This story appears in the March 2016 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

It was still dark when they came for me. I hear that’s what they do—sleaze up before dawn when you’re too confused and disoriented to remember anything about warrants or lawyers or the rights you have and the rights you don’t. Me? I was ass-naked when I answered the door. Their knocks were violent enough to rustle my two dogs awake and make them bark ferociously. It was the most panicked wake-up call I’ve ever received.

I cracked open the front door just enough to peek outside. On my stoop I saw four large men dressed head to toe in black, guns strapped at their waists. They asked my name and said they were looking for someone who lived at my address. I gave them a fake name, and that was perhaps my first mistake.

I assumed the men were local law enforcement canvassing the neighborhood for information on a midnight crime—you know, watchful officers stopping by to warn me. The day before, I’d dropped off my fiancée, Cassandra, and our 20-month-old daughter, Sophia, at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. They were heading to Saltillo, Mexico to visit my mother, a trip Cassandra insisted on making every six months or so to acquaint our daughter with my family, with whom I had more or less fallen out of touch. And so I was home alone, save for my dogs, and it was as if the men outside my door knew that. As their questions kept coming, my naivete faded. It became clear they were looking for me. My face grew numb. My legs shook. My balls shrank. I told them I needed to put on some clothes before coming outside. I couldn’t think what the police would want with me. Yeah, I was on probation after being booked a few years earlier for drunk driving and holding a third of a gram of coke, but I hadn’t broken probation. There were no outstanding warrants for my arrest. I was following the rules, on good behavior.

If everyone in the system works in his or her own self-interest, the law turns a blind eye.

I ran upstairs and called my stepfather. “Everything will be okay,” he told me. Despite his calmness, I felt terrified. Tears formed and my hands trembled. “Just do what they say,” he said.

I was 26 and had already been arrested three times, once for drunk driving and twice for drugs, so I knew the drill. They’d probably take me to some overly air-conditioned cell in the county jail for questioning, so I dressed warmly. I also grabbed $840 in cash for bail and phone calls. If they ended up cuffing me, I wanted to be prepared.

When I stepped outside I finally got a clear view of the men. Each wore a patch of the Texas flag on his uniform and had POLICE stitched across his chest, but none had a visible badge or ID. One handed me a document with the words Operation Fugitive printed along the top. It had all my information: my name, address, place of employment. I knew then the game was over. I told them I was in fact Javier Valadez. “We’re federal immigration agents,” one of the men said. “We’re arresting you for being in the country illegally.”

I froze. The idea that these men were Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers never crossed my mind. I had lived in the United States since I was 12. I grew up around Dallas and graduated from high school there. I had attended the University of Texas and received my associate’s degree from a community college. I’d created a successful arts and culture publication that had just been voted best magazine by the Dallas Observer. I paid my taxes. I spoke English.

As the men escorted me to a waiting SUV, I explained that I was on probation but was upholding the law. I told them I wasn’t a criminal.

“You might have paid for your crimes to the state of Texas,” one snarked, “but you still have to pay for your federal crimes to the United States.” The streets were eerily silent. My neighbors were still asleep. I took another look at my house. It would be the last time I saw it.

My family moved to the United States from Monclova, Mexico in July 2001, after I’d graduated from elementary school. I was 12. I don’t remember much prior to moving to Dallas, except that we were making the move because my father could make better money working construction in Texas. On the nine-hour drive north, I sat in the back of our Ford Escort next to a box of my childhood belongings, knowing nothing about our new home. I remember feeling numb. “Don’t look back, kids,” my dad said to my sister and me. I never did.

Before being deported, Valadez, co-founder of a successful Dallas culture magazine, was considered one of the city’s preeminent publishers.

My parents came into the States on a six-month tourist visa. This was before 9/11, when immigration laws were relatively loose. It was easy to get into the States then, and that’s probably why my parents had no intention of adjusting our status after we settled. I could chalk it up to the fact that no one warned them of the consequences, but really, it was simple ignorance. They wanted my sister and me to assimilate quickly, so a month after our arrival my mother enrolled us in Reed Middle School in the Dallas suburb of Duncanville. I knew enough English to get by, but the school put me in an English as a second language class. I hated it. The other Spanish speakers in ESL were older and most were troublemakers who spent more time goofing around than studying. They relied on the teachers to do their homework and took advantage of the language barrier. I wanted out, so I worked hard and studied obsessively. After a year, the school transferred me into the regular curriculum, where I finally got to sit side by side with the American kids. That’s when I began to embrace my life in America.

