MIAMI – Jesus Lopez says he feels like a stranger in the place he was born.
He's from Guadalajara, Mexico, but his life was in Chicago. After 15 years in the city, he was deported a year ago during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to go back because I belong there, that's where I have my friends, my family,” said the 25-year-old, once a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that gives protections to immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Lopez, who said he didn't renew his spot in the program because he couldn't afford it, hopes to benefit from new efforts by advocates, groups and attorneys to bring back immigrants they believe were unfairly deported from the United States.
With President Joe Biden in office, one of the new proposals from advocates urges creating a centralized Department of Homeland Security office to consider requests from deported immigrants trying to reunite with their families in the U.S.
“We have deported hundreds of thousands of individuals, and to do that and not even have an effective safety valve to review bad decisions violates due process,” said Nayna Gupta, associate director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Washington-based nonprofit that proposed the idea.
It's a long shot: White House officials have never publicly mentioned the idea, and it doesn’t yet have a supporter in Congress. The campaign, however, shows how immigrant advocacy has become emboldened after four years hardline immigration policies under former President Donald Trump.
It also shows how varied ambitions are among pro-immigrant advocates.
Many are focused instead on immigration bills that have passed the House but appear stalled in the Senate as large numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border have weakened the White House’s position. The measures would give legal status to DACA recipients like Lopez, more farmworkers and others with special protections.
Another bill Biden proposed to offer a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally includes some provisions for a chance for deportees to come back to the U.S. But the Biden administration has not spoken publicly or answered questions about the possibility of regularly considering those requests.
More than 700,000 immigrants have been deported from the U.S. in the last three fiscal years, according to federal data. U.S. law includes ways for deportees to return, but they rarely succeed.
For some deportees, the change of administration offers hope.
Claudio Rojas says he feels better since Trump left office, but he still lives with anxiety and can't sleep some nights in his Buenos Aires home.
“I am not in a detention center, but I feel like I am in jail in my own apartment. I am in Argentina, but I feel I am a foreigner. I can't adapt,” said Rojas, a 55-year-old handyman deported in 2019. His wife, two sons and two grandsons are in Florida.
Rojas and his family overstayed a tourist visa. After a decade, he ended up in federal custody after a police stop and got a deportation order. Rojas did not leave, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him again for seven months. He held a widely publicized hunger strike, and two filmmakers made a documentary based on his and others' experiences.
Days before Rojas was to speak at the 2019 Miami Film Festival, he was detained again and deported. The Argentinian has sued and is waiting for a decision from a federal appeals court.
“I want back the life I lost, all this time that I lost,” Rojas said.
The National Immigrant Justice Center says Congress doesn't need to act on their proposal and that creation of a centralized process to review applications could be done through executive action because it is based on existing laws.
The plan asks the government to take into account factors like people who were eligible for legal status and had applied before being deported or those who have compelling circumstances.
The proposal has been shared with White House staff, the group said. It plans to invite Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to discuss the proposal and include a letter signed by 75 immigrants’ rights organizations supporting the plan.
A White House spokesperson referred questions about the proposal to the Department of Homeland Security, which did not immediately respond.
Advocates point to how the government has started reunifying families that the Trump administration separated at the border under its “zero tolerance" policy.
“In the process of doing that, hopefully the various agencies involved recognize that this is something that can be done, that we have processes in place, such as humanitarian parole, to bring people back,” said Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at New York University School of Law.
And while efforts to bring back deported veterans have persisted for years, advocates have started a new campaign with that goal, which Biden promised to carry out during his campaign.
In February, three California lawmakers reintroduced a bill to allow certain deported veterans to return.
“If someone deserves a second chance, those are our veterans,” Democratic state Rep. Mark Takano said recently.
Besides that effort, DACA might have the most chance of success in Congress.
López, the Mexican immigrant, was 9 when he was brought to the U.S. and became a DACA recipient in 2012. He didn't renew those protections a few years later because of money issues.
He was arrested in 2019 when Iowa police stopped the car he was riding in with friends and found a small amount of marijuana. He ended up in ICE custody and was released nine months later.
Last year, López traveled from Chicago with his two brothers to what he thought was a routine ICE check-in in Iowa. Instead, he was detained and deported.
He said he dreams of going back to Chicago to work construction, live with his family and help his grandmother with errands.
“This new administration gives me the hope of thinking that they see things in a more human way," López said.