that these bonds are “direct” and “independent” from the arrangements made between parents. However, in fact, marital dissolution can lead to the obstruction and elimination of the paternal role (Zicavo & Fuentealba, 2012). In this case, both parents have even viewed the family separation following deportation as positive:

Ahh, my ex[wife], she was already because we had some problems; she was like, relieved? Happy? Not happy, relieved, I think that she didn't have problems with me, so not so much because now we are separated, but also she probably felt relieved, maybe, I think so, she even told me, “the electricity bill is lower now” [he laughs] but maybe she was relieved because we did have, we had some issues [… ] and she also told me at the time that she didn't want to be with me anymore, so… (Josué, 2016 [39 years, activist]).

Similarly, despite the distance and the end of the parent's relationship, Josué's ex-wife visited him with his daughter relatively often ─“sometimes twice a month; other times once every two months”─ and both partners have maintained a cordial relationship. She wants him to be a part of their daughter's life, which does not mean that there are no discomforts. When asked about his intentions for family reunification with his daughter in the United States, Josué “confesses” that he feels guilty for not having considered the undocumented way of attempting family reunification to be with his daughter. He believes that he has lost the opportunity to establish a closer affective relationship with her:

… sometimes I feel guilty because so many people have already gone. I said to myself, “I would have been there already” [… ] a lot was lost in the relationship, time, my daughter is older. The best times are when they are small and well; they remember their father, they remember this, that and the other… (Josué, 2016).

Samuel spent more than three decades in the United States. Deportation separated him from his three sons -with two different partners, relationships that dissolved and ended in conflict- when they were children or in early adolescence (13, 7 and 6 years old at the moment of deportation). His migratory experience in the United States was marked by alcohol abuse, which lead to imprisonment, deportation and prohibition for life of his re-entry to the United States. The situation of his family's separation generated a considerable amount of emotional discomfort including depression, due to which he did not wish to get in touch with any of his three sons for a time:

Emotionally, I did not know what to say to them, or I was really depressed or drinking to get rid of this pain that… I thought, ‘well, it's as if I were... as if I were a soldier’, ‘How could I have… this government can separate me from my family?’ So I said, ‘I did my time. What am I going to say to my children?’ Or… it's like… time passes, time passes you by because you think, ‘it's as if I were in another world’… and you care, but you don't care… and you can't do anything, and each time you come close to the wall, fucking wall, it seems to be growing… it grows a foot… I hate to go there, close to the Wall… it gives you a feeling… you understand me? and sometimes I think, ‘God, why don't you send a rain of fire just from the wall to over there?’ [he laughs]… (Samuel, 2016 [52 years old, unemployed]).

Although with the passing of the years, Samuel has overcome this situation and recovered a certain degree of communication with his children, the analysis of his experience of family separation following a deportation sine die can be considered from the perspective of the concept of “ambiguous loss”. According to Falicov (2002, par. 10), whose argument followed that of Pauline Boss, ambiguous loss occurs in migration when “people and places are physically absent, and at the same time, are acutely present in the immigrant's mind”. Compared to the loss of a family member due to death, which is certain and has rituals for overcoming it, the loss of a close paternity and of the affective-emotional bond is ambiguous and indefinite insofar as a future reunification in Mexico or the United States can always be considered, although in some cases, it is highly improbable. Furthermore, it lacks standardized rituals for overcoming it.

As noted by Falicov (2002), migrants’ visits to see their family members help to render the loss more bearable. In this case, the visits that Samuel's oldest child makes to Mexico and the contact with his other two sons through telephone calls and the internet help him to cope with the situation.

Samuel interrupted the interview to share some verses. Upon analyzing them, we can see that they contain elements of reflection regarding his own experience and express his own emotions. Are these written lines a form of catharsis and of grappling with an ambiguous loss?

The heart of mine

My mind is strong, because all the struggles I had in my life
I’m not weak anymore
You can’t hurt me, because I have control
Y dominio propio sobre mis emociones
Yes, I know my children are long gone,
No contact, can’t see them
Don’t care anymore, they’re gone alive
And distance it’s a difference
So long, four or five, was that a long time?
Can’t remember, don’t care anymore
Still love them, but can’t touch anymore
Heart I had, it sure covers it
(Samuel, 2016 [fragment of poem]).

These verses reveal some contradictions that are important to analyze. First, the mandates of hegemonic masculinity demand that men have control over their emotions and that they not express them. Thus, he expresses the importance of affirming invulnerability, control and mastery of his emotions -“You can’t hurt me, because I have control / And mastery of my emotions”- which were left unbridled following deportation when he was still weak, which he no longer is: “I’m not weak anymore”. Further, he negates that he cares about the distance, not seeing his sons, and the time and impossibility of physical contact with them “No contact, can’t see them / Don’t care anymore, they’re gone alive / And distance it’s a difference / So long, four or five, was that a long time? / Can’t remember, don’t care anymore”. However, at the same time, we can see the recognition of his emotions and sentiments such as his love for his sons and self-compassion: “Still love them, but can’t touch anymore”. Second, he recognizes that his sons have left: “Yes, I know my children are long gone”, but that they have gone alive: “they’re gone alive”. This line could be a confirmation that something has been lost but not entirely, a type of acceptance of an ambiguous loss.