The Mexican kids at my school were heavily influenced by American culture, and I became friends with them because of that. Together we made it a point to speak only English. We didn’t want to be judged by the “cool” American kids or be excluded by them. We took up skateboarding, which was the first time I understood the American dream. My skateboard gave me a high I’d never felt before; it gave me real freedom. A group of us often ventured into downtown Dallas and skated into the night while listening to 1990s punk, rock and hip-hop. We’d ask strangers to buy us 40s from the 7-Eleven, and if the cops came, we’d scatter. It was thrilling. I felt like I was living in Harmony Korine’s Kids. It was the first time I truly felt like an American teenager.

After I became fluent in English, it was almost as if I weren’t Mexican anymore. Most people assumed I was Jewish, French, Arabic or Caucasian. I made good marks in art classes, dated a blue-eyed blonde on the cheer squad and became president of the drafting club. No one questioned my ethnicity, let alone my immigration status. I forgot about it and stopped feeling like a foreigner. I belonged to the country I lived in. I was American.

Pages from the second issue of THRWD, the magazine Valadez launched in 2012.

I wasn’t well informed about the naturalization process because it was easy not to be. My mother gave birth to my younger sister at a Texas hospital, endowing her with birthright citizenship. My parents were able to buy a home and cars and have credit cards, all without having legitimate Social Security numbers. Capitalism doesn’t care where you’re from or to whom you’re related. If everyone in the system works in his or her own self-interest, the law turns a blind eye.

That became all the more true in 2001 when Governor Rick Perry signed into law a provision allowing undocumented immigrant students to receive in-state tuition if they promised to apply for permanent status later. The only catch was you had to be a Texas resident for at least three years and have a Texas high school diploma. I qualified and attended the University of Texas, Arlington, where I studied petroleum engineering. I got a driver’s license, a job and my own apartment, all without proper documentation. For years I thrived and enjoyed the promise of America, but in 2012, the law caught up with me—though it had nothing to do with my citizenship status.

My parents divorced in 2011. For the first time since moving to Texas, my dad couldn’t find a steady job without documentation. This was at the height of the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate was 10 percent, so getting a job without a legitimate SSN or work permit was impossible. My father had gone from a well-paying construction job to a maintenance job at an apartment complex to being jobless. On top of that, my parents’ mortgage was one of the thousands of predatory loans handed out by lenders during the housing bubble. Their interest rate skyrocketed and they struggled to pay their bills, further straining the family. It came to a head when my father packed up and headed back to Mexico, leaving me with my mom and soon-to-be stepfather, who purchased our home directly from my dad. “Don’t look back,” he’d once told me, and I don’t believe he did.

A picture of Cassandra, now Valadez’s wife, when she was eight months pregnant, taken in Austin.

My dad and I had become best friends when things got rough. I made an effort to see him. Mexican men commonly avoid obvious affection; we were an exception. When he left for Mexico, his absence hit me hard. I broke off all communication with him and turned to pot and booze. I was depressed and wrapped myself in a sheath of hazy pleasure to distract from the pain. I tried to focus in school, but my smoking and drinking turned habitual. By May 2011, my abuse had gotten so bad I had no choice but to drop out of college, vacate my apartment and move back home.

I pretended I was fine, and that was enough to appease my mom. At one point she found marijuana in my room but ignored it. She should have confronted me. I should have asked for help. Instead I did nothing. In April 2012 I was arrested at Cedar Hill State Park on my way to meet friends at a campsite. The cops busted me carrying a fair amount of weed and a small amount of cocaine. I don’t use coke—I was holding it for a friend—but, as they say, the dog never really eats the homework. By September of the same year, I was arrested twice more for marijuana possession and once for drunk driving. It was the end of the line. I had spiraled deeper and deeper into self-sabotage, maniacally snuffing out the light of my own dream. For the first time since I’d crossed the border at 12 years old, the law noticed me.

I was convicted of DWI and misdemeanor drug possession and put on two years’ probation. The state sentenced me to random testing and substance-abuse counseling and installed a Breathalyzer in my car. My family, having spent thousands of dollars on my court fees, didn’t think much of me. The all-American do-good narrative I aspired to had crumbled into dust.

The first time I was released from the county jail for marijuana possession, I didn’t call my family. I’d spent four days locked up, and the chilling solitude had forced me to stew in embarrassment and humiliation. I wasn’t ready to face them. Instead I turned off my cell phone, lit a cigarette and wandered downtown Dallas. I was aimless. Alone, I started to see the streets in a different way. This city was my home, but I had lost sight of how much it had given me. I reflected on my mistakes, desperate to atone. I knew I had talent, and I knew a lot of talented people—artists, writers and other creative folk. Dallas had so much bubbling artistic value and offered more than football, cheerleaders and honky-tonks. It could go head-to-head with San Antonio and Austin as the state’s beating cultural heart. I knew this. Smart 20-somethings who’d grown up in Dallas knew this. And then, just like that, everything made sense.

I made sure to speak only English. I wanted the guards to know I didn’t belong there.

I was working at a printing company and knew the ins and outs of publishing. I had access to photographers, designers, artists and writers. All I needed to do was assemble the right people in the right room and make them believe in this incredible idea I had: I wanted to create a new kind of culture magazine for Dallas dwellers, by Dallas dwellers. I wanted to give back to my city, but more than that, I wanted to jolt it with a radical current of new energy.

I knew I could afford to print the magazine in-house at my company, but my mind has always been more artistic than editorial. So I tapped my friend Lee Escobedo, who studied journalism, and he tapped his friends, and soon enough we had a devoted team of doers with a hell-yeah attitude. We decided to name our magazine THRWD, defined by us in the first issue as “another word for: cool, dope, cray cray, or fuck’d up.” The first issue launched in late 2012 with a masthead that included an art director, an editor in chief, 12 contributors and me on board as creative director. “Dallas is our home. Staying local is our first priority,” we wrote in the inaugural issue’s manifesto. “Are you THRWD on life? I’m talking fucked-up on creativity, faded on expression? Good. That means you’re alive. The simple act of reading this puts you on the first step to getting THRWD. Read it on the train, while taking a shit or after a long fuck.”

We profiled local printmakers and bands on the rise. We covered everything from interracial dating and race relations to new restaurants and budding bars. We interviewed ethnically diverse painters, printed original poetry and quoted Susan Sontag and Tony Kushner. The magazine was a success. The local NPR affiliate described THRWD as a hub for “collaboration, cross-pollination and DIY culture.” We became recognized enough in Dallas that we celebrated our one-year anniversary by throwing a concert, THRWD Fest, which drew our “usual hip and knowledgeable crowd,” as described by D Magazine. In July 2014 I was named Dallas’s “avant-gardist publisher” and one of the city’s 100 leading creative entrepreneurs. Soon after, the Dallas Observer voted THRWD “best zine in the city.”

It was one of my proudest moments, foremost because it meant I’d escaped my darkness. I’d created something tangible, respected and beneficial to the city I loved. I felt I was paying my debt. Riding on those good vibes, I fell in love and became a father. I looked forward to marrying Cassandra and finally receiving citizenship. Life made sense again.

Six months later, ICE pounded on my front door.

When I arrived at ICE’s field office in Dallas, the officers let me make three phone calls. I called my stepfather, my lawyer Robert Simmons and my employer. I couldn’t call my fiancée because she was in Mexico, but my stepfather said he would contact her. Again he assured me, “Everything will be okay.” My lawyer said it was strange they’d booked me when I had a clean probation record. “I have it under control,” he said. When I told my boss I couldn’t come to work that day, she made a joke. “I could have guessed by the caller ID,” she said. Everyone sounded calm, cheery even.