Coping with long distance paternity following deportation

One of the fathers whom we interviewed coped with deportation by being resigned, on the one hand, and accepting it, on the other hand. In this sense, the way in which fathers handle their paternity when separated from their children following deportation is not much different from how it is handled when families are separated due to migration.

Antonio had been living in the United States for more than two decades when a simple traffic stop led to his deportation and his separation from his wife and five children (all younger than 14 years old at the time of deportation). Both parents agree that reunification in Mexico is a worse option than family separation:

She doesn't want to come here, and I don't want her to come here either... because, well... the... my children, right? My children, she doesn't want to make them uncomfortable, and there are five of them... that is, I'm going to make them uncomfortable so that I can be comfortable? No, it wouldn't be fair [… ] I wouldn't want to bring them here because, first of all, they are not from here, they don't speak the language, they aren't used to [Mexico], and they would come here to; I can make them Mexicans. You see? But they would be entering as illegal [immigrants]; that is, they wouldn't be in their country anymore, so it's better that they are there… (Antonio, 2016 [36 years, works in an auto mechanic shop]).

Both the wife and children are United States citizens and therefore can cross the border without problems. As occurs with many migrants, they visit their father during their summer and winter vacations. As we can see, it is a similar situation to that of long-distance paternities due to migration, except that, in this case, it is his wife and children who travel to Mexico to be reunited with him during the holidays. Similarly. Antonio maintains communication with his family through telephone calls and video calls.

Long distance paternity in older adults with adult children

Diego was deported for the second time at the age of 57, after having lived for half a century in the United States. He left behind his daughter, son and step-daughter from two marriages of more than thirty years combined, in addition to nine grandchildren. The relationship with his second wife ended after deportation because she does not intend to return to Mexico.

She blocked me on Facebook, everything, she didn't want to have anything to do with me, and she sent me a message and said, ‘I hope that everything goes well for you, I want the best for you, if you return… we can get back together, I will always love you, but well, now I need you to be here, and you aren't, and I have to move forward (Diego, 2016 [57 years, worker in a call center]).

At no time did Diego feel the compelling need to return to be with his family in the United States or the discomforts and problems that were observed in the rest of the cases in relation to the exercising of paternity. This difference might occur because Diego’s way of understanding paternity implies that when a man's children are grown, and it is no longer necessary for him to fulfill the role of provider, it is not necessary for him to have such regular and affectionate contact with his progeny. At any rate, he has managed to maintain affective bonds with his daughter, step-daughter and son through telephone calls.

Final reflections

Mothers and children are not the only ones who suffer as a result of deportation. Men suffer as well. Upon addressing issues of a personal nature, such as the affective relationship between fathers and children, with men who remained separated from their families following a deportation, expressions regarding the discomforts that this situation brings to their lives arose spontaneously.

The men interviewed expressed various discomforts in relation to paternity and its mandates. Particularly when the children are young, fathers feel discomforts because they are not near them to provide for them, care for them, enjoy them and establish affectionate relationships with them. Some of the men interviewed appear to cope with the situation of family separation in a relatively simple way, possibly because it is in their nature to handle social pressures pertaining to their role as fathers in this way and possibly due to how they understood their paternity at the time of their deportation. Similarly, in the case of Antonio and the other men interviewed, maintaining communication and regular visits in Mexico from their families help them to bear the situation of separation.

Although the concept of discomfort has proved useful for examining a part of men's suffering, “finely threaded”, and for seeking that which might remain hidden given hegemonic masculinity's mandate to repress emotions, it is not sufficient to analyze the cases of the fathers interviewed because the experience of being a long-distance father due to deportation causes traumatic situations that cause suffering and illness beyond the sphere of discomforts. Therefore, future analyses should adopt concepts that analyze these problems endured by deported fathers who are separated from their children. Thus, for example, the psychological discomforts that these men endure, which are related to their long-distance paternity and which can constitute serious mental health problems, could be analyzed as losses experienced in diverse manners.

Similarly, men are increasingly able to express their emotions without encapsulating them or hiding them in softer or euphemistic concepts. Despite clichés, Samuel showed that separation from children after deportation can have consequences that are as emotionally heartrending for men as they are for women. Future studies could analyze, in a broader sense than in this study, the different emotions that men experience in processes such as family separation after deportation.

The great difficulties that arise upon attempting to return to U.S. territory subordinate the possibility of having face-to-face contact with their children to that of receiving visits from them in Mexico. Similarly, in the case of young children, visits depend upon the decisions of their wives and ex-wives. In the case of deported migrants who are prohibited for life from re-entering U.S. territory, distance from their children acquires a terrible meaning that is rarely produced when migration is voluntary.