I waited for seven hours with the other men ICE had poached in the middle of the night before armed guards transported us via a 90-minute bus ride to the Johnson County Detention Center in Cleburne, Texas. There, we were taken to an isolated compound of four brick buildings. Like all government facilities, these hummed with fluorescent lighting and were cooled to bone-chilling temperatures. We were fed ham sandwiches and shown two videos. One warned us about sexual abuse among inmates. The other was a primer on navigating immigration court. When that video played, I saw hope in the eyes around me, but I felt nothing. In my mind, I didn’t belong there in the first place.

Valadez was held by ICE for 26 days before being dumped on the U.S.-Mexico boarder in Laredo, Texas.

The other detainees were different from me. One kid was “celebrating” his 21st birthday. He told me how he’d gotten lost walking through the desert on his way to the States and had to drink his own piss to survive. A man from Honduras told me he’d seen an Indian man die in the desert on his journey. The Indian hadn’t known how hard the walk would be and collapsed from exhaustion. His heart gave out soon after. Others had similar stories. Some worried their pregnant wives would be raped; others pretended to be married to strangers. The stories were shocking, but the tone of the men telling them said otherwise, as if it had all been normal, or at least expected when you enter the U.S. that way.

I met Nigerians, an Egyptian and someone from the Congo. They were all nice enough, but I didn’t meet anyone like me. I didn’t meet anyone who’d grown up in the States, attended a public university and started his own magazine. I met only desperate men, some of whom had been locked up for months and whose sacrifices seemed far greater than mine. After talking to enough of them, I discovered that most of us were on probation—and I realized that’s why I was among them.

In 2012 President Barack Obama authorized new ICE guidelines for alien detention that centered on criminal activity. Undocumented immigrants convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors moved up the chain and became prime targets for deportation, and I had three arrests under my belt. Good behavior is ignored, apparently, and state and local law enforcement were expected to work hand in hand with federal officers to identify illegals with a record. I’ve heard stories of ICE officers camping out at probation offices, waiting for people to come to their appointments so they could seize them on the spot. I think that’s how my record fell into the hands of ICE. In fact, our criminal records were so finely sewn into our identities at the detention center that upon arrival we were given color-coded jumpsuits. Those who wore red had violent records. Those who wore green, as I did, had more than one misdemeanor conviction. It was a visual reminder that ICE considered us threats to our communities.

I spent my first days sleeping too much and trying to cope. I had too many questions and no answers from my lawyer, so to ease my stress I learned the routine. It was tedious and dehumanizing. You had to shit and shower in the open. Breakfast, which was usually watery grits or biscuits soaked in salty gravy, was served at four A.M. Lunch and dinner consisted of fried chicken mush, runny macaroni and cheese or shriveled hot dogs. Our sole beverage option was Kool-Aid dispensed from a five-gallon Igloo cooler; sometimes it was too sweet, other times it was sour. The kitchen staff had a sense of humor, though. They included a jalapeño pepper with every meal, under the assumption that every immigrant loves spicy food. Racism was alive and well within those walls.

Meals were measly and by the late evening bellies growled for more. Detainees with money bought ramen from the commissary, while the poorest made a powdery soup from water, Cheetos crumbs and leftover bread scraps. Every night the walls echoed with the sound of guys banging their ramen packets on the floor to crush the noodles and make room for hot water. I’ll never forget the plastic crinkling throughout the tank—what we called the jail cells.

Days went by, then weeks. The metal bed frames kinked my back, and the constant cacophony of foreign languages deafened me. As in high school, I made sure to speak only English. I wanted the guards to know I was different from the others, that I didn’t belong there. They heard the stories of every detainee—some hopeful, many hopeless—and witnessed the emotional breakdowns of those who didn’t make it back to the American wonderland. I wanted them to believe I was getting out. I was able to call my fiancée every day and night; I dreamed of her and my daughter rescuing me at dawn, the guards giving me a woeful apology and a slap on the back. I constantly reminded myself of my accomplishments so as not to be broken as I curled up in my green uniform.

To my surprise, news of my arrest spread in Dallas. I didn’t want people to feel bad for me, but I knew my friends would help however they could. In less than two weeks, my friend Stephen Ketner galvanized the local creative community and held a “Free Javi” fund-raising concert at the Free Man, a Creole lounge in Deep Ellum, Dallas’s go-to hood for entertainment. The concert sold BRING JAVI HOME T-shirts, raised $4,000 and caught the attention of immigration activists and pro bono lawyers seeking a gold star on their CVs.

Local activists jumped on my story, wanting to use it as the springboard for a movement. I had no qualms about stepping into the spotlight, even if it exposed my criminal record, because I wanted people to feel the same injustice I felt. The Dallas Morning News spun my story into a broader feature on ICE’s predatory raids. On the day of my first trial, Dallas’s CW affiliate aired a story featuring my fiancée, my lawyer and Stephen Ketner. I watched it from the detention center’s rec room with my fellow detainees. For the first time since being handcuffed, I felt big. At that moment, my story wasn’t just a random headline amid the national white noise about immigration reform; it was the story of every man who sat beside me. I was proud of Cassandra for baring her emotions on camera. “Every time the door rings, [Sophia’s] like, ‘Dada? Dada?,’ thinking it’s him,” Cassandra told the reporter. “It melts my heart.”

Saltillo, with a population of about 700,000, has been compared to Detroit because of its tough industrial job market.

It was the first time I’d seen Sophia’s face in weeks. I cried. Seeing them both was a punch to the gut and made me even more anxious, angry and stir-crazy. It was incredible that my story had become so hot, but after seeing my daughter, all I wanted was a reunion.

After three weeks, my lawyer came to see me. I expected him to have some long-winded bureaucratic game plan, but my situation was more dire. He told me my convictions disqualified me from President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, which offers a reprieve to illegals brought to the States as children by their parents. DACA, enacted in 2012, had become a safety net for thousands, but my drug-possession charge made it a dead end. I had only two choices: stay in detention and fight the system, or leave the country voluntarily.

Under voluntary deportation, I would have to leave the country within a few days but wouldn’t be barred from coming back. Regular deportation usually comes with a 10-year ban, but leaving “voluntarily” doesn’t. Fighting the government, my lawyer said, would be a nightmare. At a minimum, it would involve finding a proxy to marry Cassandra immediately, convincing a judge to grant me bond and filing paperwork every few months to achieve a constantly changing legal status, from migrant to temporary resident to permanent resident.

My fiancée wanted to hire more lawyers and enlist activists to promote the cause. My friends said I could be the face of immigration reform—the guy who went up against the biggest, baddest government in the West. Despite their enthusiasm, only one thing was certain: There was no guarantee a judge would go for any of it—in fact, my lawyer said I barely had a chance of winning. Have 15 seconds of fame ever swayed a government?

And so I made my decision.

On April 23, 2015, the day of my final hearing, 100 people volunteered to rally outside and pressure the judge for a deferral, but my lawyer asked them to back down. After I was denied bond, he gave the court my decision: voluntary deportation. The judge ordered me out of the country no later than April 30 and slammed his gavel. My life as an American was over.

I stared at the man-made border before me. It was nothing more than a few thick strokes of white paint.

Many people don’t know that ICE doesn’t give you an exact time for when it will haul your ass to the border. It makes coordinating your own eviction, from saying good-bye to family to figuring out finances to finding a place to live on the other side, nearly impossible. Instead, without much warning, guards wake a select few at two A.M. and bus them to Dallas for processing. Since there was no knowing when it would be my turn, I devised a system. I told Cassandra I’d call her every morning by 11 A.M. If she didn’t hear from me, it meant my time was up.

A picture of Valadez and Cassandra at their baby shower sits on a microwave in their new home.

My deportation did come with a silver lining. My mom and my sisters were living in Mexico, which meant I had somewhere to go. My oldest sister had moved to Monterrey after graduating from high school. She didn’t see much of a future for herself in the U.S. without papers and thought attending college in Mexico was more promising. Four years later, my mother, desperate to visit her, tried to purchase an American visa from someone who turned out to be an undercover ICE agent. It’s a standard ICE maneuver: luring undocumented immigrants into a sting operation with the offer of fake documents. Agents arrested her at a gas station near her home and held her for three months. She was finally deported on Thanksgiving 2013 and banned from reentering the country for 10 years.

I barely spoke to my mom after she was deported, and I became the sole remnant of my family’s attempt at the American dream. My life was in America, she wasn’t, and it was hard for me to align our two worlds. Now I was in the same boat she was, and she was ready for me to “come home.” Cassandra said they seemed to have adjusted to living in Saltillo, based on what she saw during her visits with Sophia, but it was no doubt going to be an awkward homecoming.