It can be observed that family separation following the father's deportation produces marital situations that range from conflict to the very opposite of conflict. Future studies could examine in greater depth the connections between family separations and marital dissolutions and how these factors, considered together, impact the exercising of paternity and the development of discomforts.

The ages of fathers and children and generational factors are associated with certain ways of understanding and exercising paternities. They are also related to the different social demands placed upon fathers, which are relevant to our understanding of the discomforts experienced by deported migrants. For example, the difference in age between Fernando (20) and Diego (57) and that of their children at the time of deportation inform us about moments of paternity that often have completely different meanings. Similarly, Fernando belongs to a generation that demands the integral involvement of fathers. Although these associations should not be understood in a deterministic sense, the design of future studies regarding long-distance paternities could benefit by considering these associations.

Finally, future studies should provide a more in-depth perspective on what it means when long-distance paternities occur as the result of deportation and not as the consequence of voluntary migrations decided upon by families.


The author thanks Juan Guillermo Figueroa Perea and Dulce María Mariscal Nava for their reading and comments on a previous version of this work. Acknowledgment that we extend to the work of anonymous reviewers.


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1 Post-doctoral Scholarship Program at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, scholarship student at the Legal Research Institute [Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas], advised by Dr. Enrique Mauricio Padrón Innamorato.

2 With “family separation”, or simply separation, we are referring to the state of physical separation in which members of the nuclear family find themselves on both sides of an international border, preventing them from or making it extremely difficult for them to maintain face-to-face contact. In contrast, with “being together”, we are referring to co-residency ―living under the same roof― or to the physical separation of family members that does not prevent them from meeting in a relatively simple way and frequently to interact face to face, without having to overcome administrative barriers or high economic costs. Therefore, for the purposes of this study, the dissolution of partnership ―for example, due to divorce― and the non co-residency of parents do not necessarily constitute family separation (Rodríguez Gutiérrez & Torre Cantalapiedra, n.d.).

3 In this study, we use the terms “father” and “paternities” to refer exclusively to male fathers and masculine paternities.

4 For maternity, see, for example, París Pombo and Peláez Rodríguez, 2015; Peláez Rodríguez and París Pombo, 2016; and Peláez Rodríguez, 2016.

5 Furthermore, policies regarding undocumented immigrants in the United States have been racist in nature in that, on many occasions, they have been exercised according to racial profiling practices (Torre Cantalapiedra, 2018). Racial profiling is an illegal police practice in which an officer makes decisions pertaining to the performance of his/her law enforcement duties based upon a person's race or ethnicity.

6 It is important to point out that the deprivation of liberty that immigrant fathers suffer at the hands of U.S. authorities, in many cases due to “crimes” related to their condition as immigrants, can lead to a separation from their children of a longer or shorter duration. This separation is at least as harmful to families as the family separation that follows deportation.

7 It is noted that the option of reunification in Mexico is ruled out by many families for different reasons: the well-being of the children and the desire that reunification take place in the United States, among others.

8 According to De Keijzer (1997), for the case of Mexico, we consider that a hegemonic model of masculinity as cultural construction has existed, in which men are represented as dominant, resulting in discrimination against and subordination of both women and men who do not fit the model.

9 The following fragment of the poem “Acerca de” (“About”) illustrates the “paternity yet to come” that all men reflect upon at a certain age: “Paternity / Something to say about my son? /Who has not yet been born, / who is still disembodied / and perhaps for forever, / but there he is, / already contemplated, already written” (Meneses, 2018, p. 63).

10 Fathers in decline: the father master and the father educator; and his most current counterparts: the peripheral father and the absent father.

11 Each person was only interviewed only once. The interview times ranged from 30 to 80 minutes.

12 Fictitious names are used to maintain confidentiality.

Eduardo Torre Cantalapiedra
Mexican. PhD in Population Studies at El Colegio de México. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas of the UNAM. He belongs to the National System of Researchers (Level 1). Research areas: international migration and migratory policies. Among his most notable recent publications: Movilidades internas e internacionales en Colombia: determinantes, patrones migratorios y diversidad de destinos, 1950-2010, Revista Latinoamericana de Estudios de Población (RELAP), 10(19), 2017 in co-authorship with Silvia E. Giorguli.

Maritza Rodríguez Gutiérrez
Mexican. Obtained her M.A. in Population Studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (2016) with the thesis “Reconfiguration of the family life of Mexican residents of the United States deported between 2008-2015” [“Reconfiguración de la vida familiar de mexicanos residentes de Estados Unidos deportados entre 2008-2015” ]. Graduate of the B.A. Economics Program at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (2013). Research Areas: international migration and transnational phenomenon resulting from Mexico-United States migration, especially family separation caused by deportation.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Atribución no comercial 4.0 Internacional.