April 30, 2015 felt a lifetime away. Every morning I woke to the sounds of guards clanging on bunks and inmates shuffling out of the tank. On April 28 I stayed up until two A.M., but the guards didn’t come for me. When I woke eight hours later and went to call Cassandra, however, a guard yelled out my ID number. It was time. I ran to the phone and dialed, but the tank’s door opened before the call connected. A guard began barking orders, so I waved over a detainee named Joseph, who spoke a little English, and told him to tell Cassandra what was happening. The door slammed in front of me and I stared through its small window for a sign. Joseph looked back at me and gave a thumbs-up.

Seventeen of us were collected that afternoon. The guards gave us back our civilian clothes and whatever cash we’d carried on our way in. I felt my identity return with every piece of clothing I put on. In the bathroom, I folded my $840 into my sock. I was afraid someone across the border would be desperate enough to rob me for it.

We marched past the glass-walled tanks toward the building’s exit, and I felt the hard stares of those still locked up. I threw a peace sign. I wanted to wish them luck in their battles.

The guards shackled our ankles and wrists to our waists and transported us to Dallas. There, we signed more paperwork. As always, I spoke only English. “Why are you here?” an officer asked, surprised. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. At one P.M., they took us outside.

There it sat: our metal chariot, idling, ready to haul us away. It looked like a normal bus from the outside, but inside steel walls punched with tiny holes separated the cabin into three sections. The windows were horizontally barred and the seats were molded plastic. A festering open toilet at the back stunk up the entire bus.

An officer handed us bottled water and brown paper bags. Each bag contained three cookies, two bologna sandwiches and four peanut-butter crackers. This was supposed to hold us over on the eight-hour drive to the border, but because our wrists were chained to our waists, we could hardly eat. To get a sip of water, you had to slouch in your seat while your seatmate poured it into your mouth. I felt like a baby being fed a bottle.

The bus careered south on I-35 and passed my former office. All those years, I’d had no idea I was working two exits from ICE. A sharp pain shot through my body as I stared at the building where I’d realized my dreams. Everything I’d built out of my struggles began there. I paid my bills, rent and tuition because of that job. Now I was chained up like a dog. In a few blinks, the office disappeared behind us. I held back my tears. I couldn’t cry in front of the other men.

Valadez had planned to apply for permanent residency after he married Cassandra. ICE thwarted those plans.

We barreled toward Laredo, Texas, our final destination, blasting none other than the all-American red, white and blue beats of country twang. Some detainees talked about their plans on the other side. One guy from Jalisco said all he wanted was an ice-cold Corona and street tacos. Another said it had been 15 years since he last saw his grandparents, and he was excited to reunite with them. Few were that optimistic. Some had no family in Mexico and were being expelled to a country where they knew no one. An older guy planned to camp out for a few days before hiring a coyote to bring him back. “I can’t leave my girlfriend alone,” he said, laughing. I just stared at the barren landscape.

Laredo is one of the busiest land ports to Mexico and a hotbed of drug-war violence. We had to be dropped off before sunset for our own safety. I tracked our distance by the setting sun and passing city skylines. I watched Waco, Austin and San Antonio creep up and fade between long drags of flat fields and humble hills. When the sun began to kiss the horizon and the greasy fumes of taquerias wafted in from outside, I knew we were close. Sure enough, we arrived at sunset. There it was, the end of the road: Laredo fucking Texas. The grand finale of my American dream.

As the bus pulled into a parking lot along the Rio Grande, an officer handed us keys through the security door and told us to unlock each others’ shackles. Outside, the fattest redneck I’ve ever seen chucked our bags from the bus onto the broken asphalt. It pissed me off. Those bags contained everything we owned, and this piece-of-shit guard treated them like trash.

Two Border Patrol agents escorted us across the bridge to the international border. It was their job to make sure we crossed the line and stayed there, and their eyes never left us. I stared at the man-made border before me, disillusioned. It was nothing more than a few thick strokes of white paint, so many inches wide, yet it held more power than the dreams of a thousand men. The Rio Grande rippled with gold and green as the sun took its last lick of the horizon. A great life, nearly 15 years’ worth, replayed in my mind. I looked due north and snapped a picture on my phone, unsure if I would ever see that view again. Then I stepped into Mexico.

As I crossed the bridge, I took my money out of my sock and tucked a $100 bill in my pocket. The rest of it went between my balls. Mexican authorities met us at the end of the bridge and handed out food sacks with crackers, a can of tuna, cookies and an orange. They knew some of us had little or no money. We filled out more paperwork, received temporary IDs and were given access to the facility’s phones and bathrooms. After that, we were on our own.

My phone was still getting a U.S. signal, so I called my fiancée, stepfather and mother to tell them I’d made it to Mexico. They were relieved to know I was finally free. My mother planned to pick me up in Monterrey, but that was three hours away. I needed to find a way to get there.

An officer directed me to a van that would take us to a bus station at no charge. Seven of us hopped on, but the van had no seats or windows in the back, so we sat on the floor. It felt as though we were being smuggled into Mexico instead of out. The bus station didn’t accept American currency, so I bought pesos off a kid selling them at an inflated exchange rate. When an American movie dubbed in Spanish played on the bus’s TV, it hit me. I really was back in Mexico.

I arrived in Monterrey around one A.M. My mother had yet to arrive, so I killed time in the depot, taking stock of the unfamiliar candies and snacks. Everything looked foreign to me. All of a sudden I heard three women screaming “Javi! Javi! Javi!” I turned around and saw my mom and sisters running toward me. They showered me with kisses, and I held my mom tight. It was our first embrace in years and the first time I felt safe since being arrested.

Saltillo is an industrial city with dozens of factories for mining, steel, concrete and auto manufacturing, including Chrysler. The city has a competitive job market, and my limited engineering studies aren’t enough to bank a well-paying job. Instead I’ve had to settle for a job I found on Craigslist, working at a law firm that handles Social Security–related cases. I work from home and get paid in U.S. dollars. The irony of staring at SSNs every day isn’t lost on me.

Cassandra moved to Saltillo with Sophia to be with me, and we finally got married. She got a job as an English teacher in a private school and found a support group for expat wives in similar situations. Me? I refuse to dive into the Mexican culture and still read U.S. news every day. I hear that THRWD is still going strong. Being with family helps, but it also hasn’t let me fully feel the sadness of being expelled. Cassandra cries often. I feel guilty and tell her things could be worse. She hates it when I say that.

My presence hasn’t turned my family’s world upside down; they’ve all gone back to their routines and schedules. I feel like a foreigner in Saltillo. I returned to Mexico without my passport or birth certificate, so, as in the States, I’m living an undocumented life. In a way, I’m neither here nor there. Cassandra likes the outdoors, so we explore the desert and mountains. It gives her a breath of fresh air and time to forget about our struggles.

Our new jobs are not enough to secure a good future for Sophia, but I won’t give up. I’m a creator. I’m clever and resourceful. I like to fix things. It’s those characteristics that got me the life I wanted in Texas. My future may be fucked-up now, but I’m hell-bent on turning it around. I’ll never stop thinking about the U.S. It’s hard to separate myself from my former life and the place that gave me everything. America is a fantastic place to accomplish anything you set your mind to, and I’m lucky to have lived the life I did. I’m thankful for the support of Dallas and my friends, who always saw me as one of their own.

We undocumented immigrants are obscure, yet we try to live our lives as normally as possible. Most of us just want to work hard, raise our family and be part of a community. I understand the consequences of the law, but the system is flawed. It’s unjust, discriminatory and, yeah, even racist. In the current minefield of state and federal laws, provisions and exclusions, a huge sector of America’s hardworking population is in limbo. One day we are welcomed and encouraged. We’re hired to build houses, clean bathrooms, babysit and cook in restaurants. The next day we’re in shackles, walking across the border with our tails between our legs. No money. No family. Only the shadows to welcome us home. It’s scary shit. For now, though, I’ll try my best to enjoy this “vacation” and keep working on myself. As my father once said, “Don’t look back.”

This article originally appeared online Feb. 12, 2016.

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